3.06.2010

The Problem With Being a Raina


I have had a number of friends read Blankets by Craig Thompson lately, and LOVE it. I read it this morning - it was a beautiful book, technically precise, carefully balanced, perfectly tuned. But I didn't enjoy it. This isn't to say I didn't APPRECIATE it, because I did. It was a wonderful book - if they book was less well done, I would have enjoyed it more, probably. As it was, with all things to tell the truth, it is only fun to read if the truth is something you'd like to know.

If you haven't read Blankets, and you don't like spoilers, stop reading. Seriously. It is a wonderful book, and you should read it. THEN come back and talk to me about it. This isn't a review, so it will do a poor job of protecting your ability to enjoy reading the book the first time.

The real beauty of Blankets, to me, was that, more than any of the comics I've read so far, this book did a pitch perfect job of combining art and text in a meaningful, surprising way. This book is, in my mind, the reason that graphic novels shoudl be written - because art and words both have their own unique power, and the synergy of those two powers creates something neither could create on its own. The most striking example in the book for me is the way Craig visualizes Raina.

The climax of Craig's relationship with Raina comes, for me, on page 337. In a playful/serious allegory, we see Craig as an Eastern Monk, kneeling before a shrine where the idol of his Muse, Raina, sits cross legged like a Buddha, surrounded by vestal fires, and by the curling shapes of Indian patterns. Look closely for a minute at those patterns - because they recur, over and over. Look, first, at the symbol of their relationship, the blanket that appears on page 182-183:


But, again, this theme isn't just something that shows up here and there. The paisley in particular (for me at least) raises it's head over and over as he thinks of her. Shadows of it, of the curve versus the angular, appear in their first meetings, intensifying as they get to their intimate quiet moment underneath the basketball hoop.  The psalm on 310-311 is another beautifully realized, and very brazen appearance. The sex scene on 420-423 devolves to the point where the very frames of the comic have a paisley-esque fluidity, and her body itself seems to struggle to curve - the movement towards orgasm is, for me at least a continuous effort of him to wrap himself around that pattern, to work his own slouched angularity into the Eastern curvaceousness that he imagines of her.

But there's the problem. And don't get me wrong, this is totally realistic. But there are two Rainas in this book: Raina the goddess-muse-angel, and Raina the woman. The book is from Craig's point of view, and Craig sees what he needs to see - in his noble naivete, he sees what Raina could be, perhaps. But she isn't. She's a human. She fails to be a goddess, over, and over, and over. Amanda, when she read it, said she just didn't get Raina, like it seemed like she was always changing her mind. I understand Raina, I connected with her in a way that I was incapable of connecting with Craig: because I've been that person. And what she does makes perfect sense - only what she does and what Craig SEES her doing are very, very different things.

In the end, for me, that's what the book ended up being about - the moment where you learn that someone isn't what you thought. And that's why I didn't enjoy it. It was uncomfortable, because I have no idea what it is like to fall in love with someone and find out they don't exist - I had the good fortune to marry a Craig - someone who is unfailingly,  completely, exactly who they are. Not that Amanda is perfect, but she is honest, and Craig is the same way - even when he lies, he's telling the truth. I HAVE been the opposite - someone who desperately needed the world to make more sense, someone who made up a story because it seemed to explain things - and then painted over it when it turns out that telling a story doesn't make it so. There's a moment, as I saw all the prints of his blanket seeping into his vision of Raina, that I wanted to shake Craig, physically, and shout at him "Don't you see? She didn't give you a blanket of her, she gave you a blanket of you!" But of course, you can't do that - in a sense, perhaps Craig had to look in someone else to find himself. But for me, this story was foreign, distant - the story that felt present is the story of Raina - who is she in the end? She can't learn what's right, just one more thing that's wrong - and the wrong isn't in Craig, or even in their relationship. Those things were healthy, it's Raina that wasn't healthy - if she were healthy, she could have, perhaps, been what she needed to be. You can only paint the wall so many times, her story whispers, you can only paint the wall so many times. One more coat of paint, now, but still I know. You can only paint the wall so many times.

17 comments:

Nymeth said...

I get what you're saying, but for me, one of the things that made the book so perfect was that he managed to portray her as both the idealised muse and the REAL girl - the girl with problems, with a demanding family, with priorities and desires that might not match his own. Though my discussion with Aarti never quite followed that direction, that's one of the things I meant when I said the book was tender and kind. Sure, he idealises her, but that fact is SO clear and obvious that I can't help but feel that he meant for readers to see through it. He could have presented her as his failed muse - resentfully, passive-aggressively, or even just disappointedly. But he didn't. She's a ghost, an illusion, and yet at the same time she's very much real - he's a person he never quite got to know, not truly, because he was too busy conjuring his idealised version of who she was.

Nymeth said...

*she's a person... (sorry!)

