A Mess of Everything |
by Miss Lasko-Gross (Fantagraphics, 2009)
The sequel to Escape from "Special", A Mess of Everything picks up where the previous volume left off. Many of the elements established in the first book permeate this follow-up. Lasko-Gross utilizes the same short-story techniques; i.e. telling stories in one or two page shorts, which is the style that worked best for her in her first collection. Whether written as links in a chain-like narrative or read as stand-alone, the shorts are used to even greater effect this time around, with the stories becoming much more pointed. But there's a good reason for it: Melissa, who calls herself "Miss" as a nickname and not as an honorific, is now in the gladiator arena known as high school. And when you're smart and a bit eccentric like Miss, you have to put an enormous amount of energy into just being on guard.
Lasko-Gross's spare, crisp writing has lost none of its flavor, while her ability to delineate mood is only improving, along with her talent for capturing human, lived perspective. The short stories carry the narrative along in sharp bursts. Basically, Miss is trying to grow up and is doing the best she can with what she has. Her support system consists of her confused parents and a handful of friends who aren't exactly the pick of the litter. Not that her parents don't love her; they are just a bit too new agey, not always able to understand how to help or discipline. As a result, she's kind of on her own.
Which explains the experiences she has, some of which are hilarious and some of which are downright dangerous, as she wanders maybe a bit too far from the norm in her search for something exciting to do. The suburbs have a way of draining the life out of a person, which is why Miss, for lack of anything better to challenge her, delves into some questionable adventures. Miss makes no apologies for her experiences, presenting them unvarnished. By doing so she shows us who she really is. For all she may be angry and even a bit repugnant on the outside, she is, on the inside, a caring, loving person who is willing to take on a bit of pain for a friend's sake, is willing to look stupid to prove a point and somehow manages not to fall over the edge into hard-core drug addiction even when no one would blame her for doing so. She isn't just smart, she's got a soul as well.
This could easily be a typical "teen misfit" story, as it does follow a certain template along those lines. But Miss is clever enough to know that these days even "rebel" is a category. Knowing what is expected of her in that category, she instead goes against every expectation. She wants to fit in but she wants to be accepted for who she is, not for how she has reshaped her personality in order to fit in. What gets her through is her strong sense of who she is. Her greatest achievement is the way she learns to prize her individuality, using it to protect her from the onslaught of messages that tell her she's weird looking, that she doesn't fill out the profile of "normal."
At some points the ennui is too much and Miss must literally try to find the will to live. She doesn't always choose the right friends, who tend to be in downward spirals in ways that have the potential to drag her with them. Between the drug experimentation and the shoplifting, not to mention hanging around in bad neighborhoods with her friend's gun-wielding boyfriend, there are moments where it's not a question of fitting in so much as a question of whether or not she will actually survive without being killed, raped or arrested, all of which become dangerously real possibilities at one point or another. Yet she handles it all, emerging from the other side of chaos into a school where her honesty and compassion are finally rewarded, her friends are no longer a weight on her shoulders and her sense of individuality will be at least acknowledged.
The art is still wonderful and still "dark," with washed-out blues and grays the dominant color scheme, lending a pale, deathly pallor to most of the people in Miss's life. The darkness is a very rich darkness, with highly detailed backgrounds that correspond emotionally to the scene. There are occasional splashes of color, especially the cover, which is perhaps the most colorful thing about the book. The moody washes fit the moving, emotionally charged plot quite well. The facial expressions are quite unique, and the bodies are caricatures, but they are the most natural looking caricatures I have yet seen. The minimalist approach suits the tense, melancholy material quite well, her fluid style seamlessly combining realism and abstraction into a neat hybrid.
This is a great story for anyone but especially for kids like Miss who feel like a stranger in a strange land. It's not a survival guide so much as an indicator that surviving high school is actually possible and that if you keep true to who you really are, your individuality will also remain intact. If Miss Lasko-Gross keeps being the great writer and artist she is then it's to be hoped we'll see a lot more of her.
6 February 2010
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