The Great Gatsby
By F. Scott Fitzgerald/Nicki Greenberg
Allen & Unwin, 316pp, $39.95
American Born Chinese
By Gene Luen Yang
First Second, 233pp, $24.95
Comics and literary fiction have long been strange bedfellows. From the ruthlessly abridged Classics Illustrated devised in the 1940s to encourage wholesome reading habits in school-age children to genuine reinterpretations like Paul Karasik and David Mazzuchelli’s self-reflexive take on Paul Auster’s City of Glass, Posy Simmonds’ Gemma Bovery, a rapier-sharp update of Madame Bovary and, most recently, Melburnian cartoonist Nicki Greenberg’s beguiling adaptation of The Great Gatsby.
A six-year labour of love, Greenberg’s makeover of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s much-loved classic, is at once audacious and reverential. In an inspired conceit, Greenberg reimagines Fitzgerald’s larger-than-life ensemble of characters as bizarre, barely-clad creatures, starkly exposing their grotesque and capricious natures. Gatsby is astutely cast as a seahorse: a flamboyant yet slippery and dreamy misfit, while his great love Daisy resembles a bird: elegant and flighty, with a keen instinct for survival. Daisy’s husband Tom is an ogre of a man, bare-chested and brutish, her confidant Jordan is a sensuous squid-like socialite who seduces Nick, the novel’s narrator, an upright slug with antennae acutely attuned to the moral frequency of his surrounds.
That we quickly accept this surreal bestiary inhabiting Fitzgerald’s jazz-age world of idle wealth, social manoeuvring and vaunting ambition is a credit to Greenberg’s delicate, expressive artwork, deft period recreation and precise, sympathetic storytelling, which effectively capture the novel’s glittering surface and melancholic undertow. Greenberg also judiciously weds form, content and tone by having Nick browse through a photograph album as he wistfully recalls the fateful summer depicted in the sepia-toned photos that become illustrated panels on the page.
Having fallen under the spell of Fitzgerald’s tragi-comedy of manners at a formative age, Nicki Greenberg is clearly in awe of her source material. So much so that despite the finely composed, hypnotic dance between language and image that embrace and occasionally enliven the original’s luminous prose, Fitzgerald invariably takes the lead. This is clearly demonstrated in the book’s stirring final moments where the pictures are left stranded by the fluid lyricism of the words. That said, given Greenberg’s evident skills as a storyteller, it will be fascinating to see her tackle on her own material.
If Gatsby’s Nick ultimately feels he is “possessed of some deficiency…which made [him] subtly unadaptable to Eastern life” in America, at least he’s spared the indignity and guilt of chasing the American dream as a foreigner in his own country. It’s a subject explored with unflinching candour, wit and narrative ingenuity by Gene Luen Yang in his highly-acclaimed graphic novel American Born Chinese. Winner of the Michael L. Printz Award for excellence in young adult literature and a US National Book Award finalist, Yang tackles issues of identity and race in a carefully developed multi-part storyline that packs a surprisingly emotional and cerebral punch.
American Born Chinese is constructed as three seemingly unrelated stories that focus on reconciling one’s own culture with the need for wider social acceptance. The first story retells the Chinese legend of the Monkey King and his Journey to the West, in which the bumptious monarch with delusions of godhood eventually gains enlightenment through humility. The second follows the travails of Jin Jang, a Chinese-American boy uprooted from San Francisco to a smaller community where he must deal with harsh small-town prejudices that test his friendship with the only other Asian kids in his school and how far he will go to fit in. Finally, we tune into “Everyone Ruvs Chin-Kee”, certainly the oddest and most challenging offering in the book. Modeled after a sit-com, the increasingly virulent running gag turns on the show’s all-American star Danny being embarrassed by the frequent visits of his cousin Chin-Kee, the in-your-face embodiment of every racist Asian stereotype imaginable.
Yang’s flair for comic timing and naturalistic dialogue, perfectly complemented by leisurely pacing and a clean, deceptively simple illustrative style, effortlessly draws the reader into each story. He only falters when he attempts to tie the strands together and reveal the protagonists’ shared destiny in a startling, if clunky and unconvincing finale. It’s a metaphysical bridge too far, but doesn’t diminish the fine work that precedes it.
As graphic novels edge towards greater mainstream recognition, a curious crosscurrent is emerging. While artists such as Gene Luen Yang, Shaun Tan and Chris Ware win awards usually reserved for their literary cousins, high-profile novelists like Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, Jodi Picoult and Ian Rankin have turned their hands to penning comic books. And Greenberg’s publisher Allen & Unwin has underscored its commitment to comic narratives with the publication in early 2008 of Bruce Mutard’s The Sacrifice, the first part of an original graphic novel trilogy about a Melburnian pacifist during World War II.
(An edited version of this review previously appeared in The Weekend Australian Review, 26 January 2008)