Monday, 14 July 2014

Book Club Report - Shortcomings by Adrian Tomine: Gender, Identity, Sexual Politics and Whining


Questions on Adrian Tomine's Shortcomings

Our Book Club met recently to discuss Adrian Tomine's Shortcomings. We all had very diverse opinions on the book. I personally did not like it, but in a way, it kept me wanting to rip it apart panel by panel to discover why. In my case, it was more visceral than anything. Others thought it was a well-thought out study on identity and sexual politics; some others felt the main character was such a whiner it was difficult to take anything he did seriously. I thought it would be easier to come up with some questions on the book rather than do a full book club report like I did on Dotter of her Father's Eyes. The goal being to foster discussion and help other book clubs who may wish to have a fruitful discussion on the book. In no particular order below:
  • How does the page layout affect the reading of the story? Does the inflexibility of the layout (its 7 to 9 panels per page) represent the inability of the protagonist to accept change? We were all quite aware that Tomine does not normally play with structure. Is it a conscious choice in this to mirror the protagonist's ineptitude to evolve?
  • Is it offensive that the book depicts Alice, Ben Tanaka's friend, as a sex-addicted lesbian? Does this character feel like a cliché as depicted by a male?
  • Is it offensive that the bisexual character of Sasha feels like a real character or is this one of Tomine's weird sexual fantasies?
  • Why is this a graphic novel? Tomine's theme suggests an affinity with the literary. So does Tomine wish to write, but illustrate instead? 
  • Does the pacing in the first chapter of the book affect the reading of the book? Segments begin abruptly in the middle of a page without any signs of transitions (7th panel on p.13, 7th panel on p.17, 7th panel on p.22, 8th panel on p.27). Is the lack of transitions too jarring? Is it clunky? It happens less and less as the story progress; was Tomine refining his work as he wrote his single issues?
  • Is Tomine writing a thinly veiled movie screenplay? Is this a graphic novel or a movie screenplay? 
  • Why was Ben Tanaka so attached to Berkeley? 
  • Does your appreciation of the book depend on your knowledge of identity in second and third generation immigrants in the US?
  • Does Ben Tanaka get upset at Miko for her betrayal or because he finally recognizes Miko's sexuality after he lost her?
  • Can the reader distinguish between the statement made about race and those made by the characters themselves? Is it really a book about ethnicity or single-mindedness?
  • Is Tomine's underlying theme that one's ethnic background matters? That denying your identity and heritage will make you unhappy?
  • By refusing to address ethnicity, is Ben Tanaka refusing to also aknowledge his own problems?
  • Does the book want to address acceptance of third generation immigrants in the social fabric of America? About how sexuality can act as a way to neutralize and suppress ethnicity? Or is it only about a whining man-child unable to deal with life?
  • Does the final page explain the rigidity of the page layout? 

There is much more that could be said about the book, but the bulk of our conversations centered around those. Can we recommend this book? We most certainly would. It is a deeply flawed book and brings its fair share of discussion. Shortcomings is a very interesting read in spite of its many problems. 

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