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Boredom, Cohesion, and Transformation in Nick Drnaso’s Beverly

David Callahan

Abstract

Nick Drnaso’s Beverly (2016) is a loosely-connected assemblage of graphic stories focused on suburban Midwest America. The stories appear to represent suburban life as so monotonous that experiencing intensity or meaningful interactions is almost impossible. One potential avenue to break the monotony is that of actively transforming the self, but transformative options are revealed to be superficial and ultimately unable to counter the experience of life as lack and isolation. In turn, the possibility that the repetitive interactions of everyday life in fact provide known and secure structures, compensating for their flat sameness, is revealed to be hollow by most characters’ frustrations, melancholy, and lack of joyful connection with others. While the marginalized characters of Sal and Tyler may suggest the possibility of rejecting the boredom of everydayness, it comes at the cost of meaningful connection with others. By representing this everydayness through bland graphic strategies, Drnaso might seem to run the risk of having created a book that is itself boring, and yet his precise observation and subtle use of limited panel arrangements and color palette overcome the risk and make Beverly an acute exploration of contemporary suburban American life as boredom.

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1. Introduction

1“Don’t bore yourself.... Transform yourself,” invites a fictional advertisement for lipstick in Nick Drnaso’s “The Saddest Story Ever Told,” contained within his first celebrated book of graphic fiction, Beverly (2016). If boredom is frequently characterized by unchanging sameness—“perceived monotony and repetition” (Vodanovich and Watt 197)—then transformation would seem an obvious avenue out of the flat uniformity. How to transform yourself away from a life of boring, formulaic interactions with others is, however, almost never answered throughout Drnaso’s brilliant catalog of daily life as awkward bathos in contemporary America. This article will suggest that the mostly suburban American life portrayed in Beverly, via Drnaso’s rigid graphic arrangements and limited colors, consists of moments of mechanical connection that foreclose meaningful change and fail even to provide the comfort of the familiar.

2Contemporary life in the US is depicted in Beverly through images of people who are drawn so generically that it requires a high degree of graphic subtlety on Drnaso’s part for them to be discriminated from each other. In a review of his work in the London Review of Books, Namara Smith refers to the need for “a heightened alertness” on the part of his readers (29). In a way, the vision may be that those who are perceived to belong to the American lower middle class are only minimally distinguishable. At the same time, it also requires a high degree of graphic acuity on Drnaso’s part to represent unspectacular people in scenarios stripped of glamour in such a way that his episodes of contemporary life as futility offer something other than boredom. Drnaso may not instruct us on what attitude we should assume toward the inhabitants of his stories, but in a review of his very similarly drawn but more well-known second book, Sabrina (2018), Smith states that “[t]he visual monotony and muted colours... contribute to the impression of stuckness” (29), a prima facie case that the flatness of lower-middle-class contemporary American life is being scrutinized and exposed.

3The lower middle class—not uncomfortable materially, but not wealthy either, and largely lacking in rich cultural references—is, as Rita Felski bluntly claims, “a singularly boring identity, . . . not so much an identity as a nonidentity” (34). While having or being a nonidentity is impossible, the association of the lower middle class with a thin and relatively featureless psychic and material landscape is sedimented both in scholarly analysis and in creative representations (and her article summarizes these well). Drnaso’s severe graphic regulation—the representational resource that gives comics unique possibilities—metaphorizes a landscape that is “the ultimate example of psychic self-regulation” (Felski 36). For comics scholar Hillary Chute, “Comics are linked to the suburbs in their expression of teenage and midlife middle-class angst” (Why Comics? 176), but this merely denotes the subject matter. Chute goes on to claim that this interest in the everyday in non-mainstream comics is partly derived from what she calls “the form’s diary-like intimacy—its handwrittenness—and its ability to layer moments of time, to take both granular and synthetic views at once” (Why Comics? 280). Comics comment not just through words but through images and their graphic organization, the resources that can be much more varied than in most moving-image media. For example, Drnaso evokes the monotony of lower-middle-class life in the way he uses equally-sized square panels for pages at a time, without the expressive urgency of images bursting out of their frames, encroaching on neighboring panels, wide variation in panel size, or other visually energetic devices well-known to comics readers. Even when the rigidity is slightly relaxed in the later stories, the panels remain straight-edged boxes.

