Monday, December 9, 2013

Strong Eye Contact

Written by Christopher Adams
Published by 2D Cloud

When I picked up Christopher Adams' Strong Eye Contact, I was immediately intrigued by the idea of creating a silent story about a stand-up comedian. At the same time however, I was worried based on my initial scan that it might be too abstract for me to review adequately, as I tend to gravitate towards more “literal” pieces. I’m glad that I didn’t shy away from it though, because it really challenged me to leave my comfort zone and explore a variety of uniquely interwoven themes.

We follow the protagonist, an unnamed immigrant and aspiring comedian, as he attempts to be, according to Adams, a “typical American”. Things do not go according to plan though. It’s not as much that he is unfamiliar with navigating things at the material level (indeed he is very drawn to material goods as I’ll explore later) or that he is unaccustomed to American folkways. It’s more so that given the stress of adjusting, his mind becomes cluttered, leading him to a series of mishaps, such as having accidents and car troubles. The word ‘burro’ appears on the soft-serve machine he operates as well on the sign of the pawn shop he visits, suggesting that this must be the name of the area he lives in. ‘Burro’ is Spanish for donkey, and I believe that it’s a great word choice as donkeys are often associated with foolishness, an idea that the protagonist has most likely internalized.

In the first half of the book, each page stands alone as a separate incident, but taken cumulatively, we see the wearing down of the protagonist. Each situation starts off hopeful and ends in some sort of disappointment. His perpetual “failings” are disheartening to both him and most likely the reader, but Adams smartly sets up each situation in a Buster Keaton-esque style, as he mentions, which is vital to lightening the mood of the story and providing some humor.

Segway troubles


This piece really explores the idea of what it means to achieve the “American Dream”. This concept, which has deep historical roots, suggests that the key to “success” is hard work. It’s an individualistic notion of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” even when the external world challenges you. And it reinforces the idea that if you are not able to thrive in this sort of culture, then you are a “failure”. The American Dream also ties into the idea that if you accumulate money and material things, you will be happy.  Indeed, while many economists agree that more money equals more satisfaction and have numbers to support it, others stand by the older Easterlin Paradox, which tenets that beyond a certain level of income that meets basic needs there is no correlation between personal income and happiness. Instead, it is RELATIVE income, aka. what is made in comparison to others, that affects happiness.

So what determines happiness then? The contrast between the protagonist spending a day at the arcade with his family versus him buying a waffle maker for his birthday and eating the waffle ALONE is telling. The former situation is the only time he seems genuinely happy, while each purchase, such as the waffle maker, leaves him unsatisfied.

Reading this, I started to think about the documentaries that I have seen on the Lost Boys of Sudan, including God Grew Tired of Us. The Lost Boys were a group of several thousand boys who were orphaned and/or displaced due to the Sudanese Civil War (1983-2005). Enduring unimaginable odds, they fled to refugee camps in Southern Sudan, Ethiopia, and Kenya. The US government and UN agreed to send a few groups of them to the US to resettle in different parts of the country. Yes, the two situations are very different, as No Eye Contact does not suggest that the protagonist endured any previous trauma before his emigration, but I thought of it because of how the documentaries shadowed the same exact process of adjusting to life in the US: striving to achieve the American Dream through material means despite facing tremendous isolation and difficulty making a living. Like some of the Lost Boys, we see the protagonist weather over time due to continued hardship, as reflected artistically in Adams’ transition from marker to rougher crayons and sparser images.

Adams' crayon work

The story according to Adams is a “kaleidoscope of crystalline memory fragments” that tell a larger narrative. Having a seamless narrative and identity is a human fallacy, so I’m glad to see Adams explore this. Most of our memory is episodic, yet we link it into the story of us to make better sense of our experiences and protect ourselves from the fact that our identity and sense of self are manufactured internally for survival. Comics inherently play with this idea in the use of panels, but Adams takes it further, deconstructing linear storytelling and blurring the line between wakefulness and dreaming.

The last section of the book, which is delineated by yet another shift in artwork, showcases a style not unlike an unstitched embroidery grid. I saw each image as a possible future. His environments alternate between natural, where he seems to thrive (e.g. riding a donkey victoriously through the desert and playing an acoustic guitar as opposed to his electric one from the States), and man-made, where he can’t function optimally (e.g. passed out on a basketball court or bleeding from a car accident).

In the first half of his book, Adams intersperses the protagonist’s episodes with abstract marker images of the local scenery which immediately resembled some Australian Aboriginal painting styles to me. At first I tried to decode them in a concrete way, like “Oh, this is Los Angeles” or “This is a cactus in front of a border fence”. Then, upon looking at them more, I started to see landscapes not unlike patchwork quilts or collections of biological processes (e.g. on one page, it looks like red blood cells flowing through capillaries). Despite the fragmented storytelling, there is indeed an integration of different universal elements of life.

"Little boxes on the hillside" or skin cells?
Riding into the...
After finishing the piece, I returned to the thing that originally sparked my interest, but in a different light. Why would he choose to be a stand-up comedian? Adams gives us little indication, as he does not flash back to reveal his motivations.  He does suggest that the protagonist struggles to make a living, as seen by an image of his empty bank account in the beginning. Besides the heartache that he continually experiences to integrate into the dominant culture, his quest to be a comedian, despite floundering finances or empty crowds humanizes him even more. He has a passion that gives him life despite the odds, and this is what matters.

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