Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Top Shelf: Carolyn Nowak's Girl Town

Carolyn Nowak's first collection of short stories, Girl Town, points to an artist whose comics operate on a number of levels. First and foremost, she's writing stories about women and women's relationships to each other in particular. There are crushes, there are partnerships, there are romances, there are friendships and there are people who are emotional supports for each other. There is also conflict, jealousy and fear. Nowak has a confident, inviting line that invites the reader in with its warmth and wit. Her narratives are light on plot and heavy on character interaction, with a certain playfulness at work in each story. Nowak makes her work seem lighthearted and even breezy on the surface, but the reality is that her work is emotionally and intellectually dense.

Take the collection's title. It's the title of the first story, of course, but it also encompasses the other stories as well: her book is an environment entirely devoted to the stories of women and girls. The cover image is an homage to the 1896 painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme, Truth Coming Out Of Her Well Armed With A Whip To Chastise Mankind, only the figure here is Betsy from "Girl Town". Betsy is very much a force of nature in that story, but what is she chastising mankind about? I would say that it's the one common theme in every story: trauma.

How each of the women deals with trauma, or rather, how most of them don't actively process their trauma, forms the underpinning of each emotional narrative. "Girl Town" is about a group of women who are kicked out of astronaut school because they are too beautiful and a group of weird women who are their next-door neighbors and putative antagonists. Each story also has an absurd or fantastical premise as a kind of humorous smokescreen for the darker events and emotions that lie underneath. There's a character in the story who loses an arm for unspecified reasons, a trauma whose origin is never explored. The story's narrator never really goes into detail regarding how being tossed out of astronaut school made her feel. That trauma is wrapped up in the narrator humiliating Betsy by fat-shaming her, despite her attraction to her. It's something she doesn't specifically respond to; instead, her friend gets revenge by taking a comfort object. Every move here is a passive-aggressive one, attacking unspoken vulnerabilities and traumas. At the end, the conflicts are revealed to be artificial, allowing for moments of affection and intimacy. 

In "Radishes", a story with a fantasy setting, teen friends Beth and Kelly skip school in order to go to the town's market. Body image is another theme Nowak addresses, from Betsy on the cover in a crop-top shirt to Beth's clear insecurity with her body a part of her overall shyness. Kelly is thin and gregarious. The story is a series of funny anecdotes that reveal how each of them care for each other emotionally. In this story, Beth's trauma is hinted at but not directly stated, but Nowak uses a clever device to get at a crucial moment of healing. The girls are eating magical fruit: some of it causes them to levitate and some of it causes hair to disappear. The titular radishes create a magical, mute double whose only ambition is to hug you. For Kelly, accepting this kind of self-love wasn't difficult. When Beth hugged her double, there was a profound moment of sadness as she could only apologize over and over to herself. At the same time, it was a moment of catharsis that Kelly tried to laugh off as she left with her friend. Once again, the brightness of the story's colors, the cheerful nature of the market, and Nowak's polished and expressive character designs mask all of this until the moment of truth, making that moment all the more powerful. 

"Diana's Electric Tongue" focuses on the titular character's "companion robot", an intelligent model designed for friendship as well as sex. Diana is getting over a bad break-up with a famous actor/scientist, and she uses the robot Harbor as a way of combating her loneliness. The narrative follows the fumbling, sweet awkwardness of their interactions as Harbor is able to figure out Diana's needs, even composing a poem for her. With every bit of sweetness, however, there's a barb, and the last line of the poem is "I will be with her until she doesn't want me anymore." Harbor has no agency or free will of his own; he wouldn't be there unless Diana paid for him. He wouldn't be there if she hadn't paid for him, in precisely the same way being with a sex worker or a therapist buys you their time and attention. 

The reality is that Harbor is really a therapeutic device for Diana, whose titular electric tongue was installed when she was in a horrible accident. That accident, and the requisite needs she had afterward, are what caused the break-up. Her celebrity boyfriend could only keep her in his life insofar as he didn't need to do any labor, emotional or otherwise. The story's title refers to the tongue, not the robot, because it is that physical and emotional trauma that drives every decision of Diana. She downplays it throughout the story, even playing up how cool her new tongue is until she reveals that it doesn't work very well with regard to taste. Both physical and emotional traumas were debilitating, and her relationship with Harbor allowed her to talk out her feelings and heal. Nowak drew a parallel between Diana's relationship with Blue, the celebrity, and with Harbor. Diana didn't feel like Blue's equal at any time, especially with regard to her agency within the relationship. Similarly, Harbor had no agency with Diana, something that clearly made her uncomfortable at times. She treated him as well as she could, but as sweet as the story is, Nowak made it clear that this wasn't actual love. That said, Blue is portrayed as kind of an awful person, one whose own short attention span and sheer whims could destroy lives. Truth emerges to indirectly chastise him.

"The Big Burning House" is a masterpiece of narrative complexity in the way it incorporates social media culture and its technological aesthetic. It's also a hilarious parody of that culture, as two young women start a podcast about an obscure movie that's nevertheless gained a cult following because it's impossible to find, the force of personality of its director, and the multiple endings that were filmed. What the story was really about was the kind of symbiotic, protective friendship that blossoms between the two into a collaborative, creative project and sense of identity. The story gets at a root trauma and how her friend protected her, creating a long-lasting bond through a piece of culture that mirrors some of their own lives. Interestingly, Nowak alternates between traumas incurred during adulthood vs traumas suffered during childhood in her stories. 

"Please Sleep Over" is an interesting mix of the two, as one of the characters recalls some childhood trauma but is also dealing with a divorce. She spends time at her parents' old house with her new girlfriend trying to process their judgment as well as the bewildering state she's in being divorced. There's a wacky neighbor who comes over uninvited who they later see pouring out her heart during karaoke. It's a reminder that you never know what someone else has been through. The story culminates in a dream where she is looking for her girlfriend and/or her ex-husband in the house, finding her girlfriend hiding in the bathroom. When her frightened girlfriend says that there's someone else in there with them, the main character looks blankly in the mirror and says, "I can see her." That's the last panel of the last story of the book. The "someone else" is her past self that she clearly fears but comes to terms with at the end. The truth emerges here not to chastise, but to shed light and provide comfort. 

In nearly every story, Nowak provides one or more hilarious segues that do nothing to advance the story but do everything to make the reader understand why the people in question are close. Laughter binds us, and the jokes told or situations negotiated show the reader why the women in question are close. Indeed, each story hints at the ways in which trauma can be isolating but provides the reader with a counterexample as to why it's important to reach out anyway. Each woman doesn't let her trauma from preventing her from acting; indeed, at the point we meet them, they've already reached out to others in order to help effect their own change. In Girl Town, Nowak creates a world of bold women who have already made a decision to change their fates; the reader is there to help them see things through.

No comments:

Post a Comment