4Representing people who appear to be bored, or who should be bored from the perspective of academic observers, sets up intriguing representational contracts. It might appear that an accurate representation of boredom would itself be boring, an objective that would seem to defeat a central purpose of creative work, which is to attract and engage an audience. And yet, despite the initial base of human stories in the extraordinary, in adventures, miraculous events, and heroic feats, the immemorial connection between representation and the observationally real has led to attempts in all media to depict the ordinary, the unmiraculous, and unheroic. What prevents these attempts from being boring are factors such as the unordinary skill of the representation manifested by Dutch painters’ humor, Frank Norris’s plotting, Gustave Flaubert’s or Virginia Woolf’s precision of language, Coronation Street’s construction of sympathetic characters in a long-form television narrative, or Harvey Pekar’s whimsical graphics, to mention a few representative examples. Another pleasure might be that of contesting elite judgments through depicting conventionally boring characters as more intense and complex than they seem, their lives commenting richly on social and political realities even when holding to superficial beliefs and preferences. John Dos Passos’s trilogy U.S.A. (1930–1936) may serve as an example of an openly politicized narrativization of unheroic characters, in which one objective is to establish a form of respect for the daily repetitiveness and struggles of supposedly ordinary lives.

5In the three volumes of his exhaustive The Critique of Everyday Life (1947–1981 in French), French sociologist-philosopher Henri Lefebvre attempted to discriminate among possible investments in the everyday by considering the everyday as distinct from everydayness. Everydayness would be the experience of the same, the repeated, the formulaic patterns we are expected to remain within. The everyday would be the space and time of our days in general, and therefore it would have the potential to serve as a source of resistance and change. That is, to resist we have to be in a space from which it is possible to resist, and that space tends to be the everyday because that is where we usually are (Roberts 67). This basic difference between attitudes to daily life begs the question: what leads one person to feel the everyday as a tension that invites opposition (Flaubert’s Emma Bovary) and another person to feel it as harmonious flow (Felicité in Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart”)? One way in which the difference might be expressed depends on whether or not it is experienced as boredom, a state in which we would rather not be, and which necessitates a change. Many observers have commented on the revolutionary potential of boredom as an incitement to change, particularly against the standardized conditions of modern industrialized life. In the very first paragraph of The Boredom Studies Reader, Julian Jason Haladyn and Michael E. Gardiner introduce this ambivalence as follows: “[d]oes being bored signify a fundamental lack of personal and cultural meaning or a moment of potential... when meaning can and must be created?” (3), that is, when something must be transformed.

2. Transformation and Homogeneity

  • 1 For an analysis of boredom and suburbia in this issue, see Anna Pochmara, “‘I Don’t Think I Have an (...)

6Transformation as a principle of a society in which to be static is to be left behind is also fundamental to the central mythology of (white) North American culture, a history of radical transformation from one place to another and from set ways of doing things. At the same time, over the course of the twentieth century, North America became the principal source of the imagery and the imaginary of the static homogeneity of suburbia and the spaces and rituals that support it: the enclosed shopping malls, the broad highways, the franchise stores, spaces, and habits that are safely similar from one end of the country to the other.1 From one angle, if anxiety is heightened by the unfamiliar and the disordered, then the development of suburbia and the dilution of surprise in many daily social interactions can be considered a dramatic improvement.

7This see-saw in attitudes to the repetitive and the safe is central to the consideration of the everyday and to its representations. If sameness and undramatic days and weeks are the ground in which many lives are lived, is this to be always critiqued as alienation and loss, or is it to be honored as victory against disruption and trauma? Following on from this is the challenge to the reader to discern whether the apparently boring is being critiqued or honored. This can be seen in the responses to the work of Drnaso in which a type of reader feels somehow recognized and valorized in what they perceive as acute representations of specifically Midwest suburban life. As Midwestern interviewer R. J. Casey claims, for example: “I found the characters in Beverly to be very sympathetic.” The rigorous absence of a narrating commentary leaves Drnaso’s attitude opaque, to say the least, but the underlying dissatisfaction of the characters suggests that the everydayness of most of their lives is lived as either boring or on the threshold of boredom, and this is what most reviewers have perceived. According to Harper’s Gabriel Winslow-Yost, Drnaso “lingers on the torpid details—dull jobs, anonymous buildings, aggressively inane conversations.... It’s American life as a kind of desperate void, with savagery rushing in to fill it.” An anonymous reviewer in Publishers Weekly points out that “[t]he streets, houses, and people that populate the linked pieces of Drnaso’s blandly terrifying debut collection all share a soul-deadening, right-angled sameness that turns into its own kind of nightmare” (“Beverly”). For Hillary Brown in Paste, “Beverly’s people are sad, soft and kind of lumpy. They spend a lot of time sitting, sinking into their equally sad, soft, kind of lumpy furniture.”

