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Optic Nerve: Shortcomings s/c

Optic Nerve: Shortcomings s/c back

Adrian Tomine


Page 45 Review by Stephen

Have you ever known a couple who are plain bad for each other? A couple who seem perfectly capable of being fun and friendly apart, but who really shouldn't be together because one's constantly winding the other up?

Ben and Miko are one such couple, except that Ben's not so good at the fun bit. Fractious, judgemental, and constantly critical, Ben thinks he's an iconoclast but he's more of an inconsiderate snob. There's no "off" button in his tirade of opinionated diatribes, the result of a boiling well of hang-ups and prejudices he ascribes to others, particularly when it comes to race and relationships, sex and sexuality. Ben, you see, is Asian-American and size in particular matters to him. Here's Ben wishing he never mentioned it to his best friend, Alice:

"Can we talk about something else?"
"Come on. I'm curious."
"Look... stereotypes don't just materialize out of thin air, okay? Haven't you ever heard that stupid joke? Uh... "What's the difference between Asian and Caucasian men?"
"I wouldn't know."
""The Cauc.""
"I actually heard a girl tell that joke in college! I was standing right there and she - "
"Okay, okay... How small are we talking here? In inches."

Alice is the perfect puncture to Ben's obsessive neuroses. Armed with a quick, dry wit, she too is Asian-American but with a Korean heritage rather than a Japanese one, and has absolutely no qualms about or difficulties in successfully flirting with every girl in sight. She just gets on with it. Ben, on the other hand, can't even talk to another girl without making presumptions about "types" or look at a mixed-race couple without analysing their hidden agendas in being together, as if love of one unique individual for another couldn't possibly form the sole and simple equation. His girlfriend, Miko, isn't immune to this either and, as an American Asian, feels personally affronted by his evident predilection for white girls. Their relationship's in a downward spiral because they seem to care neither for nor about each other, and when Miko is offered an internship at the Asian-American Independent Film Institute for four months in New York, all Ben can think about is himself.

"Four months? Are you kidding me?"
"I know... but it's an amazing opportunity."
"Well, forget it."
"What are you talking about?"
"It seems like an amazing opportunity because it's in New York."
"God... I hate the way everyone in The Bay area worships New York! Trust me: it's highly over-rated."
"Look... there's no way I'm moving to New York for four months, okay?"
"I know. I wasn't really asking you to."

So it is that Miko moves, leaving Ben behind on the understanding that they're taking "time off". But when Alice visits Brooklyn to clear her head, she discovers something that Ben needs to see for himself...

Over the course of three chapters, Tomine delivers a perfectly observed exploration of young, complex and conflicted individuals in conversation as they try - or don't try - to relate to each other and the world at large. The dialogue's rhythm is as natural as its language, and the exchanges are as realistic as the inconsistencies they reveal.

The crisp art is stylish and tender, the thoughts behind the eyes and mouths subtly evoked by a sly line here or a deft one there. It's such an attractive read not least because - I don't know how many critics comment on this element of Tomine's work - it's actually very funny, and however harsh Miko and Ben can be to each other, Tomine's never harsh to them. He's always been a sympathetic observer of human nature, whatever its flaws and foibles, far less cynical than some of his peers.

My one regret about the softcover is that it has eradicated the funny and very telling joke hidden under the hardcover’s dust jacket. It involved Ben’s biggest hang-up, most physical shortcoming, and a ruler. Oh, you’ve all done, it guys!