Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Book 3 of 52: Lost at Sea

Bryan Lee O'Malley is best known as the author of the Scott Pilgrim series, and while I haven't read that yet, plenty of people whose opinions I trust have given him a thumbs up.

So, when I saw Lost at Sea on a bookshelf during a recent trip back to New Jersey, I couldn't let the moment pass.

Seizing the moment, even if the whys and hows are frighteningly undefined, is precisely the cure-all that O'Malley prescribed in his debut graphic novel.

The plot is simple: Raleigh is returning home to Vancouver from visiting her father and his new girlfriend in California; while stateside, she snuck in a visit to her boyfriend, whom she had previously met over the internet. She misses her train, but lucks into a ride home with some kids who attended her private high school.

I could sum up a number of other novels this way. The Old Man and the Sea is about an old fisherman who hasn't caught a fish in a long time, sails out farther than is probably wise, and catches the biggest fish of his life. He kills it, but on the ride back to the harbor the fish is torn apart by sharks.

We, the readers, are Raleigh's boyfriend (Stillman), and the narrative takes the form of a story being told to us; Raleigh's voiceover fluctuates between the past and present tense, for reasons that become clear as the story progresses. This is a bildungsroman, and it carries with it all the pitfalls of a coming-of-age novel. Raleigh skirts what a more famous first person narrator referred to as "all that David Copperfield kind of crap," instead unfolding her backstory in (what she feels are) the tedious pauses of the current moment.

"I've been on the road with them for maybe two hours, and every minute has been just like this-" 2 pages of panels depicting the long judging looks that teenage girls can give each other when they each think they know what the other is thinking "-longer and hotter and smaller and darker and more claustrophobic and so so so much worse in comparison."

O'Malley's artwork adds to the feeling of claustrophobia: his characters exist as flat sketches of white and grey against white or black backgrounds. His text, too, is rigidly handwritten: white against black or black against white; almost always uniform size and style; almost always perfectly perpendicular to the page.

From this rigidity, Raleigh's backstory comes bursting out. She charts the tensions, expectations, and fears that drive her into herself. It takes days of travel in a direction that might be toward home, and a chance encounter that may be a prophecy fulfilled or deja vu or memory or fate, to push Raleigh to confront her anxieties.

Unlike so many coming-of-age stories that disappoint me by pulling together every loose end, Lost at Sea leaves nearly every concrete question unanswered, in favor of answering the ontological questions of looming adulthood. I don't think it's a terrible spoiler to say that the answer involves embracing the moment, and the people who come to the moment with you.

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