8In addition to the visually nondescript characters appearing throughout the volume, they and their stories largely convey little sense of specific location, history, family history, or even personal history. When a character recalls a childhood holiday, for instance, he immediately dilutes it by saying he does not remember any detail or even where it was exactly (122). A common way of referring to the types of exterior places represented in the book is that they are “non-places” as defined by Marc Augé. At first sight, the dismissive label seems apt, as does the link between such non-places and the non-experiences that can characterize boredom. In Augé’s words, “If a place can be defined as relational, historical and concerned with identity, then a space which cannot be defined as relational, or historical, or concerned with identity will be a non-place” (77–78). Yet as with the difficulty in arbitrating on what to one person is a monotonous restriction and for another is a soothingly familiar pattern, the glibness with which non-places are assigned the label is far too homogenizing. For a start, studies of our use of workplaces or shopping malls in terms of our identity scripts and desired pleasures continue to demonstrate that these seeming “non-places” are not non-places for the people who work in them, who regularly pass through them, or for whom they constitute constant variations in their interactions with others and with the location (Fiske et al. 95–116; Gupta et al. 70–93). Secondly, the supposed “non-places” are almost never identical, and these variations can constitute part of the pleasures they enable. The architectural-design firm responsible for the new New Orleans airport terminal, to take one example, is clearly proud of its attempts to evoke the form of the Mississippi, the light of New Orleans streets, and so forth (Daly). Wellington airport in New Zealand even constructs itself in terms of a fictional place, the world of Middle Earth, as portrayed in the New Zealand-made film versions of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Such franchise-heavy spaces as shopping malls are constantly tweaked to evoke local difference via color (Southwest colors, Florida colors, and so on), public art, locally-focused displays, naming, planting, and food options.

9Elite responses to suburban life as to so-called non-places have tended to be dismissive in the tradition of Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities. And yet with the radical stripping away of the connections across space and time signposted by Néstor García Canclini’s summation of the present as possessing “no paradigms of development and no explanation for society” (xviii), boredom could be a state in which Drnaso’s world achieves a degree of cohesion. The formulaic interactions and conversations among the characters enact this cohesion and provide a type of inert security, articulated by the static graphic environment of the book. The quotidian survival strategy of formulaic conversation and references can in a less critical vision be seen as a valorization of the unspectacular and the lived rhythms of everyday life.

10In her excellent analysis of the centrality of boredom to graphic narratives, What Happens When Nothing Happens: Boredom and Everyday Life in Contemporary Comics, Greice Schneider has to clear theoretical space for her analysis from the outset, given the association of comics with entertainment, excitement, and action. She highlights a basic distinction drawn in boredom studies between a type of more glamorous intellectual boredom, associated with terms such as melancholy and ennui, and an everyday boredom. The latter corresponds with “a focus on the quotidian,” which, according to Schneider, has become “one of the most marked characteristics of the contemporary graphic novel” (58). This is apparent in many of those works that are autobiographical as well as in fictions that detail the daily (and often fantasy) lives of characters who inhabit modern cities. Art Spiegelmann’s acclaimed graphic novel Maus may deal with extreme trauma and have characters with the heads of mice, pigs, cats, and dogs, but it eschews the fantasy conventions comics are conventionally associated with. Its characters do not have superpowers and are unable to escape the limits of material existence. The autobiographical genre is represented by several well-known graphic narratives, such as Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (2000–2003), Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home (2006), or the participant-observer journalism of Joe Sacco Palestine (collected edition 2001). There are many others, but what characterizes this select sample is a focus on the daily events of their protagonists’ lives, even if sometimes in the shape of their dreams or fantasies. The unique abilities of graphic narratives to portray lives that have involved traumatic or stressful events have been well analyzed by Hillary Chute in Disaster Drawn: Visual Witness, Comics, and Documentary Form, and while such lives cannot be characterized as states of boredom, they are related to what, as Schneider points out, is a widespread use of comics to represent people’s actual daily experiences, both physical and imaginary.

  • 2 For an analysis of consumer boredom in this issue, see Mariusz Finkielsztein, “Consumer Boredom: Bo (...)

11Cohesion in social life is generally perceived as a positive factor. But cohesion runs the risk of disallowing change and turning into boredom. That is, as social interactions or procedures become highly cohesive, mechanical maintenance of the cohesion takes precedence over questioning procedures and changing them. When the advertisement referred to in the first line of this article offers transformation as a way to combat boredom, it validates the idea that to transform the self or the conditions of one’s life is to enact agency in the struggle against homogenization, against being limited by the system to a role as a predictable consumer of products, and against the symbolizations that maintain social structures in place. At the same time, transformation at the level of a lipstick advertisement is hardly transformational. It may be precisely the trivial degree of transformation the capitalist system underwrites and prefers: an act of individualistic dynamism that is essentially superficial and unable to meaningfully challenge any system. After all, the advertisement does not offer men the chance to transform themselves by applying lipstick. Moreover, it is a short-lived transformation that requires constant purchasing of new products and services.2 How Drnaso’s characters are depicted, ineffectively parlaying even this thin promise of transformation, constitutes a large part of the melancholy environment of Drnaso’s observational acuity in this volume.

