Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Koyama: Cathy Johnson's Gorgeous

Cathy Johnson's novella Gorgeous is interesting in that while it brings together an unlikely trio of characters (two punks and a college athlete), Johnson makes the unusual move of leaving one set of characters completely unchanged by the encounter (the punks) but puts the college student through a profound aesthetic change. The sixty-page comic is a visual feast, as Johnson uses a pencil-heavy style to create different shades of night and light throughout the book, along with details like a bruised eye. The facial features are deliberately simplistic and angular to provide a maximum and immediate level of emotional impact. Johnson made the moods and motives of Sophie the college student and the two nameless punks obvious before they even said a word. In some ways, this directness was a strength of the book, but the paper-thin characterizations of the punks was either a fault of the book or a failure to give Sophie a little more time and depth of character.

The punk guy, who stole a guitar from a show he attended with his girlfriend, was a punk of the "wants to see the world burn" variety. Or rather, he is so self-loathing that he's not willing to actually put any effort into the few things he's actually passionate about, for fear of failure. He's in constant self-denial and uninterested in ever taking responsibility for his own actions. For example, he blames Sophie for not swerving out of the way out of the car accident that brought them together, when the crash was caused by he and his girlfriend arguing. His girlfriend isn't much better, as she goes along with all of his decisions, up to and including Sophie's purse when she goes to the bathroom in the diner they're in as they wait for morning to come to fix her car. During their conversation, they pummel her from two fronts: he attacks her for going to college and for being part of the system, and not doing what she really wants to do. She more gently attacks Sophie for failing to see what is beautiful in the world. Clearly both physically and emotionally drained, Sophie offers no defense, and to be fair, they both come off as abusive, especially since they literally put her in this position. The price of their "wisdom" was betraying her trust and stealing her purse without an ounce of remorse; indeed, any human compassion they showed in helping her out of her car and calling AAA had totally subsided by the time the crisis passed.

Not all people develop and mature, and while the punks felt like cliches (especially the guy), they were cliches that had some verisimilitude. The punks were in denial about what they hated about themselves (even their intimacy) and loudly proclaimed that they were happy doing precisely what they were doing in an effort to convince themselves, mostly. In that way, they made sense not just as plot devices but as models of what not to do. By the end of the story, the seemingly timid Sophie owns her situation, meets the challenge of making it to her weightlifting meet, and even wins her event. At the same time, she remembers that what she really wanted to do was write poetry, and she misses it. What's implied is a lifetime of not getting to do what she wants, of having a parent who is supportive but very specifically demanding, The reader only gets a whiff of who she is and what she might become, and I'm not sure if Johnson was setting up the punks as red herrings or a feint with regard to how much time the reader spends with them and learns about them compared to Sophie. I was left wanting just a little more information grounding all of the characters as more than just types, but still impressed by Johnson's storytelling skills.

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