You’re at a party and someone is telling you all about their new job, new significant other, new something. You’re trying to listen, but all you can concentrate on is making eye contact, like you’ve been taught. Don’t look over their shoulder or at their moist mouth. You try staring at the left eye. Then the right. It’s not possible to split focus on both eyes, is it? You start fixating more on the performative act of communication than the actual practice. That zone right there — where you’re half-listening and fraught and floating with self-consciousness — that’s the feeling Tommi Parrish explores in Perfect Hair: a book that may not make you happy to be alive, but sure will make you glad you’re a comic reader.
Perfect Hair is a collection of water-colored short stories full of anxious, marble-headed people trying to take one day, and one breath, at a time. The attention paid to characters’ uneasy inner lives make me think of another 2016 stand-out, Beverly by Nick Drnaso, but Perfect Hair is devoid of all of Beverly’s Midwestern hush-hush “aw shucks” niceties. Parrish transitions from someone crying in the bathroom of a sex club to someone else arguing about identity with their dying, hallucinating grandmother. The exaggerated barrel bodies of all these longing humans are also highlighted by Parrish’s page structures. At one point, Parrish depicts a character stripping off their skin and then slowly strolling into the white abyss of an empty page and disappearing. Parrish also deploys inset panels, which is always a risky move, especially in a young artist’s first book. But here, they are utilized to shake free minute expressions from the larger panel it sits atop of. When used commandingly and sparingly, like Parrish does here, those inset panels really have an effect not only on the pacing, but also the subtle details that make these stories so haunting. As a reader, you never quite get settled in, even when Parrish’s artwork does.
There is a superb 4-pager in the middle of the book called “Generic Love Story”. We learn about “Figure #1” and “Figure #2” — their fears, their odd habits, their favorite bands — as they get closer to having sex. Parrish draws each figure with one black pupil and an indistinct long nose. When they kiss, a transparent blue tube connects one orbed head to the other. They are bald, naked, and genderless, which prevents you from relating to them, even as you learn more and more intimate details from the narrator. You don’t know if they are long-time lovers, or they just met a minute before Parrish opened the door to you. This all makes it pretty exhilarating and voyeuristic. The fact that it’s augmented by literally looking down on these two people from above makes the reader, along with the narrator, treat them like an impartial commonplace case study. I’ve never felt so connected to detachment.
Lonesomeness, dread, selfhood — these are some of the main themes touched upon in the 72 pages of Perfect Hair. These topics are never easy to talk about or even comprehend, but Parrish fully realizes them and with surefooted confidence, doesn’t shy away from anything, delving deeper and deeper into distressing psyches. Pefect Hair, like many 2dcloud books, made me feel supremely uncomfortable, and that I’m grateful for.