June 2012

Lightsey Darst

fiction

Unterzakhn by Leela Corman

Leela Corman's Unterzahkn, a graphic novel telling the story of twin Jewish girls growing up poor in the rough New York of the 1910s, may remind readers of Marjane Satrapi's Chicken with Plums. Unterzakhn shares with Satrapi's work the addictive thrill of learning about female lives in other places and times. The title means "underthings" -- a reference to the girls' mother's sewing, but also to the work the girls end up doing: Fanya, apprenticed to Bronia, the fearsome "lady-doctor," learns to brew abortion tea and to counsel women on early birth control, while Esther becomes a prostitute, a music-hall girl, a kept woman, and eventually a star. Corman's done her homework: her historical details and her characters' voices are convincing.

Corman's black-and-white visual style is also somewhat reminiscent of Satrapi's, particularly in her rendering of her two dark-eyed heroines. But Corman's more calligraphic line sometimes falls apart on the page, and she seems to be still finding the limits of her style. When she employs sketching strokes, the work looks unfinished rather than dreamy, hurried, or overwhelming. Some characters are drawn almost large enough to suggest that we're seeing people at their relative emotional size, but Corman doesn't follow up this potentially interesting perspective. And the design of panels is rarely striking, which means that readers can flip pages without taking in all their details.

This isn't to say that Corman's work is without charm; it's just that Corman's flair mostly centers around one character, Esther. With her expressive beauty mark, her deep-shadowed eyes, and her luxuriant hair (first flowing, later in a devastating bob), Esther soaks up the reader's eyes the way she does Corman's ink. Her curving poses set everything around her to music; she dresses like an Erté princess and moves like an Isadorable.  

And this isn't just a matter of looking: Esther's beauty and fluid grace sell her rather unlikely story line (she becomes the mistress of the mayor, who sets her up for life in his will). Corman lavishes more writing thought on her too. We see her progression through her wretched yet glamorous profession in detail: how heartbreak convinces her of the need to work her instinctual sex appeal, how she learns the kind of woman she has to be.

Her twin sister Fanya starts strong -- she's the bright one when they're kids, the feisty one -- but her story doesn't make sense, which distanced me from her drama. She acquires proto-feminist principles from Bronia ("Sexual slavery awaits the woman who allows a man to entrap her"), but she has her sister's high drive. You'd think a clever girl like Fanya would realize the need to reconcile these two -- and the need to find a way to pay the rent. I don't know whether Corman means to make a political point, that a woman like Fanya just couldn't survive back then, but the import of the novel overall is a clear victory for Esther's pragmatism.

Corman leaves a few other threads hanging that give the novel a rushed feeling. A friend of the girls' father from the old country turns up as Esther's promoter and sometime client, but nobody in the story ever puts this together. Two different stories of the girls' parents' marriage are never reconciled. Sometimes the issue is less consistency than a missed opportunity. An early scene shows Fanya painstakingly teaching Esther to read, over Esther's protests ("It makes my eyes hurt!"). Later, though, Esther reads effortlessly -- in fact, reading is essential to her eventual career as an actress -- but without any reference to how she learned to read.

These dropped stitches bother me more because Corman's caught a real spark of life here. How women survive, how they navigate the contradictory systems of sex, money, and safety, remains a fascinating subject, and we seem to still crave heroines in the struggle, whether they're steely strivers like Esther or brave flameouts like Fanya. I'm thinking now of Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth, which suggests the thought that such stories are often disappointing in their conclusions, however riveting the reading. Why? Is the problem historic: giving a realistic account of the problems of a particular place and time precludes providing a satisfying path for a woman through these problems? Or is this a problem of imagination: do we still not know what the urban heroine can do?

Unterzakhn by Leela Corman
Schocken
ISBN: 978-0805242591
208 pages