Pretty Little Lions

by on Dec.30, 2010

A couple of months ago I did an interview with Blaise Larmee, and Blaise, or his ideas, sparked some kind of debate in the comments thread, a debate which I didn’t quite understand (I think I was ignorant of much of the context). So Johannes and I decided to each read (or re-read, in my case) and write a consideration of his book Young Lions and try to figure out what’s up. I’ll get it started with my thoughts:

Young Lions is a study in prettiness. The child actors conducting the narrative, the intentional and sweeping pencil lines, the orchestrated heartbreak are graceful and beautiful. But all of this prettiness is saved from itself, from refinement and glossiness and a good sanding down that might make you overlook it by the generous use of omission, erasure, hole-poking, and breaking shit up. The book is a stylish object, full of stylish people putting on stylish shows, and is one of the more intelligent discussions of the role of style in creation that I’ve encountered in a while.  Much like Kenneth Burke was able to explain human relations by framing our interactions as a stage play, Larmee puts his kids in boxes, little theatres, and conducts them, while the whole time they consider and question the very play that they are acting in. Larmee’s four characters, all members of a conceptual art group that views itself and its membership as if it’s a rock band, are placed in contained spaces and set to interact as we might do with figures in a diorama. The spaces are sometimes conducted as if films (with background music) or the book of a play (with scene titles), or even as a venue in which to watch a film (as in the closing panel of the the “New Museum” section). The book’s cover itself, a step away from the “craftiness” of comics and towards the mechanical of books, questions the medium’s conventions of presentation.  Many of Larmee’s choices court questions if not controversy (dipping one foot into the pond of tweeness, but yanking it out before he gets too deep), including his choice to include a single blurb on the book’s back cover, from David Heatley, a cartoonist who, unfairly, is best known for voluntarily putting pink boxes of his characters’ genitalia when Big Publishing reprinted his work.

Young Lions invites perusal and rereading. Its lightness is part of it. The clip of the narrative, and flow of pages pull the reader through, encourage page-flipping, like a salaryman might rifle through a chunky manga album on the Chuo line at rush hour (it seems like Larmee has taken some lessons from Frank Santoro’s discussions of mathematical models and proper page structure). From the first page, Young Lions presents itself as a remarkably conventional narrative, with a crisis presented immediately (their art group is failing), a love triangle quickly introduced, and the need for a journey (a road trip to Florida) to bring about resolution. Where Larmee distinguishes himself is the strangeness with which he conducts his story. Just as he balances his perfect pencil lines that carve out pretty young cheeks and self-conscious coifs with smudgy palimpsests and completely absent lines where the white space begs for definition, he confounds his narrative with subtle steps into the fantastic, meta-fictional conceits that usefully demand critical consideration, and by leaving straight-up gaps and holes. This is where the richness and mystery is contained in Young Lions, not in the magic of the characters’ performances. (As the groups’ seeming leader, and only apparent adult, Wilson says, “Art becomes magic when it has nothing left to hide.”) Larmee’s continued attention to the concept of Yoko Ono creates a particularly compelling, and almost eerie, subtext of a hidden world beneath the one he is showing us, a world accessed in the whispers of passers-by and through the tenuous connection of cellular communication.

Larmee is trying to pull off a difficult balancing act by tempting conventionality. There are a few times when the book loses it center of balance. Particularly in its shortest section, “Last Days,” in which the two female characters have a conversation that reads more like an apologia for Young Lions and the metaphor of moving your way through a dark forest that it presents serves to reduce the complexities of the rest of the book. And, towards the book’s conclusion, when the kids leave Florida, there seems to be sections of narrative elided (or, it seems, rushed through). The group abandons their newest member Holly with little explanation, and then bring her back immediately, with little reason. Young Lions has already established that it’s playing a game with traditional structure, undermining it while employing it, and here that agreement seems to be abandoned.

Young Lions is essentially a critical study of dramaturgy and an exercise in the reflecting levels of self-awareness: character, writer, and, most of all reader (it compels you to actually look in a mirror and study the lines of your face). The urge it creates in the reader is, of course, stated explicitly by one of Larmee characters. In this case, it is Alice (imagine a toy doll version of Demi Moore’s character in St. Elmo’s Fire) who sits back on a swampy Florida beach, smoking a cigarette and says, “I kind of want to see this all in a white box…” We, the readers, are seeing it in a white box. Of course, her companion Cody is quick to retort, “No thanks.” Like Larmee, and like me, they want to understand, but fear nothing more than a reduction or a capsule or an end.

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4 comments for this entry:
  1. Johannes

    John,

    Good review. I like the way you read the figures as “child actors.” It seems like these children are indeed actors – or cover ups, or stand ins, in some ways related to the David W. Rimbaud-mask that Joyelle discussed a while back. The activities (having a conceptual art group) don’t seem to be children’s activiites.

    This seems to be part of an overall strategy over tracing or overwriting. The style of the comic book seems traced to me. Know what I mean? Like these figures were drawn from another place. A little like Henry Darger tracing those girls for his strange sci-fi/horror epic.

    Like you wrote, a lot of the book seems to be about these performances. And I like how they leak into the whole book. I’m never sure if something is a performance or not. This seems to fit together with the unfinished/traced appearance.

    It evokes something like collage, but instead traced from different sources.

    Also, I love it when that girl inexplicably puts on the cat-mask, which for me seems like a decontexualized homage to Maus.

    Johannes

  2. david

    Nice. One of the best and certainly fairest reviews I have read of this book, which seems occasionally maligned in part due to odd perceptions about Blaise as a prankster/hipster documentarian. Whatever opinions one may have about the way he runs his website or his now-largely-abandoned cribbing of a Tao Lin/HRO style of presentation (again, thinking Comets Comets here), the work itself inhabits a different world entirely.

    I really like the way you’ve discussed the omissions and gaps as purposeful. Some reviewers I’ve come across have too-casually dismissed the story as paper-thin and of course it is: as a critical device. The characters inhabit a place of near-infinite ‘options’, very few of which offer stable paths. Sort of like our world now maybe.

    Clear, methodical, and fully-detailed plot development does not seem appropriate to our contemporary times, and I think the conventional narrative as not much more than a skeleton in Young Lions is an excellent way of writing American fiction in 2010.

    Sort of expecting to see this pop up in college comics curricula in years to come.

    Great book, not perfect, but one of my favorites of the year by far.

  3. John Dermot Woods

    Right, David. These characters are trying to create a narrative, act out a story, rather than be dictated by one. We see them attempting (and often failing) to construct something.

    Johannes, I think you’re tracing idea is particularly interesting. I also got a whiff of Vivian girls in these drawings. Part of it these perfectly defined figures the emerge from a field of sketchiness and palimpsest. This is not Fort Thunder noise comics. I also think this is where Blaise’s art really distinguishes itself. His amalgam of influences comes together in what, to me, seems like a very new way.

  4. Enid

    My dad reads about Blaise Larmee online for some reason (he’s 57) and when he looked at my copy he said “oh, the way I heard it described made it sound like it was terrible. this actually looks really nice”

    so yeah, it’s really not THAT messy

    (no relation to ghostworld by the way…sigh)