Casey reviews Shortcomings by Adrian Tomine

I’ve had a copy of Adrian Tomine’s beautifully drawn graphic novel Shortcomings (2007) around for quite a while; when I was working at a bookstore a few years ago I borrowed it, accidentally spilt coffee on it, and ended up having to buy it.  Until I recently reread it, I didn’t really think of it as a queer book, but I’m realizing now that it actually has a lot of interesting and controversial things to say about sexuality, especially in relation to race and gender.  I don’t use the word controversial lightly: many of the things the characters in this novel say are decidedly un-PC and will probably offend some people.  I don’t think the actual book is offensive, though, because I think it’s clear that the author’s perspective is not the characters’.  Also, many of the suspect opinions are repudiated within the novel itself.  I do, however, think that Tomine’s strategy to allow these politically incorrect things to come out of his characters’ mouths is a useful way to interrogate assumptions about sexuality, race, and gender, especially those parts of them that we tend to tiptoe around.  In other words, you see characters say certain things that you know a lot of people think but wouldn’t usually dare say out loud.

The person who does this the most in Shortcomings is the main character Ben Tanaka.  Let me get this out of the way: Ben is not a likable character.  He’s a bitter, cynical, pathetic thirty-year-old who manages a university movie theatre and is in an unhappy relationship.  His best friend, Alice Kim, is a dyke with a firm belief in telling it like it is; she’s a grad student constantly neglecting her studies to hit on each year’s “incoming freshwomyn” (her goal is to make out with “at least a hundred” women before she gets her Ph.D).  She’a great foil for Ben, constantly making fun of him but also pushing him to move outside of his comfort zone.  When Ben and his girlfriend Miko are on a ‘break’ later on in the novel, and Ben is trying to hook up with this white woman he works with, Alice warns him “If you hang out with her one more time and don’t make a move, be prepared to be banished to ‘neutered Asian friend’ territory forever!”  All the dialogue in the comic is fantastic and authentic to that aesthetic of late twenties Californians, but Alice is particularly hilarious.

Despite the fact she’s a big player on campus, it turns out Alice is actually not out to her family, and she drags Ben as her pretend boyfriend to her parents’ Korean Christian church, switching her usual plaid shirt and jeans for straight drag (a dress and pearl necklace).  Side note: I really appreciate how Tomine actually makes her look like a butch dyke, especially one that’s not skinny and is kind of short; I’ve never seen a character like her in a comic, ever.  While explaining that her parents are not going to like him because he’s Japanese (“does the phrase ‘world war two’ ring a bell with you?”), Ben recaps: “so rapists and pillagers are preferable to homos.”  Yes, she confirms: “Everything is preferable to homos.”

While the main narrative is focused on Ben and his romantic problems (especially when he finds out his girlfriend has fallen for a “rice king,” aka a white dude who likes Asian women), his friendship with Alice plays a large part in the story.  Later on, we watch Alice finally find a woman she doesn’t get tired of after a week, and the novel ends—spoiler alert—with the straight guy alone and miserable and the lesbian happy with Meredith, her “total dream girl.”  Nice to see that for a change, eh?  Also, their romantic quests becomes intertwined for a while after Alice brings Ben to a dyke party and he meet a bisexual woman, Sasha, whom Alice affectionately/offensively calls “the fence-sitter” and a “trendy dabbler.” Sasha is pretty cool, though, so she doesn’t put up with Ben’s bullshit for long, especially when he explains that Asian men are looking at them with “white girl envy” and blames her bisexuality when she wants to stop seeing him.

The novel asks some difficult questions: is having a sexual type—especially one that is racially specific—inherently problematic?  Can racial minorities escape oppression and exploitation they’re attracted to/involved with white people?  What is the relationship between being attracted to masculinity and/or femininity and male and female bodies?  How can we separate our desires from the unavoidable racism and misogyny that we grow up with that inform our ideas of what is attractive?  How can you tell you’re *really* attracted to someone regardless of race or gender presentation?  Is that even possible?  The way Shortcomings goes about asking these questions is sometimes unsettling, at best; but I’m not sure I can agree entirely with Meredith, who tells Ben “If you dig deep enough into anyone’s sexuality, you’re bound to find something you’d rather not examine too closely.  But what’s the point in picking it apart?  It is what it is.”  I mean, that’s what humans do, right?  Especially, perhaps, if you’re queer.

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