September 12th, 2011
Being the third of three posts on Carla Speed McNeil’s “aboriginal science fiction” comic Finder…
‘Well, enjoy yourself Lise,’ says the voice on the telephone. Send me a card.
‘Oh, of course,’ Lise says, and when she has hung up she laughs heartily. She does not stop. She goes to the wash-basin and fills a glass of water, which she drinks, gurgling, then another. She has stopped laughing, and now breathing heavily says to the put telephone, ‘Of course. Oh, of course.’
(Muriel Spark, The Driver’s Seat)
I’ve never made a secret of the fact that I hate bildungsromans, but I’m not sure if I hate them because they suggest that life can follow a neatly conclusive trajectory and mine’s hasn’t, or if my life hasn’t followed a neat trajectory because I hate bildungsromans. Either way, I found myself sizing up Finder: Voice and feeling even more cynical than I did when I first encountered the front piece to Finder: Talisman.
Thankfully, from the cover on in, Voice is a little bit more complicated than that:
Carla Speed McNeil notes in her annotations that this cover was “an attempt at a “window” image, something simple and gnomic which would sum up the story” – as such, it makes sense that it’s paradoxical, with the connotations inherent in the title butting up against everything about image. This tightly cropped picture doesn’t suggest, as it easily might, that you’re about to read the story of a young woman looking to find her voice in order to find her true self. Even squashed into the centre of the page and decorously framed (and I’m sure there’s no intended resonance there, given the baroque social rituals that fill the pages of the comic itself), it’s too strong, too controlled for that.
Instead, what you have is a silent shout, a pose designed to give voice to something that cannot be said, to suggest a strength that is contingent on its remaining secret.
Here’s McNeil in her annotations, again:
Comics work in sequence, so selection of images for covers is often at odds with the type of art they are meant to represent. I try to do something that says, “If you stick with it long enough to figure out what this means, it’ll be worth it.”
Well, shit. I think it was worth it, but I don’t know that I would’ve fully appreciated quite how this image has to say if I hadn’t actually gone and read the bloody thing…
So: let’s talk about the story then. It most certainly is a bildungsroman, but thankfully it veers off the beaten path almost straight away. I really shouldn’t have worried that it was going to be too straightforward, after my previous experiences with the book, but what can I say – I’m nothing if not overly cautious.
The narrative Carla Speed McNeil develops in Finder: Voice isn’t a literal sequential equivalent of the cover image but a spiritual one. In this coming-of-age story, the further Rachel Grosvenor goes to try and secure her place in her clan, the more obvious it becomes that no difficult journeys are being carefully navigated here, and that very little is being learned that could be taught to a Higher English class. Of course, any maps made in this world would have to be so busy as to be almost chaotic, but here it feels more like all maps are badly rendered, and that the scales are all wrong.
Possibly best to examine a handful of places, or a handful of panels, and hope that a the book’s true geography starts to suggest itself as we go on…
She will be found tomorrow morning dead from multiple stab-wounds, her wrists bound with a silk scarf and her ankles bound with a man’s necktie, in the grounds of an empty villa, in a park of the foreign city to which she is travelling on the flight now boarding at gate 14.
(Murial Spark, The Driver’s Seat)
Matt Brady made a lot of great points about how expressive McNeil’s character drawing is in his review of the book, but he didn’t spend any time on this image:
You never see Rachel with quite such a gleefully dirty smile on her face anywhere else in the book, but somehow the look she’s wearing here still doesn’t feel “out of character” in the slightest. And isn’t that one of the marks of true artistry in characterisation – to be able to deviate from the established template of your character without somehow ruining the illusion?
Actually, Rachel looks a little boyish here, doesn’t she? Fuzzy gender distinctions play a large part in the gossipy politics of Rachel’s clan, so this is quite a curious resonance, even if it is probably an accidental one. You see, as any experienced Finder reader would be able to tell you, the Llaverac clan all have breasts and present as female regardless of gender.
Here’s Rachel strutting her stuff and looking all the more uncomfortable for it:
Given that the entry contests seem so focused on exaggerated ideas of femininity, it’s funny that Rachel’s ability to achieve full clan membership is cast into doubt when she is mugged and deprived of a ring, a family heirloom. It’s a superficial loss – even more superficial than the glitz and glamour of the pageants themselves – but that very superficiality seems to be what the Llaverac’s prize most of all…
From my notes for the next bit of this essay: “At this point, veer away from one sort of superficiality only to crash right into another – and keep on making thematic exposition out of plot synopsis!” – does that sound like a plan to anyone else?
