Friday, May 14, 2010

Review: Shortcomings

My goodness, could any cover more properly describe my reactions to a book than this one?!  Ah, Shortcomings.  Two people separated (via pretty flower-like snowflakes) by the same culture. Both people look quite angsty and depressed.  They used to be close, but alas, they have found themselves on opposite sides of a snow drift.

Adrian Tomine's graphic novel is about Ben, a sarcastic and vastly unhappy movie theater manager in Berkeley who is tired of the Asian scene.  He doesn't like discussing race or racism or being Asian.  His girlfriend Miko, on the other hand, fully embraces her Asian culture and is proud of who she is.  She worries, though, that all Ben really wants is a white girl.  Ben's best friend Alice wants any girl.  Yup, she's an Asian PhD candidate who has an eye for a pretty younger girl and seems to have wreaked havoc amongst the lesbian population of her school.  When Miko tells Ben she wants a break and goes to New York to pursue an internship, their relationship is tested to its limits.


There's a whole lot going on in this book.  I think it turns some people off with the very negative attitude.  Ben has a very, very dry wit.  He would fit in well with my family.  I know others probably find him abrasive, but I think he's hilarious.  But he is also clearly very unhappy, and it is painful to spend an entire book with someone as self-absorbed as he is.  At the same time, it is interesting to see him become more aware of himself, his culture, and the way his culture impacts his vision of himself.

In many ways, Ben's awakening in this book is much like any Asian 20-something's (Asian = South and East Asian).  We don't face overt discrimination.  For the most part, we have assimilated well into the adopted culture.  Our families are affluent.  Granted, things are different now with immigrants coming in from Southeast Asia and being forced into really horrible working conditions, but many Asians in my age range had similar experiences.  Sometimes, we wonder if race really does matter to us.  After all, we're American, we're treated as American, respected as Americans and... living a pretty ideal American life.

Personally, I think that is where this book really shines, but at the same time, I also think it's where Tomine might lose a good portion of his audience.  This book is not about second-generation immigrants assimilating into America and facing that horrible struggle between culture in America and culture from the home country (which is such a popular book premise these days); rather, it is about being fully assimilated and then realizing you are not exactly like everyone else and that your mind just may be more attuned to race than you might think.  And the way this realization hits Ben, through his first sexual encounter with a white girl, and through revelations on his relationship with Miko, is pretty eye-opening and not in the least unrealistic.

I did not like Ben.  He was whiny and sometimes cruel and spent most of the book being a jerk.  But I didn't like Miko, either.  They were mirror images of each other.  Ben talked about how race wasn't an issue, but his girlfriend was as proud as she could be of her Japanese heritage, and his best friend is Korean.  Miko, on the other hand, spouts off about how proud of her culture she is.  Her new friend in New York City is not even a tiny bit Asian, but he speaks Japanese (literally, to her on a bus in New York City) and knows martial arts.  It was almost laughable, really.  Ben wants nothing more than to explore a relationship with a white girl, because that would give him points for being super manly.  But if a tall white guy wants to pursue a relationship with Miko, a diminutive Asian girl, that speaks of pedophilia and all sorts of disturbing fetishes on the white guy's part.

Vasilly and I talked in our review of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian about the way minority cultures judge people for assimilating too much.  And in this book, Tomine shows us the sexist bias that inherently exists in those judgments, too.  It's fine for a man to want to experiment, but a woman?  God, no!  Tomine also makes clear that often, experimentation isn't just "I'm a girl, so I'm going to experiment about my sexuality by kissing a girl."  No, it's about all sorts of things, including race.  And race, and people's understanding of race (and certainly people's understanding of sex), often ties into feelings of power and submission.

Even though I didn't love this book's pictures or the characters, I think it did a brilliant job in bringing to light all sorts of racism and discrimination that happen more in the mind and in very private conversations than in everyday interaction.  It gave me a lot of food for thought.

29 comments:

  1. Is the book set primarily in New York City? Am a bit of a collector of graphic novels set in NY and was wondering. Thanks for the review.

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  2. Despite having characters in it that are hard to connect to, I think this sounds like a very interesting read. I don't often get into conversations about race and discrimination and haven't ever really given much thought to the mentality of the immigrant population of this age and economic background, so this would all be really eye-opening for me. It does sound like it can be a bit of a negative portrayal at times though, so I will have to remember that. Wonderful review Aarti! I think that I might have to look for this book. It would be nice to get an insiders look at something I know very little about!

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  3. Hm. I'm not sure I'd like this one, but I might, so I've ordered it from the library to check it out.

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  4. This sounds amazing and relevant especially since we live in a world where culture and race are issues that have become very complex and often not very pretty. I'm surrounded by people (including myself) who some describe as 'third culture kids' where your past, present and future may lie in different cultures and countries so it's an issue that really interests me. Thanks for featuring this title which otherwise I may have never come across!

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  5. Sounds like a lot of really interesting issues are dealt with in this. I like the idea of a book looking at being 'too' assimilated and the issues that come from those ideas. The relationships and sexual experimentation being OK for guys but not for girls sounds quite interesting as well.

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  6. the Ape- It is set predominantly in Berkeley, but there is a good amount in NYC, as well, at the end.

    Zibilee- Yes, it's very negative, but it's really honest, too, which I liked. I don't know whether I liked the book or not, though, I admit!

    Amanda- I think the library is a safe bet. I STILL don't know if I liked it.

    chasingbawa- Relevant is a excellent description of the book! I love the idea of "third culture kids." I want to be one!