3. So Much for the Grassy Knoll

12Ramzi Fawaz claims that “mainstream comics production across the twentieth century... [has] offered some of the most incisive critiques of normative American culture and politics of the last century” (591). In legendary comics author Will Eisner’s summary, “the application of sequential art, with its interweaving of words and pictures, provides a dimension of communication that contributes—with increasing prominence—to the body of literature that concerns itself with the examination of human experience” (149). Arguably, all writing is about human experience and cannot concern itself with anything else, but that comics be taken seriously as representations of this experience should now be beyond doubt. In this endeavor, the visual strategies deployed by Drnaso show how the resources of comics can articulate extremely subtle representations of individual and social states. It is even possible that comics offer the most approachable and incisive medium in which to represent boredom, to enact it even, and yet not themselves be boring at all, given the characteristic of comics to suggest “plenitude” (Chute, Disaster Drawn 17). In Chute’s words, this means that graphic narratives are “always calling attention to the relationship of part to whole, to the self-conscious buildup of information that may or may not coalesce into meaning” (Disaster Drawn 17). Even the plainest of graphic narratives has a visual energy that a book comprised of words only does not, and each aspect of the visual gesturing to the reader is susceptible to multiple responses, from the obvious degree of mimetic representation to the nature, placement, and volume of the lettering. Not just the words, as in a conventional work of fiction, but every single one of the multiple resources of a graphic work is filled with connotations, implications, and nuance.

13This multiplicity in the ways a graphic narrative interpellates the reader is immediately apparent on the opening page of Beverly, which announces a story with one of the most evocative phrases in contemporary American culture: “The Grassy Knoll.” The grassy knoll in Dallas, alongside the motorcade in which President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, became a location associated with conspiracy theories claiming that the official story was false, that someone had shot the President not from the Texas School Book Depository building, but from a nearby grassy knoll, in the service of obscure official agendas. The grassy knoll comprises a site where pressure points in attitudes to truth and community contend and swirl. Did clandestine forces within the state arrange the assassination? Was the attribution of blame to Lee Harvey Oswald a stage-managed diversion from the brutal termination by shadowy government forces of the challenges to established American habits and authority associated in many people’s minds with President Kennedy?

14Kennedy represented a transformation in North American life. For many, the assassination of John F. Kennedy was an assassination of the future, of the global imaginary, of the attractiveness of the United States. “The Grassy Knoll” could figure the legacy of that key historical moment, privileged at the beginning of Beverly as what that swerving from promise has left us, the legacy of the downfall of Camelot. The low-key representations of the characters appear to announce that type of naturalism in which unheroic characters are engaged in a daily life typified by humdrum events, far from the heroic directions promised in the symbol and the discourse of President Kennedy.

15Fig. 1. From Beverly. Copyright Nick Drnaso. Used with permission from Drawn & Quarterly.

16There is plenty of grass in the first panel of the story, even forms that can be considered knolls, but there is no John F. Kennedy, no Dallas, and nobody or nothing that could be associated with the evocative title. Instead, there is the face of who has come to be characterized as a white slacker, with a baseball cap, dark glasses, overfed face, and a bland t-shirt, apparently turned to someone or something with an ambiguous smirk (fig. 1). The activity in the story is revealed as picking up trash along the roadside, probably qualifying as a boring activity for most people. The emblematic American road is here not the conduit to excitement but the repository of detritus. Sal, the character in the first panel, is odd, apparently over-excited by unexciting events, such as someone driving past or a leak in the restroom. When Tim, his co-worker, finds a used condom or draws his attention to something that is conventionally exciting for straight men, that is young women in short shorts working on the other side of the road, Sal walks away grumbling about being “professional” (8). His physical unattractiveness and social oddness mean that for him the promise of contact with young women is probably not as appealing as it is for the more extrovert Tim. Yet Tim, despite his interest in the women, fails to socialize with them as they ignore his attempt at conversation.

17One depressing possibility is that the severing of the lines of utopian transformation emblematized by President Kennedy has transformed the promise of America into dull people—the opposite of the livewire Kennedy—collecting trash on a highway, treating an awkward person insensitively (in one review, Sal reminds the reader of someone with Asperger’s syndrome; see Clough), and who have no large dreams of any sort. Unlike Sal, Tim may not be unattractive and off-putting, but as a black man, he finds himself as an outsider among the white women and one conventionally ripped young white man, Kyle. Kyle is successful in attracting the women’s attention and in curating his body, but later, in the story “Virgin Mary,” he self-centeredly abandons his pregnant girlfriend. As a picture of an America whose values and dreams have shrunk to the petty and normalizing, “The Grassy Knoll” is demoralizing; at the same time, it is a brilliant representation of just how reduced and mindless many people’s vistas have become. For all his awkwardness, ironically, Sal is the only one who steps outside the expected, the only one who has a thought-out attitude to his work, and indeed who has transformed the ostensibly dull task into something to which he applies purpose and standards. The way Drnaso has drawn him invites us to reject him from the outset, but by the last panel of the story, showing handsome Kyle, it is not so clear what is attractive, what is awkward, and what really challenges mundane social interactions.

