BOOK REVIEW: BOUNDLESS, BY JILLIAN TAMAKI (2017)

In her new graphic short story collection, Boundless, Jillian Tamaki explores the ways humans can stretch beyond the bounds of our bodies and minds, and connect with the rest of the universe. Through social media, the imagination, pop culture, weird internet cults, pyramid schemes, appeals to a shared sisterhood, bed bugs, and even, in one story, by disintegrating into nothing/everything.

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Many of the stories are surreal, verging on eerie. Jenny becomes obsessed with a strange phenomenon called “mirror Facebook”–a sort of parallel-universe Facebook where people can find their bizarro doubles, both similar and diametrically different from what they are like in this universe. Helen finds herself literally, physically shrinking a little bit every day. Young people the world over connect through their mania for a “wordless, six-hour atonal drone” titled Sexcoven, mysterious as to its origins and its exact nature. A curse hits a well-loved 80s kids’ fantasy film–over a period of years, some of its actors die in ways reminiscent of their characters’ deaths–as well as a woman’s romantic life, as every single person she dates happens to be a fan of the film.

Some of the stories are more mundane. A woman tries to recruit another woman onto a pyramid scheme for skin care products. A college professor and her new husband, an ex-student of hers, battle bed bugs. A tv writer reminisces about a short-lived tv show he worked on in the 90s, which has found new fans after the episodes were uploaded online. And, at the back of the book, a woman gives a weird TED-like talk about the importance of feeling sadness and pain.

And some are not quite stories, more like flights of fancy. The first chapter stars a woman singing about a “world-class city”, apparently inhabited by sentient tentacles, and people with wings on their chest or skulls instead of heads or octopus backpacks. The final one is told from the points of view of a bird, a squirrel, and a fly.

In the hands of another author, the more surreal stories could have been spooky, unsettling. But the women in Tamaki’s stories are not spooked or unsettled by the strange circumstances they encounter, so neither is the reader. Some are curious and want to figure it out, some are bemused, some a little inconvenienced but they’ll be ok. And the style Tamaki uses to illustrate these stories is simple and cuddly and grounded in reality, a less spectacular but no less charming version of her beautiful work in This One Summer.

In the hands of another author, the more mundane stories could have been too mundane, verging on boring. And, in truth, I didn’t find the one about the bed bugs incredibly compelling, and the one about the tv show was charming but not particularly memorable (except for a recurring panel showing a close-up of the show’s main actress’s smiling face, which is absolutely gorgeous). But the pyramid scheme one–every story in this book is illustrated in a different way, and here Tamaki opts for large black and white panels, usually only one per page, containing images that aren’t always obviously linked to the text–a woman’s naked hip next to some floating spheres, what looks like a scene from a Greek play, the long body of a naked woman curled around a small suckling child–or that are more obviously connected to the text but display some uncanny, over-intense quality–a full-page close-up of a woman, shrouded in darkness; three tall women, soberly embracing; a huge naked baby, dozing in his crib. Paradoxically, the most mundane story becomes the creepiest, strangest one–perhaps it’s a commentary on the cult-like nature of pyramid schemes, or on the almost-religious worship of beauty and female fertility, or perhaps it’s an interesting attempt at representing what the listener sees with her mind’s eye as the would-be recruiter tries to get her on board.

This book will probably not overwhelm you with emotions or earth-shattering concepts. But it will infect you with its quiet curiosity for the stranger aspects of existence and human culture and the universe.

 

 

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