Friday, October 11, 2013

Fantasy Is Reality: Dear Beloved Stranger

Dino Pai's Dear Beloved Stranger (Top Shelf) was one of the final books to receive a Xeric grant. It's a fascinating and complicated story about the ways in which dreams intersect with and obstruct reality, especially with regard to the creative process. Indeed, the story is about a young man (Dino) who has recently graduated from art school and is finally free to work on his own stories. He finds himself drawn to but afraid of connecting with Cathy, a fellow recent graduate who is also drawn to him, mostly by his intense shyness and sense that he has things to say but can't express them. The story slips into that story/dream, involving a boy looking for the source of a beautiful voice. Pai essentially alternates between a quotidian comic about the creative process and the world of creativity as an actual, living force. He links the ability to create closely with the ability to communicate and build connections; when he's stuck on both of them, Pai marvelously depicts the kind of bored, time-wasting trivialities one engages in in an effort to make projects magically fix themselves.

For Pai, there is no such magic. Indeed, in the middle of his dream world project, failure of imagination bring great peril and even oblivion to its hero. At the same time, the difficulties of Pai's avatar take a physical toll on him, as he collapses in front of Cathy during the story's climax. It's only at the end that we discover that the "beloved stranger" Dino writes to is an unreachable object of affection, an unrequited and one-way love affair that fueled his imagination as a younger man and led him to craft this story. When that person became irrevocably unavailable, it damaged Pai's narrative mid-stream, an interruption that's captured throughout the course of this story. So Dear Beloved Stranger is a comic about making a comic that includes the comic that's being made as part of the comic. That meta-comic interacts with reality in interesting and unexpected ways on a psychological level. It's never quite magical realism, but rather a sort of fluid reality where one's fictional constructs feel as though they are real and part of your life. Considering that authors talk about characters dictating story and going in unexpected direction, that's definitely a kind of a magical conjuring space where the author only has so much control over what's going on.

That's very much how things play out here. Pai's own anxieties make it difficult for him to write a comic that must, in order to be successful, precisely capture just what this person means to him and how transcendentally wonderful she is, but do so in a narrative fashion where his being able to meet her is justified in the text. That's the essential conflict here: Pai can't figure out a way or a scenario where he "deserves" to meet her, because she isn't part of his real life. He's not simply writing wish fulfillment, but rather trying to document a feeling and that feeling's ultimate manifestation. He can't get there and can't ever get there, and that realization spurs the climax and allows him to ultimately finish the book. The device of sharing this story with another, real person for whom there might actually be real feelings in real time makes this approach work and prevents it from eating its own tail, as it were. Pai's refusal to slap on a make-shift happy ending or romance gives it another layer of authenticity. This book is a hero's journey that's really a journey of self-discovery. It's a journey that's only completed when the hero realizes that his initial goal wasn't really ever in his grasp to begin with, and that truth is more important than fantasy.

The only real problem I had with the book is that Pai circles back around the same ideas and themes several times before the climax. I think he could have gotten across the same ideas and made the book much more powerful by paring down the middle, which drags quite a bit. Pai's visuals are compelling and powerful, but some of that initial impact is watered down when the same effects are repeated throughout the story. I understand that Pai was trying to convey a certain kind of pacing and ennui at several points throughout the story, but I wish he had had the confidence in his readers to pick up on the subtleties and nuances of his story without having to repeat them multiple times.

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