4. Made to Be Sad

18“The Saddest Story Ever Told,” the following piece, does not tell us what specifically is sad, but we are asked to make sense of the nesting of an interposed story from a soap opera watched by characters within the story. The overall environment of the framing story is one of family awkwardness, tension, conventionality, and nostalgia. At its heart is a story of a suburban mother who becomes hopeful when she receives an invitation to watch and comment on an episode of an unreleased soap opera. After watching the episode, she finds that her thoughts about the human dramas in the soap opera are unwanted, as opposed to her responses to the advertisements that appear during the episode. This disjunction between her empathetic relation to fictional characters and consumer surveying appears to be the saddest story ever told, a superbly understated portrayal of the broken relationship between capitalism and its consumers.

19Drnaso is a master of narratorial absence so that the title remains the only metacommentary on the conversations and images that make up the stories. The woman’s investment in the lives of television characters, along with her unstylishly comfortable clothes and lumpy physique, implies that she has revoked the possibility of possessing a glamorous style and living a life of emotional drama herself, assigning these things to TV representations. This conventional image of the hollowed-out suburban housewife may be prefigured in the effacement of the daughter, Cara, who, hesitantly smiling at the beginning, is revealed to be lying on her bed doing nothing—not even a phone is visible. Her mother excitedly gets her to come and watch the preview tape, and Cara expressionlessly sits on the floor before the television (fig. 2). Although she occupies the title panel, Cara never says a word throughout the story. Her face is blank throughout.

20Fig. 2. From Beverly. Copyright Nick Drnaso. Used with permission from Drawn & Quarterly.

21The preview tape of the soap opera Somehow We Manage starts with six characters, who do smile. Soon we see that the suburban house, supposedly indicative of normality and cohesion, is seething with tension. The family life in the TV show is a series of arguments and interrupted dreams. The son is too tongue-tied to talk to the daughter of his father’s golf-playing partner, while the daughter fails to invite a boy to a dance. For all the beaming smiles, it is a tale of incompletion, inadequacy, and failure. The several commercial breaks during the episode suggest that with the right consumer products life can be better. The commercial messages imply that if you do not transform the conditions of your life via the promises of the advertised products, you are to blame for the unsatisfying quality of your life. These advertisements, however, do not offer anything that might help with any deeper, systemic change. Instead, they publicize a tanning lotion, a home security system, a floor duster, lipstick, jeans, and a prescription drug for depression. The four advertisements focused on the presentation of self all offer transformations that are accomplished through exterior products, whose application has to be constantly renewed for their promise to remain active. The brand of “My Jeans” underlines the point that life is focused on self-presentation, and there is no excuse for not acquiring the right products to present “yourself” to the world. The advertisement for the anti-depressant invites a person living in a “monotonous, horrifying nightmare” to “[r]eclaim [their] life” (28–29). Even if it does not blame anybody for becoming depressed, it suggests that it is your fault if you do not opt to tackle the problem. The imperfections of surrounding conditions apparently cannot be changed, particularly since, as Mark Fisher points out, “The current ruling ontology denies any possibility of a social causation of mental illness” (37). Only the self can change, preferably with the help of consumer choices.

