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Category: Identity

Feints and Resolutions

I just finished Jaime Hernandez’s collected Locas, which was Steven’s birthday gift from his parents. (I know this means I’m probably a lousy wife for reading a gift book before its recipient gets a chance, but at least Steven is reading too and it’s not as if I hid it from him so I could finish first.) It ends beautifully, in exactly the way I wanted it to finish because I’m a sap and I want closure but not restrictive closure, and this was a particularly satisfying open-ended ending. I don’t want to say more because, as I said, Steven hasn’t read the book, and while we don’t generally avoid spoilers, it seems a bit cruel to completely unwrap his present for him.

What I’ll say instead is that the whole last story, “Bob Richardson,” is about the spirals we weave around ourselves, the way the identities Maggie and Hopey have created for themselves through their wishes and deeds circle in tighter until real pain and deceptions have to crash in on themselves to contain a new reality. And I know I shouldn’t say stories are “about” things, know that they contain multitudes, but all I mean is that it’s useful for me at the moment to look at the tightening gyre rather than other aspects of the story, which I’m about to contradict by talking about one of them. Best friends Maggie and Hopey love each other and have sex with each other sometimes and have sex with others sometimes and occasionally those times even overlap. Part of the narrative movement, its sway, is Maggie’s understanding of her sexuality and her relationship with Hopey. Hopey seems happily bisexual, or at least consistently bisexual even when not happy, but Maggie considers her situation more complex. Is she really a straight girl who’s willing to make an exception for Hopey (and is it ever true when people say that? I’m too biased to know.) or bisexual or is she really straight and her friendly love for Hopey has just crossed over into the sexual realm? And can she love anyone else as much as she loves Hopey or more or differently? And what about loving herself?

I read Eve Tushnet this morning arguing that lovers’ genders matter in shaping a relationship, and while I wouldn’t use some of the terminology she does, some of what she’s talking about seems to play out in Locas. I think you have to take it even farther, though, and say that not only does your gender matter but your orientation and your relationship history and cultural background and the (gendered) expectations that puts on you, at which point I’ve gotten far away from what Eve was trying to say. Her point, I think, was that gendered behaviors work in such a way that the Venn diagrams don’t overlap much between how Maggie behaves and views herself in her relationships with Hopey vs. any of the men in her life. As far as Locas goes, that seems to be true, but there’s the deeper problem that Hopey and Maggie have idealized their relationship while still treating each other badly. I suppose the real arc of the last story is how they figure out how to be genuine in what they want and who they are, but that’s practically what I was saying before anyway.

This sort of thing had already been on my mind, though, because while we were in New Orleans I finally managed to find a used copy of Emma Donoghue’s first novel, Stir-Fry. I know I could have ordered it online, but somehow the thrill of the chase kept me going for about 10 years, which is a scary thought. I read it as a sophomore in high school and it was a turning point for me, my first favorite book. I managed to change favorite books once a year or so three more times before giving up on the idea of such a thing, but they were all more literary and well-known, and this one remained my sort of personal secret. To go back to Maggie and Hopey a bit, finding the novel was like coming across a lost love and wondering what would have changed in it and knowing how much had changed in me. Can the Obscure Object of Desire measure up as (the book equivalent of) flesh and blood?

In Stir-Fry, shy 17-year-old Maria leaves her little Irish town to go to university and ends up subletting a room in the apartment of two older students, Ruth and Jael, who quickly become the center of her social world. It’s some time before she realizes they’re a lesbian couple, something she’s never had to address before. There are all sorts of swirling emotions, the kind that appealed so much to 14-year-old me, as Maria suddenly worries that her lack of interest in guys her own age means she’s a lesbian, too, and just doesn’t realize it, or that spending all her time with lesbians is going to keep her from ever successfully finding a boyfriend. Meanwhile Ruth and Jael have problems and are both confiding in Maria and dealing with the way they hid their romance from her and still hide it from family members and everyone not in carefully segmented parts of their worlds. Maria halfheartedly pursues male friends as part of pursuit of a “normal” life, and finds it’s not what she wants. Motherly, political Ruth decides to out herself when she speaks at a public meeting. Brash, sulky Jael wants to flirt more and be less responsible. Maria is frightened and entranced by them both. And then before Christmas there’s a sudden break in domestic tranquility and all three women are left re-evaluating and misunderstanding the ties between them. The not-so-shocking resolution involves the understanding that sometimes you just don’t know what you want, and that’s fine. What’s more important is to be able to enunciate to yourself (and, if necessary, to others) that you don’t know and that you aren’t sure and that you’re considering possible outcomes. Clearly this isn’t a story that survives on the shocking new insight in brings or on narrative intricacies, but it’s very well-written and I found myself recognizing phrases I’d scrawled down on the notepad beside my bed a decade ago. It remains one of my favorite of Donoghue’s books because of nostalgia as much as for its own merits, but its merits include the nostalgia. If I’d had Love and Rockets handy when I was 14, I might have read that, but instead I was stuck searching the library for things I’d found in the New York Times book reviews section to puzzle out what it means to be a smart girl, a misfit trying to figure out her place in the world. I didn’t get the same satisfying ending Locas had, but it didn’t end until 1996 anyway. One book ends in a car and one with an opened door, but the message is the same: the future is out there and (even if you don’t understand how this relationship thing works) you’re not alone. And sure enough, whether I’m with characters or real people, I’m not.

Superheroes, Romantic Comedies, and Identity

Here’s something I just thought of. I don’t know, it might be crazy talk, but I’ll tell you about it and you can tell me what you think.

When I lamented the action movie’s triumph over the romantic comedy in Spider-Man 2, I meant it. Spider-Man 2’s pairing of romantic comedy and superheroism is no mere accident of narrative—the romantic comedy and the superhero story have a crucial intersection, which is the recurring conceit of the duplicitous hero whose dual identity first covers and eventually discovers (to use an archaic sense of the word) a seriously fractured and incomplete identity. In superhero stories, this is manifested in the opposed secret and superheroic identities, the thesis and antithesis that never synthesize. Superman’s possession of two identities (or three, if Smallville Clark is different from Metropolis Clark) highlights his lack of a natural, coherent identity. He is a Kryptonian, an Earthling, and an American, but he’s also none of them. They are masks he can wear and remove at will, not his face. Same with Batman, although The Dark Knight Returns is perhaps an attempt to synthesize Batman and Bruce Wayne. Romantic comedies often present similar, usually less heroic, dual-identity protagonists—the most relevant standard for what I’m thinking about now is the story of a man trying to make it with two girlfriends at once, a story that inevitably climaxes with a scene where the poor bastard tries to take both women on date to the same restaurant at the same time.

Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life replays the classic same-restaurant-same-time scene, except that Scott is too inept to realize that it might cause problems to invite both Knives and Ramona to his concert, let alone that he should do anything about it. That scene is also the one in which it turns out Scott was only half-joking (if that!) about being a graduate of Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. Scott really is thinks of himself as a superhero, if a highly unusual one. It can’t be coincidental that the book’s sidelong riffing on romantic comedy comes to a head in the same scene as the sidelong riffing on superheroes comes to a head. The climactic scene where the pop-culture fantasy (it’s all allusions to Star Trek technology, video games and musicals) that creeps through the book jumps up and really rocks out.

Judging by the previews (1, 2), the second Scott Pilgrim volume, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, is going to throw awkward-adolescent maturation stories into the mix—not surprising, since that’s another kind of story founded on identity formation and identity crises, as well as a common component of romantic comedies and superhero stories.

So what? I’m not sure, what do you think?

Edit: Changed “Scott really is a superhero” to “Scott really thinks of himself as a superhero”