A Review of He Wanted to Be a Cartoonist for The New Yorker
by Matthew James Babcock
“What, after all,” Matthew James Babcock asks in the course of this poignant and sinewy novella, “is the difference between joy and agony? Between laugh and scream?
In both cases, the body churns chemicals and shoots fluids through millions of lubricated labyrinths. The lungs pump. Tears bloom. Pressure snaps a tendon of pencil lead. Incisions of ink mar paper and flesh. There is a cleansing, a burst of clarity. A hush follows. The result is truth. Something new is conceived, a fresh connection or observation, something drawn up for the first time. It is original, your creation.
The protagonist, Bryce, has a friendless school life and a violent drunk for a father. After an obsession with a young vixen leads to further humiliation, Bryce exhibits an uncanny knack for cartoons of, as the title indicates, the variety found in The New Yorker. Consider “Christmas at the Nonconformists,” for instance, “a shot of a woman gripping a clown figure whose accordion-spring body had been permanently ripped from its mechanized container. She exclaimed, ‘Oh, Bill. Just what I wanted. A Jack-Outside-The-Box!’” Or, farther down the slide of crossword puzzle word-play, “Henri-Louis Pernod vending a new beverage from a street in Couvet, a customer eyeing an elaborate glass of the liquid, and asking, ‘Will it really make the heart grow fonder?’”
Babcock coins some nice cartoon punch lines, but the real strength of He Wanted to Be a Cartoonist… is the tightness of its prose, the propelling quality of its descriptions—be these of the sputtering hot metal of combat in Somalia or the slow, generally wordless choreography of a marriage coming apart. The feverish banalities of adolescence are Babcock’s particular forte, from the sludge of an afternoon alone to feverish obsessions over a crush. Bryce sees the object of his affection everywhere, in billboards and street signs: “She was Stop, Yield, and School Zone,” though she is also there, “her legs suntanned and shapely in pleated Terminix shorts,” having “declared war on household pests.” Babcock laces up the irony, but he also nicely preserves the quivering vulnerability of nostalgia, even nostalgia for a kind of misery, as lonely Bryce, slouched in a 4-H T-shirt, contemplates a teen club where “Everyone else sparkled … They wore lacy stockings, body-hugging tank tops, and cobra-backed blazers scored with canary candystripes,” and the air, it “smelled of deodorant, pickles, and club sandwiches.”
Life evades our plans, eschewing rational pattern, sense. And for this, the logic of cartoons is best suited to helps us cope and carry on. In art, as this novella argues, “there is little to explain …
There is only the urge to forge dissonance, to slap pigments and punch clay, to sculpt expressions of shock and meditative bliss. Time and space? Irrelevant. Probability? A nuisance. What is the distance, say, between Michael Jordan and Michelangelo? Mona Lisa and Mogadishu? Thomas Carlyle and Thomas the Tank Engine? It is the difference between dusk and dawn, paper and ink, creation and destruction. Which is to say, no difference at all.
A Review of May-September
by Jen Michalski
One of two novellas tied for first place in last year’s Press 53 Open Awards competition, Jen Michalski’s May-September is the story of Alice—a young woman with an MFA and a bookstore job, “eager for a handsome reimbursement”—and Sandra—an older woman embarking on a project of posting her memoirs on a blog. This is a story, then, of unlikely love, tenderly traced, and, just as much, of the weight of memory, the relationships that continue in our minds, even (or especially) when we are alone and their time long past.
For Sandra, “The nights were always the worst, when it was darkest and quietest. She couldn’t play the piano because of the neighbors, and all she had were her memories. No matter what she did, she could not make them loud enough in her mind. To fill the dark. She hated that they were so soft, pastel chalks, interrupted by car horns, intestinal distress, her own inexplicable sadness.” For Alice, whose own recent ex is still a physical presence in her life, the sadness is different but no less heavy.
Bringing these two together, Michalski demonstrates a gift for empathy and, more impressively, for pacing. Annoyance turns to longing, to desire, to love. Yet when Alice touches Sandra, she feels the cartilage beneath the flesh; “She thought about how, when she was Sandra’s age, not even Sandra’s age, Sandra would be dead.” Alone in Sandra’s bathroom, undressing, in preparation for what she knows not quiet, Alice finds herself pondering “the Oil of Olay, the prescriptions for osteoporosis, cholesterol. Tylenol. Ex-Lax. Eye drops” in the medicine cabinet, which is to say she opens the medicine cabinet, she searches out and stares these products down. “You are worried because I am so much older,” says Sandra, after a joke about how “it’s always good to check the expiration date,” but “Has it occurred to you that I am worried because you are so much younger?”
Either age is a problem, in the end, and Sandra is forced into the care of her daughter while Alice returns to her mother’s house, to childhood. “It had not been a long time,” Michalski writes, “Them. A few months,” yet May-September seems to make the same claim about all of us, in our leaky, watery bodies, sagging and becoming brittle as we shuffle through our too-temporary existences. It is stories like this that give us useful pause, prompting some reconsideration of what, in the end, might really matter.