22The induction of the daughter into a life in which simulacra of people provide more meaning than her own daily experience appears regrettable. When the mother excitedly invites Cara to watch the soap opera, it is not because she wants her daughter to consider the moral concerns and conundra of the simulacra presented on television but to participate in the survey about the show. John Fiske, in the heady days of the valorization of the cultural pleasures of non-culturally-elite classes, resisted the idea that non-dominant social groups were largely manipulated by capitalism’s use of the media to the extent that their cultural pleasures, such as watching mass-market television, were inauthentic and shallow. Fiske’s salutary rejection of elite taste as the authoritative standard presumed that all viewers carried on lively discourses of resistance during and beyond their consumption of media texts: “The autonomy of these groups from the dominant is only relative, and never total, but it derives from their marginalized and repressed histories that have intransigently resisted incorporation, and have retained material, as well as ideological differences usually through devalued cultural forms, many of which are oral and recorded” (310). A belief in the rich, subversive oral culture of non-dominant classes is a development from British cultural studies, and it has become one of the constants in contemporary cultural studies in general. This belief is precisely what Drnaso denies throughout Beverly. Significant characters are entirely silent, as Cara in this story, while the others spout thin lines of supposed communication that are summed up in Lauren Berlant’s suggestion that “[t]he intensity of the need to feel normal is created by economic conditions of nonreciprocity that are mimetically reproduced in households that try to maintain the affective forms of middle-class exchange while having an entirely different context of anxiety and economy to manage” (180). The “economic conditions of nonreciprocity” establish that the so-called power of the free choice of the consumer is a mirage, and that power operates downwards from the producing class, installing a consumer society in which choices do not include opting out of such a society, or at least that such a choice can only be made with great difficulty. Normality then becomes the exchange of symbols of homeostasis within the system, in an apparent denial of contexts of “anxiety and economy” signaled by the advertisements. These symbols of homeostasis are the interactions Drnaso depicts, in which formulaic statements and questions maintain the appearance of normality and cohesion, but they ironically enact failure in the absence of real connection and inability to rupture in any serious way the membrane of dissatisfaction that Cara’s blankness embodies.

5. Sex and Violence Are Not Boring

23One aspect of human life which can cancel boredom, at least briefly, is sex, but there are no instances of happy sex shown in the book despite the constant attention given to it in conversation by the younger characters. The character who exemplifies this attention the most is ten-year-old Tyler in “The Lil’ King,” who, like his sister Cara in the previous story, also does not speak even once in the whole text. Tyler’s interior life is populated by images in which people he sees around him are engaged in transgressive sex acts (a pastor with a woman seen on a billboard for an adult bookstore, for example) or have been killed and dismembered. The boy’s antagonism to his parents’ formulaic realities can find no positive space for identity formation other than through types of imaginative scenarios that are generally considered unhealthy.

24The story is prefaced by a page of empty highways, motels, and a motel reception area, in which the receptionist is facing away from us, disengaged: a vision of the blandness of motel experience. Very soon the story goes in startlingly new directions, signaled by a resource available to visual storytelling: the motel employee is having a compulsorily upbeat conversation with the family, but the image observed by Tyler behind his words is that of a young woman at another table in very short shorts. With her head obscured by the speech bubble, her scantily-clad body is what is valuable about her in Tyler’s eyes, and he continues to fantasize about her in the car. There is a severe disjunction between the anodyne witterings of the parents, for whom a belief in the innocence of their son seems to blot out their own memories of adolescence, as if they had never existed in a teenage realm of sexual disturbance.

25When the parents have sex once in “The Lil’ King,” we do not see it directly. Instead, we see Tyler standing outside the parents’ motel door, feeling left out. Cara plans to have sex with a boy, but when she brings him to her room, she finds Tyler embracing a pillow dressed in her underwear, and all her desire evaporates. In another story, “Pudding,” Tina is tentatively trying to reactivate lesbian sex she had with Charlotte when they were young, but the hint disgusts Charlotte who ejects Tina from the party. Tina’s date hopes Tina will come with him to his place, but his father appears at the doorway, and Tina decides to return to her place instead. No connection works in the story; no plans are realized. In “Virgin Mary,” Mary is pregnant and agrees to a plan hatched by her boyfriend Kyle—the confident young man of “The Grassy Knoll”—to claim that an Arab kidnapped her and raped her. The cliché narrative is all too readily believed by others, and the cohesiveness of the suburb starts to crumble. It is obvious that Kyle’s plan was intended to reject any responsibility for Mary’s pregnancy. Thus, in Beverly, sex is either fantasized about and not achieved or achieved with negative results.

26Violence also possesses the potential to cancel boredom, given that by definition violence is disruptive and emotionally intense for both perpetrator and victim. In “The Lil’ King,” the son Tyler fantasizes about someone’s throat getting cut in a motel corridor. When the family get to their holiday destination, he imagines the people he sees in the street dismembered. The boy feels left out, as everyone else in the family has physical contact with others in some way. The parents go up to the room to have sex, which he hears from outside the door. The sister is soon involved with three teenage guys in the pool horsing around, and she sits on a guy’s shoulders holding his head with an orgasmic expression. Tyler imagines them being gutted later. The parents’ nostalgic memories do not connect with the boy, who imagines naked bodies in an orgiastic pile. When Cara leaves the room, he puts her scanty underwear on a pillow and clasps it naked, but she comes back and is horrified. This emotionally intense event ruins the beach trip to Cape Cod for everyone, and they go back home early. Until this moment, surface conventionality had characterized the trip, and Tyler’s violent individual fantasies had been kept to himself and had no impact on the others. When Tyler’s sexuality becomes apparent to the others, the surface regularity of the group is broken.

