July 30, 2018

Getting Off The Treadmill: Rob Clough reviews SHIT IS REAL by Aisha Franz

Aisha Franz's Shit Is Real is a gloriously smudgy, dream-shrouded, and surprisingly warm story about loneliness, self-loathing, jealousy, paranoia, and, ultimately, empathy. In some ways, it's a companion piece to stories like GG's I'm Not Here and Joanna Hellgren's story "Neighbors" from the Tusen Hjartan Stark anthology. All three stories involve a woman gaining access to the apartment of another woman, allowing them to live out different life fantasies. Hellgren's protagonist is simply happy to have the space, away from her husband. She doesn't want to become her absent neighbor, she just wants the same absolute mastery over her own space and time. GG's protagonist is fascinated by the woman who looks like she could be her double, only completely self-reliant and independent, in part because she's stuck taking care of her abusive parents. However, the protagonist only briefly dared to pretend to impersonate the woman in the apartment she started illicitly spending time in, only fleetingly living another life. In Shit Is Real, though, a young woman named Selma is given the opportunity to take over her absent next-door neighbor’s living space and life and seizes it with a series of consequences both grim and hilarious. Shit Is Real is all about shattering the idea that the capitalist culture of always wanting more leads to happiness; indeed, it's impossible to achieve happiness in such a state. It's not just that it's impossible to achieve happiness through constant desire; it's that empathy and kindness are their own rewards

In the other stories mentioned above, there's a certain necessary opacity to the personal narratives of the protagonists. In both cases, it's to preserve a certain sense of mystery, but it's also to make clear how unknowable the life, dreams, and consciousness of another person is. For Shit Is Real, Franz goes in the opposite direction with Selma. Not only is the audience made privy to her every desire, Franz drowns the reader in layer upon layer of Selma's dream life. Fantasies, dreams, and hallucinations all blend together creating narrative callbacks that provide surprising levels of coherency and connectedness. All throughout the book, a sharp contrast is made between living the life of a primitive and living in the frequently alienating modern world. That distinction often becomes an absurd one and creates much of the book's outrageous humor. Being disconnected from the civilization of conspicuous consumption is not only a sign of weakness in Selma's imagination; it's a sign of being less than human.
The book's title is a key to unlocking this sense of humor mixed with a feeling of total abjection. Shit Is Real begins with what turns out to be a recurring dream sequence in which Selma is in the desert, locked out of and rejected by civilization--including her social-climbing best friend Yumi and Selma's boyfriend Max. The latter, an anthropomorphic animal of some kind, unceremoniously breaks up with her by changing the key-card locks on his door and gives her a small box of her stuff when she shows up, clueless as to his intentions. When she protests, he also gives her a painting they bought together that says "Shit Is Real", which is precisely the sort of pointless, pretentious work of "art" that a hipster couple with disposable income might buy. Yet its message is unwittingly prophetic for Selma, as shit does indeed get real for her in a series of reversals of fortune. The painting itself is not aesthetically pleasing, intellectually stimulating, or viscerally satisfying; it's a smarmy statement of useless self-importance that signifies only someone's ability to buy it. Sitting on Selma's wall, it's a recapitulation of everything wrong with her life and desires. 

At the beginning of the book when Selma's dreams about being in the desert (away from the shining city full of technology) get wrapped up in reality, it's a classic case of a character being abjected -- literally meaning "thrown down", it's not just a reversal of fortune, but being thrown down from atop one's comfortable position in society. She lost her boyfriend, her apartment, and her job, all in short order. Franz makes it clear that this kind of loss of status is also a loss of identity, of being able to function in society. There's a running series of gags in the book where everything is now pretty much being run by 3D touch screens generated by electronic devices, only the crappy versions of these don't really work--like washing machines. It's one of the many complex, overlapping, and interweaving themes and motifs in the book. Each of them gets a series of callbacks and narrative progressions, but each theme subtly affects the others as the book goes on. Franz's control over the narrative is so precise that the reader doesn't notice the artifice unless one is looking hard for it. 
Instead, Franz's focus on Selma and her frequent slapstick adventures keeps the pages turning and the mood light, until Franz makes certain subtle tonal and narrative shifts. The plot can basically be boiled down to Selma realizing that her mysterious next door neighbor is the same woman she saw dump a cute guy (named Anders) in a restaurant she was eating at with her best friend Yumi. When the woman leaves town, she accidentally leaves behind the key card to her apartment--which Selma eventually uses as she slowly takes over the woman’s apartment and attempts to replicate her cool life. That includes casually introducing herself to her neighbor's ex-boyfriend, striking up a romance with him, and attending cool parties that are totally out of her league. While her infatuation with Anders started when she identified with him being dumped, it is transformed into her attempt to almost reverse time by taking on the characteristics of his ex. In so doing, she attempts to reverse her own rejection, rather than actually dealing with it. It's also important to note that the character of Max is a cipher and Selma spends little time thinking of him. What he represents is Selma being rejected by society itself, and thus access to the trappings of wealth and status.

