One of my favorite Liana Finck cartoons ran in The Awl in January of 2017. Our protagonist (presumably Finck) is lying in bed with an unnamed man she doesn’t seem to know very well, when she notices a pair of goggles hanging from his doorknob. “I borrowed them from my friend,” he tells Finck. “But I never gave them back because she was eaten by a crocodile.”
“You’re kidding,” says Finck.
“No,” he says. It’s a good detail — slapstick and unnerving, a brutal, horrifying death with a cartoonish element that reduces the victim to a punchline. There’s no appropriate response when someone’s eaten by a crocodile! But Finck turns it around; the comic continues with a brief description of the man and ends abruptly. “I just bought a pair of goggles,” writes Finck. “I’m afraid I will die and someone will keep them, who has no right to talk about me.”
Finck works mainly as a cartoonist for The New Yorker and runs an incredible Instagram account. She’s great at watching people and has a knack for seizing on the slippery moment just before the mood turns from strange and funny to sad. Her first graphic novel, A Bintel Brief: Love and Longing in Old New York, illustrated and expanded upon a series of letters that appeared in a column by the same name (Bintel Brief means “bundle of letters” in Yiddish) that ran in the Jewish Daily Forward during the early 20th century. The paper’s editor, a Lithuanian immigrant by the name of Abraham Cahan, responded personally to each. When Finck is sent a book full of Bintel Brief clippings by her grandmother, Cahan climbs out to lead her through a lost New York.
The fantastical elements of A Bintel Brief are constrained by the structure of the letters, but in her new graphic memoir, Passing for Human, Finck goes for broke. Shadows come to life, fear and writer’s block manifest as mean rodents that repeatedly force her to rip her work up and start over. It’s a memoir about the difficulty of writing a memoir and the limitations of narrative. Finck calls it “a neurological coming-of-age story.”
The book’s jumping off point is a not-quite-breakup between the protagonist — nicknamed Leola — and a man wearing a t-shirt that reads “Mr. Neutral,” whose failings you can probably imagine. “I think you’re my soulmate,” says Mr. Neutral, just before he grows distant. “Our heroine’s fears, unarticulated, gnaw at her like rats,” narrates Finck.
What follows is a creation myth centered around her parents — her architect mother’s unhappy first marriage to a violent, overbearing man and eventual escape to Leola’s doctor father, and her father’s enduring strangeness, with which Leola believes she has been cursed. A preternaturally shy child, Leola has a difficult time fitting in at school and in order to help her feel less lonely her mother tells her that her shadow is alive. Leola takes this story very seriously, forgoing living friends for the company of her shadow and an imaginary friend called Jonah.
Imagination works as both a blessing and a crutch, and both Leola and her mother struggle with their shadows, unable to tell whether or not their impulses are leading them astray. Of all the narrative threads, her mother’s story — in which she leaves her first husband in the middle of the night — is the one that best illustrates the memoir’s warnings of what happens when narrative runs aground. “A story only works when it gives shape to something true, something felt,” Finck writes. “A story is a ship. A ship without water is pointless, dangerous. The marriage was both those things.”
Imaginary friends are hard to pull off, imaginary boyfriends even more so, but Passing for Human has a light touch. Finck’s illustrations are spare, jumpy, and often very funny, and the magical realism never feels forced or trite. It’s a book about the lies we believe in order to live with ourselves and with each other. In A Bintel Brief, Finck is particularly impressed with Cahan’s responses to the letters. His advice is “concise, many-sided,” jewel-like in its precision, and Finck, in her own loopy, oblique way, seems to mirror his spirit in Passing for Human. It’s a memoir, but it’s also a directive. “I don’t draw because I love to draw,” she writes. “I don’t draw because I draw well. I draw because once, I lost something — and by drawing I will find it.”
Passing for Human, by Liana Finck, is available from Penguin Random House for $20.
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