27While the conversation and actions of the parents maintain family stability and direction, it is at the cost of thinning experience down to the conventional everyday. When the illusion of group participation in the terms of the thinned events is broken, anger and disruption are the result. The parents’ framing of the holiday appears eminently boring, a rejection of the American right to be “happy,” traditionally exercised by contesting convention in the service of expansion and development. In the vision of Tyler’s dealing with his boredom by way of violent and transgressively sexualized imaginings, a troubling question is implicitly posed: is imagining violence and transgressive sex an acceptable outlet for our acceptance of boring surface reality, or is an imaginary of violent extremity a sign of failure to be emotionally and intensely involved with others? In the end, Tyler, aged ten, is drawn as he would like to see himself, as a burly, masked killer, not just with the power denied the child, but with his fantasies unseen by others. Being unseen can be perceived as a necessary component of social regulation. When the veil is broken—when the unexpected intensity of Tyler’s frottage with his sister’s underwear becomes known to the others—the illusion of a cozy link to the past and the creation of new happy memories is broken.

28On the surface, Tyler’s imaginary is disturbing, but nobody is actually hurt. In this, it shares the uncertain status of the imaginary in general, not to mention the imaginary as represented in creative work. From the beginning of human stories, we have filled up narratives with violent images, acts, and characters, often celebrated as heroic. No physical person is actually hurt in these tales, and yet the degree to which being exposed to the repertoire of the human imaginary of violence is harmful or not remains a debated issue, as exemplified in contemporary concerns over video games. These concerns over the harmful effects of popular culture are of course nothing new, as the comics industry knows all too well: when Fredric Wertham published his devastating assault on the comics industry, Seduction of the Innocent in 1954, legislators were so convinced by his attack they introduced such severe restrictions on what comics could show or deal with that it was ten to fifteen years before counter-cultural pressures managed to overcome them (Chute, Why Comics? 12–13).

6. Spaces of Resistance or Looking at the Closed Door

29Are any ways of breaking through the flatness and boredom apparent in Beverly? One way out of the aporia in the book might be to refuse the contract offered by formulaic conversation, either by silence or by speech that defies conventions. Two significant characters use silence as a defense. Cara’s silence in “The Saddest Story Ever Told” does not break any conversational routines apart. It does not substitute them with ones that have the potential to be more meaningful, and thus, it seems to deny any possibility of resistance through change. Her mother does not register Cara’s silence as resistance, and the last panel showing Cara crying on her bed is an image of resignation and failure. In the subsequent story, Cara grows away from silence, and manages to participate in conventional teenage behavior, particularly in her search for popularity with young men, and this appears to make her happier. Later, her death in an automobile accident in “Pudding,” presumably during a date, hints at the result of participating in everyday teen relationships. Through attempting to enter such conventionality, Cara ironically becomes subject to the melodramatic logic of mass-market fiction that counters boredom by punctuating it with events of extreme intensity, particularly those involving violence and disruption. Yet an attempt to confront boredom and die as a result is hardly a positive solution for most people.

30In a contrast, Cara’s brother Tyler’s silence in “The Lil’ King” is accompanied by the highly disruptive images mentioned above. That is, he constructs his own substitutes for the absence of satisfaction in the interactions that surround him, which we did not see Cara doing. He also grows away from silence, and his story is taken up in the last piece, “King Me.” In light of the violence of Tyler’s frustrated imagination when he was younger, some sort of adult enactment of the violence might have been predicted. When the last story starts with the image of someone in a ski mask, echoing both Tyler’s wish-fulfillment image of himself at the end of “The Lil’ King,” as well as the theme of stranger violence in the previous story, “Virgin Mary,” it looks as if the prediction will be confirmed. The three-quarter-page image of a balaclava-clad head is followed by that of a young woman saying “I don’t want to go out there” and an image of a built-up city street with only one human figure visible, evoking the threatening emptiness of the urban street familiar from other American visual media (fig. 3). When she leaves her friend in the subway and walks through the streets, we are positioned to feel that the man is following her menacingly.

31Fig. 3. From Beverly. Copyright Nick Drnaso. Used with permission from Drawn & Quarterly.

32It transpires that Tyler is merely taking his time walking until his appointment with a masseuse, whose name is Beverly. In fact, Tyler’s walk was not stalking but simply a long walk from where he lives as he does not have that icon of the American ability to transform one’s location and one’s life, a car. A suburban American without a car is an anomaly and in a man’s case even a failure to embody American masculinity and mobility, to claim all American space as potentially available, to claim alternative futures. Recognizing this failure, he pretends that he does own a car. Pretending has become Tyler’s core strategy in social interactions. When he runs into a workplace acquaintance, who has been to a “fuckin crazy nightclub” (127), Tyler pretends he has also been out with friends, going to bars. Then, as Tyler does not want to talk to the man any further, he pretends he has to get off at the next station.