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Nymeth - Yes, I totally agree. The misunderstanding and the 'two Rainas' was completely intentional - again, it's interesting that the patterns I talked about appear mostly during the scenes where he's most idealizing and least actually listening. I really thought the book was beautifully done, and I thought the thing that I didn't enjoy was a masterstroke - this is probably the best graphic novel I've ever read. I just didn't enjoy it - it was discomfiting and sad, simply because I THINK we're meant to sympathize with the main character. and I didn't. I don't think this was the fault of the book. Honestly, the two of us have some odd similarities - I grew up in a strongly religious home, where much of our social life was centered around church, for instance, I shared a room with my brother, I felt sort of 'wrong' and estranged from the people around me as a kid, I formed quick, desperate attachments to people (still do, I suppose), etc. The difference, I think, is that the book is written from the point of view of someone telling how they were, and then they came of age - it's a bildungsroman. I never had the courage or chutzpah or good look or wisdom or whatever to do that - I was in the same situation, but a very different person, so it was like watching someone else live my life, someone who was able to live it fairly successfully, in the end :D. Which made it harder to understand him - particularly, again, because I had such a quick, strong attachment to Raina. So, it was like reading a book about falling in love iwth myself - which since I actually don't LIKE people like me that much, is kind of a disorienting experience... if that makes more sense. Idon't think this was a failing of the author, or that the book shouuld have captured me better - if it was written without the emotion and intensity that it has, I would have found it easier to read. But it also would have been eminently forgettable.

Nymeth said...

That does make sense, yes. I think we all tend not to like people who are too much like ourselves... it's like seeing all our flaws and all the things that make us uncomfortable from the outside.

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Nymeth - Well, that is the first reason I have to be happy I'm not more like you, thank you :). #cheesysoundingbutsincerecompliments

Amanda said...

You make me want to reread this with your thoughts in mind. Maybe that will help me to understand her motivations better?

Jason Gignac said...

Amanda - well if I DID say something helpful, I'm glad. I could rant ON and ON about art symbols in this book!

Debi said...

*deep breath*

Wow, Jason. This was a powerful post. I'm still sort of fighting the tears here. As you know, I adored this book. Really adored it. But like you, I related much more to Raina. I completely fell in love with her. But for me, it wasn't uncomfortable. Actually at Raina's age, I wasn't much like her, but shortly thereafter I became much more like her. I hate blaming "some outside factor," but really one event changed me so much that I can't quite help it. And maybe it didn't so much change me, as it left me not knowing who I was, or who I thought I wanted people to think I was. And I began painting the wall. Oh crap. I'm not making any sense. Maybe in another venue I could explain better what I mean.

Anyway, I loved reading your thoughts so much, Jason. You know, it's funny...it never even occurred to me that some people might not relate and understand Raina. I have such blind spots sometimes.

Aarti said...

I think you make good points- there WERE two Rainas, but I think in the story, Craig acknowledged that. I think he still probably sees her through rose-colored glass, as his first love. And while it's obviously not true or real- I still respect someone who can share that story so warmly and without selfish angst remaining.

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Debi - sorry I keep harrasing you with emails everytime you comment here lately... :/

Ms Aarti - yes, yes, a hundred times yes! This book never failed, not once, through the entire book. I, on the other hand, as a reader, failed repeatedly, messily, and very personally.

Valerie said...

I think it's fascinating that you noticed the textures of the fabrics and how they relate to the story --that totally went over my head when I read this -- and I'm very into textiles. Hmm. I read this about four years ago. I should read this again.

Everytime I read a review of this book, I keep wondering what started so many book bloggers reading this seemingly all at once, because it's not a new book. I keep wondering if a movie is coming out based on the book or what? Maybe you have a good answer :-)!

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Valerie - I am a sheep - I read it because some very smart bloggers recommended it to me :). So I don't know where the smarties who STARTED the trend picked it up :D

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Trapunto said...

Who made that awesome-freaky necklace?!

Bildungsroman, yes, totally.

Hey, it's okay not to enjoy it. I enjoy your review the more. New ways to think. I really like the way you isolate the paisley. I have had the same experience of being uncomfortable with a perceptive book that only partially echoed my own experience, or echoed it with a weird twist.

There were a lot of things about Raina's and Craig's actions that didn't make sense to me, but it didn't bother me too much. I think what the Raina-Buddha thing shows really well is how the kind of upbringing that encourages you to think about profound, eternal truths *all the time,* as a moral duty, sets you up for a particularly intense and painful experience of first love. For me, the portrayal of their relationship was less about Craig's misapprehension of Raina than just about being young and in love in a very specific way.

Interesting that you are able to cast yourself and and your wife in the roles. I don't know if I could do that with my husband and me, though on the surface yes, we were a Raina and Craig. Did I marry my Raina, or did he marry his? Or did two Craigs marry each other? I distinctly remember a feeling of spontaneous worship that pretty much corresponds to the picture. I love him just as much now, but it's less iconic than it was then. (I'm so embarrassed just writing the word "worship," I'm all the more amazed Thompson was able to pour out his entire messy, ecstatic teenaged self without flinching!)

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Trapunto - that is a VERY interesting point, and honestly not one that I'd thought about. I grew up Mormon, and I never connected that with the urge to always think of everything as being 'important' (probably because it felt like noone else thought so...), but yes, that was so much part of every day, the whole 'your tiniest actions now will have eternal consequences, every day is part of a grand, elaborate test from God to see if you are worthy'. It makes it hard to be whimsical or relaxed, or to accept things at simple face value.

Nishant said...

, that is the first reason I have to be happy I'm not more like you, thank you :
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