Saturday, 30 January 2016

Killing and Dying, by Adrian Tomine

Killing and Dying is six very different short stories, beautifully composed and drawn and presented. Its apparent simplicity really does disguise the depth of emotion, understanding and meaning that exists within the panels. The shortest narrative is just 6 pages, the longest 26- all depicted in quite different styles that are held together thematically. Though it's hard to identify what themes it is that holds them together. The stories are filled with empathy and emotion, with nuance and irony and razor sharp, merciless observations. However they are all so different, telling diverse stories, stories that could never in themselves be the central plot, but instead, together, build up an intimate snapshot of modern America and all of the complicated, everyday struggles and trials of ordinary people.

There's a deluded and somewhat bewildered gardener turned would-be artist, not particularly good at either, that spends years and years pursuing an artistic vision that nobody wants to buy. Frustrated at first, resolute and proud for a while, then embarrassed and enraged, he takes out his failure on the people closest to him. It's surprisingly funny- his daydreams and internal monologue in particular. It's odd to see Americans confronted with failure and the reaction is fascinating. There's another, translated from Japanese that depicts a parent and child moving from Osaka to America. Sparse, made up only of moments, snatched thoughts and snapshots, there's more revealed in what's missing and what's not said. One story is a particularly tragic tale of mistaken identity- something that on the surface sounds like it could be a Judd Apatow film, but which actually results in the central character becoming profoundly unhappy and struggling to make genuine connections with people. Another, the one that I found to be the most affecting, shows a recently bereaved husband and his nerdy, aspiring stand-up comedian daughter. Torn between wanting to protect her and waning to support her, the story burns the reader with its empathy and its love. One story depicts a homeless young woman, a direction-less baseball fan that throws in her lot with an ageing stoner and small time dealer. They get on ok despite him being many years her senior...but her lack of options and circumstances are approaching desperate and it's a bad decision. It's a familiar story of things in common, laughs and connections...then manipulation, control and abuse. Of the 6 stories this is probably the one that I've thought about the most since... The last story is an odd little tale of a man reflecting on the things that he's lost and being unable to save himself from a cycle of obsessive and strange behaviour.

It's hard to describe this book, just like it would be hard trying to describe everything that happens in life. There's too much to say about quite ordinary things. They're such perfect little vignettes of grim reality. There aren't really any lessons to be learned, no morals to these stories. They are just brief windows offering glimpses into six of the billions of lives being played out somewhere in the world, each infused with its own struggles and triumps. It highlights what a strange and hapless species we are, thoroughly incapable of dealing with the emotional fallout of our own lives and decisions.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and was quite amazed at the incredible skill of Tomaine's storytelling technique. Sometimes pictures and images are used as a stylistic alternative to prose...sometimes they're used alongside. But Tomaine's images are rare examples that seem to render words clumsy and inexpressive. He can convey more in the closing of an eyelid or the arrangement of a hand on a knee than could ever be imparted in paragraphs.

In short, properly, thoroughly masterful.

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