Absent Figures in the Frame

By Min Hyoung SongNovember 7, 2015

Absent Figures in the Frame

Killing and Dying by Adrian Tomine

THE COVER of Killing and Dying shows a starkly rendered street scene. It is mundane but at the same time so precisely rendered that it feels revelatory. It is done, moreover, in a style that readers familiar with the work of Adrian Tomine can easily pick out as his. There are the well-known brands plastered on roadside signs — the happy red and yellow of Denny’s and the ultra-stylized red dot within a red circle of Target. The light inside the distinctive midcentury rhomboid shape of the Denny’s restaurant is lit in a cheery yellow while the pink of the setting sun gives the street a golden-hour feel. The cars are nondescript and impersonal. No figures are visible through opaque windows. Only the headlights seem to suggest, somehow, some kind of motion. A lone tree interrupts our line of sight almost at the middle of the cover, while the stark silhouette of a palm tree on the right mimics its shape and gives it a sinister twist. There are no pedestrians nor, for that matter, is there any suggestion of humans occupying this space. The scene is at once so familiar and so strange that it conjures the strong likelihood that bad things are about to happen. What these bad things might be is intimated by the title, which dominates the cover in inch-tall white lettering. The two words, “killing” and “dying,” promise hard-boiled crimes committed by tough guys and hardened gals, characters as likely to lose their own lives as to take those of others.

Given such expectations, it’s disorienting to read the first of the six stories that comprise this collection. A painfully funny tale about a gardener who wants to found a new school of sculpture, it is drawn in a loose, almost cartoonish style. The lines are rounded, the details are minimal, and the depth of the pictures flat in the way Sunday comics are flat. The drawings lack the kind of draftsman-like precision that Tomine is known for, whether in his covers for The New Yorker or in the drawings found in his long-running series Optic Nerve. The second story returns us, visually, to what we might expect from Tomine’s art, but it’s noticeable that the colors are vibrant pastels. The title pages face each other, the title of the story centered on each page in mirror apposition, the one on the left pink and the one on the right white. This contrast calls attention to the pink, which is a color that Tomine uses extensively in the story itself. When a character gets into a fist fight, for example, the words “Pop,” “Wham,” and so on float in the air in pink balloon lettering with black borders. Such use of color has a way of softening the sharp edges of the images, a softness that is further accentuated by the rounded curves of the characters’ faces. Each story that follows features similarly unique stylistic touches.

This level of self-conscious experimentation says something, I suspect, about where Tomine is in the arc of his career. He’s already a highly successful cartoonist with nothing to prove. Unlike, say, the book-length narrative of Shortcomings, whose protagonist seems unable to leave his childhood behind, these stories feature characters who are much older. Pushing middle age, they are forced to reckon with the messes they’ve made of their lives, and are being asked by every sharp turn of Tomine’s plots to take responsibility for what they have become and what they are becoming. The drawings reflect a style of storytelling that is serious, mature, and mindful of how art becomes differently meaningful as one gets older. Maybe this is the theme that Tomine means to foreground in the first story, in which the gardener spends years defiantly chasing his dream of becoming an artist. No criticism seems harsh enough to deter him, but at the end, looking at the sculptures he’s put up on his front lawn in defiance of the homeowners association letters requiring him to take them down, he exclaims in a moment of lucidity, “Jesus fucking Christ, those things are hideous.”

Contrary to what we might expect, this moment reverberates not as a self-critique of Tomine’s own artwork, but as a sign of how exquisitely self-aware he is as an artist. He is the opposite of the gardener in the sense that each image and reference seems to mean something more than the story itself is telling us. Tomine’s experimentation with style, then, could be understood, at the most basic level, as an invitation to pay attention to what’s there on the page. We are being asked to see the details, and to wonder at the ways in which they complicate the story that’s being told.

Nowhere is this last point more in evidence than in the story that shares the name of the volume. The fifth story in the collection, it is also the most ambitious and detailed. It begins with a frustratingly negative dad who too easily gets angry at his wife for being supportive of their daughter. The daughter, who is painfully shy and stutters when she speaks, wants to be a stand-up comedian. The father opposes this choice. When asked why, he says with the brutal honesty that is a trademark of Tomine’s narratives, “I’m opposed to embarrassment.” Undeterred, the mother signs the daughter up for a comedy class. The class ends with a show, and both parents are amazed to find that their daughter is good. Really good. All seems well until the daughter’s teacher lets slip that he is the one who wrote the jokes. The daughter had only spoken them. The group’s celebratory dinner is awkward, to say the least.

The story unfurls in a series of small panels, each neatly bordered into perfect rectangles. There are 20 per page. The quotidian family drama plays out in these confines, the number of identical panels stretching out each moment and making them painfully long. Reading the first few pages feels like being seated at a Denny’s next to a family who can’t stop fighting with each other. We don’t want to overhear, but we overhear every word and wince at how uncomfortable they make us feel. It’s only when the story reaches the daughter’s performance that, at least for a moment, the reader is allowed a sense of relief — albeit one that’s almost immediately taken away.

