'Gemma Bovary' by Posy Simmonds (1999)

Posy Simmonds’ blend of prose and graphic storytelling intrigues me. Her combination of the two forms facillitated multiple storytelling voices—Joubert, Gemma (through her diary), objects (newspaper articles, letters), and an omniscient narrator—which I found similar to Art Spiegelman’s Maus. While there are not quite as many layers of narrative in this text as there are in Maus, Simmonds and Spiegelman both seem to be attempting what many graphic artists do not: they are not merely trying to tell a story with pictures and words, but to tell a story in a way that words alone could not accomplish. Indeed, in other ways Simmonds really pushes the graphic form to echo the subtleties of which language is capable. For example, toward the beginning of the novel when Gemma has very little voice in her own life and indeed the story, Simmonds pushes Gemma into the background, or draws her with Gemma’s back to the reader (or hides her face in some other manner), or draws her only sketchily, without full detail. Take even the cover image for a good example of Simmonds’ skill.

Well, I’ll back up a bit. The title reveals Simmonds’ source material as Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and implies that her work will follow a similar format of the novels of that time—character studies that the author intends for the reader to consider autobiographical or at least biographical. And back to the cover image, which is of Gemma but rather than her image filling the entire space her upper body is framed. The frame and the scroll that bear the title of the text are reminiscient of the era in which Madame Bovary was written, which suggest that Gemma’s life is recounted through the frame of Emma Bovary’s life. Or just a frame in general. Her eyes are averted, not looking at the reader, giving her a sense of mystery—Gemma, while the subject of the text, will not be addressing the reader directly. She is also depicted in a very sexually provocative way: red lips, heavy eye shadow, her lingerie visible. But she is also wearing a coat. Is she trying to hide her sexuality or reveal it? Or maybe a little of both?

Simmonds’ drawing style seems appropriate for the story she is telling—her illustrations have realism and yet fancy as well. While the reader is aware from the first sentence that Gemma will come to an unfortunate end, Simmonds never allows her tone to become too bleak for long. Joubert and many of the ancillary characters provide comic relief to Gemma’s rather unfortunate tale. And with Joubert narrating, the story is like a fairy tale in a way—his somewhat romanticized view of Gemma’s life.

It seems both utterly appropriate and completely irksome that Gemma’s tale is conveyed by a man. Irksome because her voice has been muffled concerning her sexuality. Appropriate because her voice has been muffled concerning her sexuality. It somehow seems fitting that a woman’s adultery be articulated by a man, as is the case with Madame Bovary. With Simmonds offering her version of Boverian events, I would expect her to make the woman’s voice more rather than less prominent.

'The Namesake' by Jhumpa Lahiri (2003)

I mean this statement in the best way possible, but reading The Namesake is like reading a Mukherjee novel. As Mukherjee does in Jasmine, Lahiri explores the idea of identity and the dual identity that many immigrants and children of immigrants to the United States experience. Naming is also an important aspect of the novel, as well as adaptation.

Lahiri emphasizes the expected dual identity in Bengali culture, the “good name” and the “pet name” that every Bengali has. Except Gogol. Gogol has only a pet name—that isn’t even Indian—which separates him in a way from his family’s culture. But his name doesn’t make him feel quite integrated into American culture either. When he leaves for college, he seizes the opportunity to be unshackled from the shame that “Gogol” causes him and adopts his good name, Nikhil. While “Nikhil” connects him to his parents’ culture, it somehow seems to separate him from his family. His parents had finally become resigned to the fact that his name was simply Gogol, and “Gogol” gave him an essential connection to his father. When his father finally tells him of the significance of his name, Gogol feels badly for changing his name. At the end of the novel, when Gogol realizes that with his mother moving to Calcutta his identity as Gogol is disappearing, he finally begins to read the book of Nikolai Gogol’s short stories, which suggests that perhaps he intends to reclaim Gogol as, at least part of, his identity.

Food. We have to talk about the food because it’s everywhere in this book. And I’m not exactly certain of what to make of it. Food is very obviously a cultural marker. Ashima tries to find American ingredients to substitute in Indian recipes, but when she is about to leave for Calcutta at the end of the novel she admits that she never managed to duplicate the recipes as accurately as she would have liked—she never fully adjusted to the United States, but she managed well enough. Gogol and Sonia requesting to have turkey at Thanksgiving and hamburgers and peanut butter sandwiches for lunch suggests their Americanism and introducing more of American culture into their parents’ lives. The food also manages to indicate emotions as well. As soon as I read the line about the chickpeas going bad at Gogol and Moushumi’s wedding reception, I knew that the marriage would not last. At their anniversary dinner, Moushumi mentions that she and Gogol switched plates as usual but she did not like Gogol’s meal and sticks with her own. Then I knew the end was near. Actually, I should have known that Moushumi and Gogol’s relationship would come to no good end when their dinner burned on their date.

I’ll probably get a “The hell?” look for this statement, but the way that Lahiri characterizes the relationships kind of reminds me of D.H. Lawrence. Emphasis on the “kind of.”

Oh, and Moushumi wanting to hook up with Dimitri coupled with Isadora’s reaction to Adrian in Fear of Flying compels me to ask: am I the only woman who would be repulsed and disturbed by a man making overt sexual advances on a first encounter?

'Fear of Flying' by Erica Jong (1973)

Didn’t like this book. At all. I kept telling myself, “It was written in 1973. I’m sure it was a revolutionary portrayal of woman as a sexual being. Blah blah blah trying-to-make-allowances-cakes.” But I still didn’t like it. It wasn’t, you know, well-written.

I admit that I’m a bit of a prude and all of Isadora’s talk of douching herself with wine and vinegar and trying to examine her genitalia in the mirror as an adolescent isn’t my idea of captivating reading. But even if Jong’s exploring a female’s interest in sex was groundbreaking it doesn’t seem to have presented a particularly female point of view of sex. In fact, Isadora’s experiences and fantasies seem to fit quite well into the standard repertoire of male sexual fantasies. I mean, twice the woman is practically—well, pretty much raped and Jong doesn’t give the reader any insight into her reaction. Rather, she describes how the men responded.

The entire novel seems to be a half-assed self-help exercise of sorts. I mean, it actually says, “People don’t complete us. We complete ourselves.” Excuse me while I vomit. If Isadora is supposed to be the typical feminist of the early ’70s, I’m glad that I was -10 at that point. She contradicts herself and suggests all “so-called feminists” really just want to be married and pregnant. She wasn’t a sympathetic character to begin with and instead of making her sympathetic Jong chooses to detail three of Isadora’s previous relationships. These men were interesting when mentioned briefly; when their entire relationship is explained in excruciating detail, only her crazy ex-husband manages to remain interesting. But sadly I found his character more interesting than Isadora. Isadora’s account of her and Bennett’s bad years in Germany did garner some sympathy for her though. Too bad there was more book after that.

Oh, and could Jong have made Adrian any less appealing? If Jong was going for some kind of declaration about women as sexual creatures being okay, why did she make Isadora look absolutely insane for instantly being attracted to a man who grabs her ass three seconds after meeting her?