    Amy- Yes, it is interesting, isn't it, just how bigoted people can be? :-/

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  7. I do trust your judgement, so I will probably not bother with this one, but it does seem like a different style of graphic novel taht would appeal to me.

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  8. This is on my hold list from the library of graphic novels to read that have zero sci-fi element. Even if I may not like the characters, I still want to read about the situation.

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  9. Hooray, my secret plot is working - the more people there are who read GNs, the more awesome recommendation I'll get ;) The complex treatment of race here really appeals to me.

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  10. Vivienne- If you think it would appeal to you, go ahead and try it! I didn't DISLIKE it, exactly. I disliked the characters, but I think the story itself was important and interesting.

    Kari- Haha, no sci fi here! I agree- the situation is a good one to learn about.

    Nymeth- I blame you for this :-P The race thing was what really drew me in as well. Not cut and dry at all.

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  11. I do not like the art, and I do have to like my characters, but at least it had some meaning for you so that would make it worth it

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  12. This sounds like an interesting graphic novel, and I think I might enjoy Ben's dry wit. I also like the fact that the treatment of race and culture is a bit more nuanced than one might expect.

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  13. Still haven't read any graphic novel yet, but I plan to do so in the future:)

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  14. I feel like I enjoy acerbic - what's the noun of that? Acerbicity, acerbicism, acerbicness? I feel like I enjoy acerbic-ness as much as the next person, but I disliked Ben so much I couldn't enjoy this book. Despite the interesting lens on race.

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  15. This sounds like a great graphic novel. I just brought home 600++ page Blankets from the library (also a graphic novel).

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  16. Some readers could be put off by some aspects of the characters, and by the fact that things are not tidily (in some ways, not even satisfactorily) resolved, but I agree that it felt very real, credible and each behaved in ways that you could understand (given how they were presented) even when you wished that they'd make different choices. I really enjoyed the complexity of this one and you've done a great job of drawing attention to its strengths!

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  17. Blodeuedd- Yes, it was a worthwhile read, even if I am of two minds about it.

    Steph- Yes, I appreciated that, too. And Ben- ah, he was harsh but real.

    Andreea- I am a recent convert, and it's fun to try a new format!

    Jenny- Acerbity? I think that may be the noun version. I looked up your review, and I can see why you felt the way you did about the book.

    Diane- I really liked Blankets! I look forward to your thoughts on it. The art is lovely.

    Buried in Print- Yes, the ending is not very much of a resolution, is it? But I kind of prefer the open-ended one to one that is as depressing as it may have been. I really liked how layered this book was- it is probably the most nuanced GN I have read, in terms of hard-hitting subjects.

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  18. This sounds really interesting. I sometimes like reading things with really awful main characters to see if the writing or other messages of the story can overcome that intense dislike. This book might be an interesting example. Thanks for the review!

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  19. I loved this book. It was such a complex exploration of race and gender and sexuality and all the little things that go along with those big things. Ben is a spoiled, selfish character, but the ending was so perfect. Somehow that affected me more than any number of fancy words might have done in a conventional novel.

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  20. That sounds really interesting. Discussions/portrayals of race and racism intrigue me, and the gender aspect makes it sound even more appealing. I'm also glad it's not the typical first generation immigrant story that is so prevalent.

    That is my long-winded way of saying that I think I'll check it out.

    Great review.

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  21. Kim- I know exactly what you mean! I often wonder if I will like a book regardless of how much I dislike the characters, too :-)

    Carolyn- That's so funny you say that as I did NOT like the ending. I don't think Ben seemed likely to change his ways at all, and while I enjoy an ambiguous ending, I could see him going right back where he started...

    Akilah- I think you'd really like it! It's definitely an interesting look at race and gender and power.

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  22. Great review! I'm intrigued with the premise. I'll have to look out for it. (BTW, I love the cover!) :)

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  23. This sounds like a goos book but I don't know if I can spend a whole book with a character I can't stand. I definitely agree with you on minorities and women experimenting. Women get judged a lot more than men.

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  24. This book sounds like it opens a lot of pathways into deeper discussions about culture. I'm especially interested in this idea of assimilating too much, because I think it would tie in with something I recently read about cultural appropriation in the fashion industry. The outline was that although the industry appropriates all the time and gets kudos for pushing boundaries the native cultures who make similar garments to sell get called out ofr being sell outs. So it's a tricky line to try to assimilate both economically by selling your culture and culturally by taking on aspects associated with another culture.

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  25. Melody- I like the cover, too! I was being tongue-in-cheek with my first paragraph, but it really is quite good for the story!

    Vasilly- Yes, we SO do! Ridiculous.

    Jodie- WOW, that sounds really interesting! I think that it gets into a grayer area when it's not "culture" so much as "religion." I also think... well, no, I can see both sides, definitely, and would be very interested in that article!

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  26. I have this book on my shelf waiting to be read. Anytime now. I only read the beginning of your review because I want to keep it a surprise. I'll come back again soon after I read it!

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  27. I haven't read many graphic novels. For some reason the genre just doesn't really appeal to me. I was never a big fan of comics, maybe that's why. However, this one sounds worth while. The story and main character sound quite interesting t5o me.

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  28. Wow. What a fascinating review. It's interesting how you say you don't like the characters or the illustrations, but the themes and ideas that emerge from the book.

    It's not likely that I'll read the book, but I'm glad to have read your review of it!

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  29. mee- Yay, I look forward to your review! There aren't many out there, so I'm excited to hear your perspective.

    Teddy- You know, I don't read many, either. I started very recently, but there is such a huge variety of them I think you might give one a try.

    Clover- I feel like that happens to me more often than you'd expect! I am pretty picky about characters.

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