I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed reading about someone’s discomfort quite as much as I did in Adrian Tomine’s Shortcomings (Drawn & Quarterly). Ben Tanaka is underemployed and in a relationship that’s clearly on its last legs. He and Miko have reached that phase where they spend more time dissecting each other’s behavior than connecting in any meaningful way. The precision of their criticism and the passivity of their mutual aggression is strangely breathtaking.
Under normal circumstances, it would be simplicity itself to just point and laugh at Ben’s many dysfunctions. His best source of comfort seems to be the reliability of his discontent, his desire for things he doesn’t have and reluctance to let go of what he does, no matter how dissatisfying it may be. So when Miko leaves Berkeley for New York for an internship, Ben is torn between inertia and opportunity.
He takes the opportunity of Miko’s absence to explore an aspect of his nature that he’s spent a lot of energy vehemently denying exists – an attraction to white women. Ben doesn’t really take any pride in his Japanese-American identity, but it still trips him up. It’s another thing to blame when life goes wrong, and something resembling pride bubbles up when it can make an uncomfortable situation worse.
His attempts at courting blondes go about as well as you’d expect, and Tomine isn’t even slightly above punishing Ben for his ambivalence. But Tomine isn’t wagging his finger and saying, “See? This is what happens when you step outside of your comfort zone.” He’s just showing what happens to someone like Ben tries to hedge his bets.
If I didn’t end up liking Ben (he’s a liar and a hypocrite), I did find him absolutely engrossing. He’s a perfectly conceived jerk, and his skill at deflection and contrarianism almost qualifies as a mutant ability. There’s never a “Poor Ben” moment in the book, though Tomine persuades me that Ben’s not entirely to blame for his circumstances. The bits of comeuppance Ben endures are funny and resonant, and I felt like I’d been watching him stumble for years instead of a hundred pages or so.
Add in Tomine’s clean, absorbing art and his pitch-perfect mini-satires of so many worthy targets (the art scene, academia, independent film, and so on), and you’re left with one of the most readable books of the year.