That narrative is mixed in with the recurring desert motif, wherein Yumi goes from disapproving friend to taskmaster to something very different. There's also an extended series of fantasy sequences wherein Selma imagines joining a fish in the tank at the restaurant that she keeps returning to. The desolate quality of the desert in her imagination represents the way she feels isolated and thirsty for a certain kind of belonging; it's an almost pathetic yearning. The sequences in the fish tank mirror her love-related fantasies; the watery immersiveness of her daydreams is in stark contrast to the arid quality of her nightmares. Both of these fantasy narratives bleed into her real life, as they as represent her fears (the desert) and dreams (the water tank). Dreams and fears motivate her to take over someone else's life, leading to the odd parties she attends and the relationships she cultivates as a result of being motivated by these fantasies.
Shit Is Real's most powerful, pervasive visual metaphor is also its cover image. Selma creates it by accidentally drilling a huge slit-shaped hole in her apartment wall that's part peephole and part vulvar reference. That hole is not just a way of Selma spying on her neighbor, it's a kind of metaphorical gateway for transformation as she appropriates the signifiers of femininity of her neighbor in response to her own femininity and personhood being taken away. This repeating visual motif also explores the relationship between fantasy and reality, between growth and rot. There's one sequence where the reader sees Selma totally taking over the neighbor's apartment: eating her food, wearing her clothes (including a pair of heels with a distinctive click-clack sound), using her washing machine, and otherwise trying out this new identity that's not hers. At the same time, Franz takes the reader through the peephole in the other direction to see that Selma’s old apartment has dishes sitting in the sink with insects buzzing around, trash everywhere, and an almost Picture of Dorian Gray feeling that this reflects the actuality of the situation. Her barren apartment is representative of her at this point in time, for better or worse, and it's decaying while she enjoys the veneer of her new, fake life. 

At the same time, it's easy to sympathize with Selma. She's been abandoned by her friends, and there's one brutal sequence in a nightclub where one of her "friends" thoughtlessly rattles off everything that's gone wrong in Selma's life before talking about how great things are in her own. The turning point of Shit Is Real is when Selma is walking with her secret crush, Anders, and Yumi happens upon them, mistaking them as a couple. Anders plays along as they accept an invitation to Yumi's house for dinner. This is another example of reality being warped, this time by both Selma's deception and copious amounts of alcohol. Franz abandons the grid in favor of off-kilter panels with wavy lines as everyone gets progressively drunker. Yumi tipsily kisses Selma in the bathroom and laughs it off, and then sits down on the toilet and pees in front of her. It's a further blurring of accepted, expected behavior.
Selma and Anders leave to attend a hipster party and the two of them wind up on the rooftop together. He's smoking and blows smoke-rings of the image of his stylish ex-girlfriend (Selma's neighbor) right before he and Selma have sex. It is an incredibly clever visual that reveals the subconscious desires of both: they both want Selma to become his ex-girlfriend in the flesh. The next morning, Selma wakes up with only one shoe (the magical click-clacking pumps that her neighbor wore) ala Cinderella. The rest of the chapter is devoted to her tissue-thin grip on reality being torn asunder as she imagines the fish bringing her her missing shoe, before a long segment underwater that eventually leads back to the desert. Her entire facade collapsed in on itself; not because she was found out, but because she finally understood the meaninglessness of the persona that she had imitated. In her desert dream this time around, Selma saves Yumi. 

In real life, the story jumps ahead in time and we learn that Yumi's been dumped by her boyfriend in much the same way that Selma was, which is a pointed commentary on the ways in which relationships have a sense of equality that's still very much controlled by the person who controls the money--and it's often a man. When he chooses to cut someone out of his life, it creates that sense of abjection. The difference here is that Selma felt empathy for her friend and had her move in with her; she may have resented Yumi before, but at least she was never entirely abandoned by her, either. Selma now has a job and has created her own new identity, even if she still lives in her neighbor's space.
When Selma runs into Anders again at a party, she is forced to choose between the fantasy of living another person's life and a life of service and kindness to her friend. She chooses the latter, and her tortured desert dreams suddenly become a tranquil environment where she and Yumi look at the night sky together. The hole in the wall has been bricked over, and Yumi is now living in Selma's old place, in more ways than one. In the end, when Selma gets into bed with her sleeping friend, the "Shit Is Real" painting suddenly takes on another meaning. Selma is now living as authentically as she can, for better and worse. Another symbol of the book, her neighbor's cat, finally seems relatively content after acting as a silent judge of the tumult she caused for herself. 

The book's coda finds Selma's neighbor returning from a long trip out of town, looking as stylish as ever. When she can't find her card key, she suddenly faces the same kind of abjection; indeed, reality warps around her in on the next-to-last page of the book. The lights are harsh and unfriendly. The windows are all dark and foreboding. Everything is at odd angles in connection to each other. It's pure chaos, and it represents her life as she's forced to face the same kind of loss of self as Selma and Yumi. It's also a reminder that everyone is just a few steps away from living in that kind of chaos, but that's especially true for women. The final page sees Selma and Yumi in the desert, which is now an inviting, calm environment. Selma and Yumi find peace by rejecting the fetishisms of capitalism: gadgets, prestige, fashion, status, etc. 

There's a recognition that capitalism and patriarchal thinking interfere with our capacity to achieve happiness by building connections with others. Empathy and kindness are values that are in direct opposition to those of capitalism's culture of conflict and competitiveness. Selma's slow, halting attempts at empathy and kindness not only allow her to get off that treadmill of consumption, her reaching out also allows Yumi to do the same. Kindness is a binding social agent while competitiveness aims to separate and isolate. Capitalistic fetishism makes us want things without understanding why, as the forces of scarcity push us into a zero-sum game. Franz asks the reader to consider that choosing empathy is intuitive and requires no enticement other than the feeling itself, though choosing to get off that treadmill after a lifetime of conditioning is difficult to achieve. One must make the leap to empathy and kindness for their own sake, which in this world --or any other-- is an extraordinary if straightforward decision. 

Rob Clough has written about comics for Cicada, the Comics Journal, Sequential, tcj.com,
sequart.com, Savant, Foxing Quarterly, Studygroup Magazine, as well as for his own blog, High-Low (highlowcomics.blogspot.com).

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