33The massive misreading of Tyler when he does finally express a preference could be a clue as to why the whole volume is named Beverly: he tells Beverly he usually does not like to talk, to which she responds with a risqué joke about masturbation. We do not see Tyler’s reaction to such an intimate topic, but the disruption brought about by Beverly’s joke is suggested when the next image is of Tyler out on the street again. That Tyler does not find the joke amusing is less an indication of his lack of a sense of humor than an indictment of Beverly’s failure to respect Tyler’s desire for no conversation. Beverly may represent a world in which not listening attentively to others occurs because no interest in others can really be generated. Her job as a masseuse could be seen as encouraging such a lack of communicative proficiency since in her profession intimacy is not intimate at all. By extension, then, Beverly becomes an extreme embodiment of social interaction as boredom, to the extent that touching is not personal and speaking does not imply really listening to others.

34Waiting at the station, Tyler is accosted by a woman who wants him to pretend that he has been waiting for her as she fears there is a stalker on the platform. He walks her home, and then she leaves him outside. The last page has only one small panel in the top left-hand corner, even though the whole page could have been used: Tyler standing alone outside the cookie-cutter house of the stranger, after having said “see you later” as she goes in, to which she has not even replied. Tyler’s action in helping a frightened woman has not resulted in any connection, particular gratefulness, or satisfaction. Coming at the end of the book, it seems to sum up suburban lower-middle-class life as so radically disconnected that routes out of boredom are as closed-off as the woman’s door, even when we help someone. Despite Tyler’s having “grown up” and trying to enter into the communicative contract with others to some extent, his awkwardness means that he cannot interact with them in terms of the formulaic patterns that most people employ.

35Tyler had told Beverly that the next day he would be picking up trash, which refers back to the first story in the book, even though Tyler does not feature in it. In “The Grassy Knoll” the key character is Sal, and he is a character who does not enter the conventional social contract in which young people attempt to secure cohesion through repetitive clichés centered on partying, alcohol, sex, and group conformity. Sal’s enthusiasm and willingness to verbalize his quirky interests present him as a character who is not bored. As a result, he is marginalized by people whose insertion into the codes of everydayness renders them insensitive, shallow, and even manipulatively heartless, as in Tim’s careless interaction with the supervisor, which results in Sal’s losing his job, or Kyle’s later abandonment of his pregnant girlfriend. Sal may be marginalized by others, but Tyler’s narrative association with him may be constructed as a potential movement away from trying to fit in and more towards becoming “socially unassimilable, culturally liminal and insubordinate” as the best avenue away from boredom (Roberts 72). The everyday in Beverly has not served the rest of its characters as a summons to meaningful transformation, it is true, but when Tyler stands outside the door in the last panel, the image is proximate to Berlant’s observation that “the spectacle of stunned ineloquence as dreams of deferred gratification are remanded to permanent deferral is a central trope of the aesthetics of struggle” (211). Drnaso’s whole book serves as a subtle example of the “aesthetics of struggle” by way of its challenge to readers to develop our own literacy of the boring, the routine, and the stock response, not least in its subliminal bracketing of the two most socially dissonant characters, Tyler and Sal, as the most evident disruptors of everydayness in the volume.

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Bibliography

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Notes

1 For an analysis of boredom and suburbia in this issue, see Anna Pochmara, “‘I Don’t Think I Have an Attention Span for Real Life Anymore’: Excessive Stimulation, Sense of Meaninglessness, and Boredom in Sam Levinson’s Euphoria.”

2 For an analysis of consumer boredom in this issue, see Mariusz Finkielsztein, “Consumer Boredom: Boredom as a Subliminal Mood of Consumer Capitalism.”

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References

Electronic reference

David Callahan, Boredom, Cohesion, and Transformation in Nick Drnaso’s BeverlyEuropean journal of American studies [Online], 17-4 | 2022, Online since 26 December 2022, connection on 28 January 2023. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/ejas/19057; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/ejas.19057

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About the author

David Callahan

David Callahan is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Aveiro, Portugal. His work has mostly concentrated on postcolonial topics, and appeared in journals such as Interventions, Postcolonial Studies, English Studies in Africa, Arizona Quarterly,and Game Studies, along with book chapters on more varied subjects such as “The Last of the US: The Game as Cultural Geography” or “East Timor’s first film: Beatriz’s War, history and remediation.” His most recent publication is the co-edited collection Body and Text: Cultural Transformations in New Media Environments (Springer, 2019).

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Copyright

CC-BY-NC-4.0

Creative Commons - Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International - CC BY-NC 4.0

https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/4.0/

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