But of course this refusal is where the story has been going all along. When the parents arrive at their daughter’s show, the mother is wearing a kerchief on her head and walking with the assistance of a cane. When I saw this, I had to look back at the earlier pages and wonder at the depictions of the mother, who seems happy and full of cheek and in many ways more full of life than her husband or daughter. The only detail that might suggest something is askew is her short hair. This is not a very telling detail, since lots of women wear their hair short. Of course, some of the women who wear their hair short are also in the early stages of being treated for cancer. The restaurant scene ends with the mother holding her daughter in a hug. A blank panel follows. Then, the mother is completely gone. Time has passed. There’s only the father and the daughter, and they’re eating pizza. The father wonders out loud if he should have also made salad for dinner. The daughter reassures him that the pizza alone is fine. They don’t have much else to say to each other. It’s clear at this point that the mother has died, most likely of cancer, even though no one in the story ever says the words. The only indications that something was wrong with the mother’s health were the kerchief and the cane. At this point in the story, I thought I finally understood how much Tomine had played with my expectations. The killing and dying of the title doesn’t refer to crime. They refer to the fact that the mother in this story is dying, and that the daughter was “killing it” in her comedy routine. Rather than something sinister or awful, the killing is a contrast to the dying, something happy that offsets the terrible sadness of what’s happening in the story’s background.

If this sounds sappy, it is, and Tomine refuses to have any part of something so sentimental. The story ends with the daughter appearing on an improv stage, her performance disastrous, to say the least. No reader should expect a happy ending in Tomine’s fiction. In this respect, the ending of the story is both more and less awful that it could be, since the father who saw his daughter humiliated in front of an increasingly hostile audience pretends not to have been there and allows her a face-saving lie.

What has always intrigued me about Tomine’s fiction is the absent-present role that race plays in the stories he chooses to tell. Tomine is part of a growing number of Asian American writers and creative artists who have focused their talent on telling a wide variety of stories. These stories don’t always have an Asian American character at their center, and in some instances don’t have any Asian American characters at all. Rather, they seem focused on practicing what the literary scholar Stephen Sohn calls, in his recent book Racial Asymmetries: Asian American Fictional Worlds, “strategic anti-essentialism.” Just because they are Asian American does not mean, in other words, that writers and creative artists have to focus all of their energy on telling stories about Asian Americans. They can, but they can direct their energies in other directions as well.

A crude assessment of the drawings and the details found in the six stories that make up Killing and Dying suggests that four of the stories are about white characters. A fifth seems to be about a black man, but this is based on only the images and nothing explicit in the storytelling. A sixth story begins in Tokyo and ends in Oakland, but because it is told in disembodied images of cityscapes, objects, and human figures seen either from a distance or with their backs turned toward us, it’s impossible to determine anything about the race of the narrator. What this means is that the one story that seems narratively to fit a story about Asian immigrants (although the story makes explicit that the trip consists of a return to the United States rather than a first voyage) stylistically refuses to give us a visual representation of the characters involved. This seems like a deliberate choice designed to call attention to the absence of Asians and Asian Americans among the book’s protagonists more generally.

And yet, despite such purposeful elisions, the book from other angles goes out of its way to foreground the issue of race. In the first story, the gardener Harold is inspired to become a sculptor after reading a book by Isamu Noguchi, the modernist artist and landscape architect who may be best known for having designed the Noguchi coffee table. Noguchi also made substantial contributions to the development of gardening as an art form. It’s certainly not surprising that Harold would be drawn to Noguchi, since the artist offers Harold a way of reimagining what the opening panels depict as a physically laborious and not very respected job into something more refined. At the same time, Tomine must certainly have been aware that Noguchi’s father is the famous poet Yone Noguchi, who lived for many years in the United States and was celebrated in his time for the contributions he made to both American and Japanese literature. Because Yone’s work does not deal as directly with the experiences of Asian immigrants to the United States as that of other writers of his time, his status as an Asian American writer has seemed to many critics to be a slippery one. How fitting, then, that Tomine begins Killing and Dying with Harold reading a quotation by Isamu. The quotation not only speaks to Harold’s yearning to be an artist; it also aligns this yearning with an important if not easily categorizable family of Asian American creative artists. Despite the physical absence of Asian Americans, that is, the question of what role they play in the making of American culture remains decidedly on the table.

Then, too, we might note that Harold’s wife is black. This story registers this detail, again, visually rather than verbally, and the wife’s race doesn’t play any direct role in what follows. But the inclusion of this detail suggests that race plays a larger role in the many layers of Tomine’s storytelling than might at first appear to be the case. Throughout the book, if we look closely enough, we find that many of the background characters are recognizably black and Asian. Other characters are racially ambiguous enough that they could be white or some other ethnicity, which points not only to the diversity of the world these stories create but also how resolutely they refuse simplistic categorization.

There is, finally, one last turn of the plot in the story “Killing and Dying” that I feel the need to return to, because it very intentionally returns us to the topic of race in a way that has not been so explicit before. Before the daughter appears on stage at the improv theater, a black comedian tells a provocative joke that involves the n-word. As the daughter flounders on stage, trying desperately to connect with the audience, she responds to a black heckler by saying, “But I g-g-guess it’s OK to t-t-tell a bunch of ‘n-word’ jokes, right?” Unfortunately for her, the audience member is a different black man than the comedian who had just been on the stage. Not much more is made of this exchange, but it lingers as part of what makes her performance so mortifying to witness. As she tries to explain away her faux pas, Tomine shows her father tucked behind a doorway, hunched down, his eyes closed. In the midst of his grief for his wife, he also finds himself grieving for his daughter and, through this moment, for a present so full of inequality and loss and racial tension it becomes difficult to tell whom we should be angry at and whom we should simply pity.


Min Hyoung Song is the author of the award-winning The Children of 1965: On Writing, and Not Writing, as an Asian American and Strange Future: Pessimism and the 1992 Los Angeles Riots. He is a professor of English at Boston College.

LARB Contributor

Min Hyoung Song is the author of the award-winning The Children of 1965: On Writing, and Not Writing, as an Asian American and Strange Future: Pessimism and the 1992 Los Angeles Riots, as well as co-editor of the forthcoming Cambridge History of Asian American Literature. He is a professor of English at Boston College.


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