Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Lena Finkle's Magic Barrel by Anya Ulinich

Ulinich does something extraordinary here by combining her storytelling and drawing skills to create an absorbing graphic novel featuring the drama of an adult woman searching for love. This is not ordinary entertainment, but instead a realistic and riveting examination of the vicissitudes of finding love and keeping it.

Lena Finkle is the twice-divorced mother of two who is about to get herself involved in an inter-continental relationship with a married man. When a friend wisely suggests Lena get more experience with men before she jumps into another unsuitable relationship, Lena forays into the world of online dating. Lena’s trenchant observations about her stumbling first steps in this direction are cringe-worthy best friend talk, admitting confusion, bad choices, and failure. To top it off, Lena has a homunculus on her shoulder making snide asides and expressing the observations Lena’s less rational side needs to hear.

There is an energy in this novel that derives from the combination of cartoonish drawings and the wrenching real-life agony of misplaced and unrequited love. References to the online dating site OkCupid lower the tone; comparisons of Lena’s work as a novelist with Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, Anton Chekov heighten the tension. It is an absurdist romp with heartbreaking consequences, and yes, this is indeed a sort of classic literature filled with naked vulnerability and deep intelligence. There is movement, introspection, growth, and understanding.

The central character, a Russian, a Jew, and a mother, has all the strengths and weaknesses of those categories we use for shorthand. Lena denies her Jewish background (“I fail the faith test in God”) at the same time she pulls out her angst for us to contemplate. “Oh my God, I’m turning into a Russian wife!” she exclaims when she instinctively over-cares for her sick lover. In the next line she denies being slotted into that category: “I will never, ever be a Russian wife!” She is practical and loving as a mother, and also claims to be “impersonating a mother” when her love affair goes sideways. She tosses her homunculus into the gutter: “Your knee-jerk skepticism, your materialist rationality, and your stupid irony—what use are they to me now?”

Buying a pair of shoes might set off a flood of introspection, self-criticism, and a peering into the larger society: “buying a pair of red shoes wouldn’t constitute a punishable offense, but would certainly invite questions…which would load the shoes with too much significance to ever actually wear…which is why married people in Brooklyn are stuck in horrible moccasins and fleece sweaters they buy online…” The Scottish philosopher-lawyer-author Alexander McCall Smith couldn’t have said it better.

The man she chose to learn from was not the perfect man: he was a device for making her more self-aware and accepting. Lena wanted to ignore her homunculus and friend Yvonne who told her not to close her eyes to the bright yellow caution tape in his conversation. Lena needed to be able to see, to listen to her homunculus even when she didn’t want to. Finally, understanding dawns.
“No one ever really arrives. We just nudge each other along muddy ruts of suffering, occasionally peeking over the edges of our ruts in search of a better way.”

The name of Ulinich’s central character, Lena Finkle, is derived from two references that situate the character in the absurdist canon. Lena Dunham’s droll movie, Tiny Furniture, about a college graduate moving back into her mother’s apartment in the City, has an unforgettable scene about the struggle for intimacy—in a street-side construction pipe. This same hilarious and breathtakingly painful description of the nakedness of one’s need is keenly described in drawings and thought bubbles by Ulinich.

The second reference is derived from Bernard Malamud’s story, “Magic Barrel,” in which a man, Leo Finkle, asks for help from a matchmaker in finding a mate. Leo Finkle is a rabbinical student doing what was expected of him until one day he realized he had no faith! This set off a depression which led him to a “panicked grasping” of a young woman which he called “love.”

I can’t recommend this novel more highly. Its dark humor and anguished understanding ties into some of the great literature of the 19th and 20th centuries but in a format that is finally coming into its own in the 21st century. The graphic novel format is uniquely suited to Ulinich’s skills. As always when an author manages a breathtaking high-wire act, I wonder if it can be replicated. But no matter, enjoy this one for what it is—an astonishing and absorbing example of high-intensity literature for our time. Many thanks to Ulinich for reminding us of Malamud's delicious little story once again.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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