Didn’t think so. Moving on…
In a desperate attempt to recover this ring, Rachel tries to track down Jaeger, the hairy-chested Finder/Sin Eater of Finder: Sin Eater whose ragged freedom provides McNeil’s fiction with a model for its relentless drive.
This seems like it should be a perfect expression of the joyous appeal of aboriginal science fiction, as McNeil has so vividly explained it, but it turns out that it’s harder to stay wide-eyed when the strange territory you’re exploring contains crisply-realised violence of the sort that haunts the darkest corners of Jamie Hernandez’s comics:
Either despite or because of the blaring sound effects, there’s something properly banal and depressing about this image. It conveys the horrible sense of flesh battering flesh, and makes you question what sort of dramatic “completion” Rachel might find in the story she’s chosen for herself…
‘It is in my mind,’ says Mrs Fiedke; ‘it is in my mind and I can’t think of anything else but that you and my nephew are meant for each other. As sure as anything, my dear, you are the person for my nephew. Somebody has got to take him on, anyhow, that’s plain.’
(Muriel Spark, The Driver’s Seat)
Of course, there is a destination here, in the end, but the way its arrived at is every bit as paradoxical as the cover image. What we have in Finder: Voice is the a story of a young woman who finds empowerment essentially by surrendering to her powerlessness – and if that set you off a-worrying about the gender politics, then hey, you’re not alone! Still, it’s not like any of this is accidental or anything. There’s a poignant scene in the middle of the book where, having been threatened, stalked and arrested without getting any closer to her goal, Rachel starts to lay into herself in a spectacular fashion:
If Jaeger was here, he’d know what to do. How to act. Drugwhore or Police Chief, he’d know what to say. He’d be safe, even without having to fight. I want to be like that.
I just don’t trust my own judgement. I don’t know why.
All of this, it turns out, is apropos of the fact that she was molested as a child. The fact that Rachel uses this an explanation for her lack of faith in her own judgement is telling. “I know, I know I can’t blame myself for something I did when I was eight” she says, still somehow managing to imply that she even as she points to her own innocence.
HOWEVER: Hidden behind the misplaced self-loathing, the self-effacement, and the weird mix of lust and nostalgia for Jaeger is another point, one that it’s easy to miss when you first stagger into the shady heart of the book. You see, what Rachel is really looking for is the freedom (from gender, class and social expectations) to get lost, to fuck up, to make mistakes on her own terms. She’s looking for the freedom to chose, which is also the freedom to fail, and in doing so she stumbles through a drunken Picasso mirage…
…before reverting back to the accepted social resolution in just the right exhausted outsider pose to bluff her way into acceptance, dodgy ring and spurious gossip about who’s packing what sort of sexual organs in hand.
Of course, it could have all ended differently – and it still might, since one of the best things about Finder is that McNeil loves to play with the fact that every transformative moment is just a footnote in another story – but this isn’t a story about helplessness, even if it might occasionally feel that way.
‘The last time you lost control of yourself didn’t you take the woman for a drive in the country?’
‘But this one took me. She made me go. She was driving. I didn’t want to go. It was only by chance that I met her.’
(Muriel Spark, The Driver’s Seat)
This three part series was originally conceived as a single post, “Place Position: Finder In Five Panels” – in this post, I was going to take Sean Collins’ assertion that “Not every comic, and certainly not every cartoonist’s entire career, can be sussed out from a single panel in “as below, so above” fashion” as my starting point, with the joke being:
“Well, maybe you can’t do that from one panel, but let’s see what we can do with five!“
I might still write a piece like that, and who knows, it might even be about Finder! But the further I got into that essay the more obvious it became that I was totally lost, that I didn’t know what points I was trying to make about Finder, and that my “clever” rebuke to Collins’ comment was pretty much meaningless.
This pretty much always happens when I try to write out of my comfort zone, so I persevered with it for a while in the hope that it would all come together. It didn’t, so I ended up writing this hot mess instead. Except, well… maybe this post isn’t actually that much of a mess. All of this verbal wandering is definitely in the spirit of Finder: Voice, after all!
Sometimes you just can’t convince yourself or the world that your grand plans are worth listening to. Sometimes you just can’t make maps work for you either, and that’s not just a pain in the arse, it can be tragic too, if you end up wandering into the wrong neighbourhood. But sometimes, just sometimes, it turns out it’s better that way.
Thank fuck, then, for controlled experiments in disorientation. Thank fuck for comics, for rambling essays on comics, and for opportunities to get lost in the comfort of your own home…