Mimi Pond’s “Over Easy” (2014) made the Times graphic book bestseller list this Spring. “Over Easy” is another portrayal of a young woman working to define herself in a confusion of shifting cultural mores. Pond’s story is set in Oakland, around the same time as the first parts of Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis.” There are more similarities than the time frame, but in “Over Easy,” the risks are different, the scale closer-in. Pond’s theme is the counter-culture revolution. Bit of a pun there, for the stage is the “Imperial Café,” where Madge, like Marji of “Persepolis” an art school dropout, works her way up from dishwasher to waitress. In Madge’s view, the flower children have wilted, and we know what comes next, wintery thorns and fed-up punks and stones and drunks. The tone is set in comic book humor, in turns bawdy and raunchy, tough and touching. There’s less history, a smaller stage, than we find in “Persepolis,” but like Satrapi, Pond is a wit aiming at cultural targets.
I wrote about Marjane Satrapi and graphic writing in a post last week over at The Sultan’s Seal, Youssef Rakha’s blog. Rakha is a journalist and novelist. The Kenyon Review featured an interview with him in their “The KR Conversations” in June 2012. Regular readers of the Toads may note a bit more clarity and less ambiguity in style in my piece on Satrapi, not to mention shorter paragraphs, thanks to some nimble editing, but the dry sentence that skews and curls like the branches of a twisted cedar cypress remains my aim. That is the kind of sentence you don’t often find in graphic writing, though, where brevity of breath is necessary to allow the drawings to speak. Readers expect writers to conform to conventions encased in the style of a recognizable venue. Menu changes at the cafe can be disruptive. But graphic books challenge the experience and definition of literature.
“Over Easy” contains a few sentences that function like concrete poems, a coffee cup twirl, for example – you have to turn the book around in circles to read the sentence, a dizzying effect. And a sentence clothed, literally, in a dress. And another that wafts and waltzes across Oakland. The book is drawn in one color, the pale green of the 50’s and 60’s grammar school classroom. But the pacifying, school purpose green is thwarted by the counter-culture themes. Yet the tone is natural and realistic, in spite of the drug-hazed setting. There’s not much of a plot, unless you consider moving from the café to the bar for an after work beer a plot development. The book succeeds on its characterization and illustrations, and on the strength of the observations and reflections of the main character, Madge. Those reflections are limited though to her immediate environment. There’s not much engagement of life beyond the boundaries of the café. The war is over, and now this. But the close details of life within the café, the walks and bus rides to and from, in which we get a feel for life in Oakland, amid observant comments and informing dialog more than make up for the day-to-day storyboard episodic plot.
The realism and close-in detail of the drawings suggests an affinity with Edward Hopper, a link given the reader by several references in “Over Easy” to Hopper’s work. Hopper was not a cartoonist, but maybe he was, Madge seems to be saying, because the cartoon draws us into an atmosphere of assumptions and signifiers, the effect also of Hopper’s work. The idea of the signifier as a key to understanding Pond’s technique is also made explicit:
“It’s a busy weekend morning, and it’s very crowded. The crowd that piles up waiting for tables is a cavalcade of hipsters. And if you know anything about hipsters, you know that their signifiers tell you everything.”
Hopper’s paintings are significant in one aspect by their focus on the ordinary, the working class, the underclass, and how a crowded urban landscape can hurriedly empty out at night, leaving the focus on the light from a streetlamp or a neon light on a lone person or two, maybe sitting in a café or a bar or a small motel room, or standing on a corner waiting for a late night bus. This can be realism or nostalgia, naturalism or pastiche, and writing about it can lead to complex characters or caricature. Certainly parts of “Over Easy” are exaggerated, usually for comic effect. In places, the satire devolves to farce, particularly with the themes of drugs and sex, where no one seems to burn out and even free love can still be discounted to a quickie in the bathroom off the kitchen counter at the Imperial.
Lazlo, Madge’s boss, has four children, the oldest a 14 year old daughter, but children or old people don’t figure prominently in the book. Each character is well drawn, in illustration and dialog. The strips flow. Madge seems somewhat conservative compared to her peers, thus her attitude reaches toward a kind of desired normalcy based on reactions to her environment. She doesn’t like hippies. She makes fun of Patty Hearst, whose problems surely resulted, Madge thinks, from her choice to be an art history major at Berkeley. There are foil characters, each waitress highlighting another, the cooks playing off one another. Lazlo knows Latin, is “over-educated,” and the book ends with a sudden idea for a poetry reading at the café. The poetry surprises everyone in one way or another. It’s hard to hide behind a poem. Something gets revealed. The book ends in a poetic vision, where poetry is a kind of felt atmosphere that suggests longing and quiet in a particular light.
“Over Easy” is a kind of comedy of manners, or a satire on the comedy of manners. One might assume, given the setting, no manners, but the counter-culture creates its own rules of respectability and values. Besides, Madge says:
“I need approval. I need respect. I want it to be clear: I’m not just a waitress.”
She is an artist, but she wants recognition in some established venue.
How should a story be told? Madge’s observations are keen, the interior of a bar, for example, “lit only by the juke box.” In another example, the Hopper like details convey tone and atmosphere and signify or trigger assumptions as Madge describes her rented, old house (which in today’s gentrified markets she couldn’t afford to rent):
“In these old houses, you will find, on old paint-flaked windowsills…tiny bronze hands, dried rosebuds, crystals, dead butterflies, heart-shaped rocks…old medicine bottles….”
Gentrification removes those items from the house and replaces them with a real Edward Hopper hanging from a refinished wall. Where does Madge get the idea that to be a waitress is to be “just a waitress?” Like Marji’s predicament in “Persepolis,” there are parents still at work in the background of one’s influences. Is the graphic book the recognition Madge was looking for as a waitress? Is the graphic novel gentrifying into literature?
“Over Easy,” by Mimi Pond. Published by Drawn & Quarterly, April 2014. 271 pages in a sturdy hardcover edition, thick paper, sewn and bound.