Sugar Town

The other day I asked a friend how it was possible to love more than one person. One of the differences between the person I used to be and the person I am now is that I didn’t used to know any polyamorous people – that I knew of, at least, which may say more about me than the rest of the world – but now I’m acquainted with many. And the phenomenon puzzles me.

Not, I should stress, because of any misplaced judgment on my part. Rather, getting to know people in very happy and functional open and / or polyamorous living situations has expanded my horizons in terms of something that up until recently was not discussed openly in American society. My puzzlement stems not from disapproval – obviously, it’s completely none of my business what consenting adults get up to with one another – but from a simple psychological disconnect. There’s a part of my brain that tries to imagine what it’s like and simply comes up short, or winds up grasping at painful straws that lead down dark roads to jealousy and self-loathing. The process usually ends up forcing me to reflect on my own understanding of possessiveness and permissiveness in relationships, before finally concluding that, much like any other kind of intimate relationship, non-monogamy is something that either makes sense to you or doesn’t. When I asked my friend how they were able to do such a thing, I was stymied by a gap in vocabulary between someone who was actively living the practical realities of non-monogamy and someone like myself for whom the idea of non-monogamy is deeply unsettling.

The answer to the question of how to love more than one person is apparently just that some people do and some people don’t. If you don’t it’s not a problem for you, and if you do it’s essentially a matter of logistics.

The virtue in a book like Hazel Newlevant’s Sugar Town lies in the ability of a cartoonist like Newlevant to illustrate the interior processes native to a social relationship which many if not most readers may never experience or even approve. Rather than explain polyamory with charts and graphs and blockquotes from The Ethical Slut Newlevant shows the reader precisely what the process entails – and more important than the “what,” the “how” of how the participants conceptualize themselves as ethical actors within nontraditional relationships.

That may very well be the most vital aspect of the book in terms of illustrating just how these relationship mechanics work: Newlevant is preoccupied above all in ensuring that all her romantic entanglements are ethical. That forms the motor for the book’s major conflict, an internal struggle within the protagonist (also named Hazel, coincidentally!) to make sure that her own actions are always within the bounds of informed consent for all parties. This requires, as you can imagine, a great deal of work.

Something Newlevant does an excellent job of illustrating is the way people’s social lives are now often split evenly between actual and virtual communities. At the beginning of the book Hazel is at a party. She doesn’t know anyone. But one of the consolations of living in an era of smart phones is that even wallflowers now have something to do. Smartphones in this respect have also proven a boon to cartoonists because, while sitting on your phone and chatting “in real life” might be static and private activities, a comic can use this convention for exposition. Hazel is split between a conversation with her friend on her phone and her interactions with the rest of the party. Because she exists simultaneously in two different and distinct social spheres, the book presents Hazel’s internal conflict as being partly between virtual and actual worlds – a conflict also shaped by the understanding that she is in turn a virtual presence for people living on the other side of the county.

Her first words in the story are texts sent to her boyfriend Gregor: “There’s a million cute queers here! It’s a winter wonderland! And I’m the weird elf who doesn’t know anyone.” Gregor is with her throughout the text despite the fact that he is never actually present physically. This is another aspect of . . . for lack of a better term, “modern life,” that the book nails: communities and social ties are increasingly spread over wide distances and bridged only virtually. Newlevant premises her story on the matter-of-factness with which anyone under the age of, say, 35 accepts that most people their age split their lives now between these distinct physical and virtual spheres.

That’s the crux: Gregor is on the other side of the country but Hazel is stuck in Portland. She meets a woman named Argent at the party, and before either of them are really aware of what’s happened they’re flirting and dancing and talking about sex work. Argent’s dominatrix name is – Hazel. On such coincidences are romances built! But Hazel has to be careful because although there’s an instant and unmistakable connection with Argent she still has a boyfriend on the other side of the country. Every move with Argent has to be negotiated with Gregor in advance – but Gregor has his own other girlfriend, too. As he puts it to her by phone later in the book, “Us being all jealous at the same time . . . it means we both care, right?” Hazel replies, “As long as the feeling doesn’t control me.”

Many readers will await an external conflict that never arises. The tensions within Hazel are resolved peacefully when she learns to accept that she can love both Argent and Gregor without having to compromise with either – Argent lives in Oregon and Gregor lives in New York, so she gets to have the best of both worlds. Everyone gets what they want in the end, which may be startling to anyone expecting inevitable conflict as a result of divided loyalties.

It’s difficult to overstate just how cute this book is. I realize under many circumstances the adjective “cute” might be seen as condescending or even pejorative, but as a queer woman writing a review about a book featuring other queer women, I stand by my judgment that “cute” is in this case objectively correct. This is a world I recognize: people living slightly outside the heteronormative mainstream, some of whom are poly, or pan, or in open relationships, or work in the sex industry, or basically do just about anything but get married and settle down with a main squeeze. I sincerely wish I was cool enough to get invited to parties like the one where Argent and Hazel meet, but I certainly know the type of people who would be there – there’s the chick with the side cut, oh, there’s the other chick with the side cut, and there’s the chick with the side cut and a septum ring . . . 

Every page of the book is infused with an aesthetic understanding of queerness as a way of life defined (at least within these pages) by kindness and respect. The pastels may contrast at times but the effect is never garish: there’s a (relatively tame) flogging scene colored in various shades of pink that manages to somehow be both sensual and tender at the same time. The coloring is similarly expressive throughout the entire book. Newlevant uses gradiants but they’re never grating – rather, since the book was clearly designed to be colored with them the gradiants are used intelligently to convey changing mood. I admit under most circumstances I’m a fan of flat color, and most gradiants are used either in recoloring older books that were explicitly designed for flat color, or are just ugly because the colorist has no real clue what they’re doing. Newlevant does have a clue, and uses the intensity of the vivid digital palette to create a welcoming, emotionally reactive environment in which her characters can move about.

It’s that emotional honesty, more than anything else, that elevates Sugar Town beyond the reader’s expectations. It’s a book that deals frankly with some very tender feelings – deep vulnerability, yes, but also embarrassment, passion, anxiety, and finally genuine love. It’s this last one that stuck with me after I closed the book, because the emotional experiences illustrated throughout – while very legible to me as recognizable from relationships of people I know – are still premised on an acceptance of multiple forms of love that may indeed prove a sticking point for many readers. As I said above, it’s something that either makes sense to you or doesn’t. The book makes little attempt to coddle anyone who might be instinctively repulsed by the idea.

It doesn’t make sense to me, personally, in much the same way that being attracted to men doesn’t make sense to me, or being attracted to women might not make sense to you. But the value in a book like Newlevant is that it offers a glimpse into emotional realities that can exist parallel to your own, offering a glimpse (for those who will take it) of a world with slightly different rules but inhabited by people very much like you or me, whose only real difference is in how they choose to love the people they love. It doesn’t have to make sense to me for it to make sense to them, but I am grateful for the opportunity to see how it does make sense to people one half-step in another direction.

There’s no shortage of need for love in this world, and so long as the participants are going about their business in an ethical fashion that does no (nonconsensual!) harm, it’s no one else’s business. That Newlevant has been generous enough to open up her business to people like myself who may require a bit of a leap to get to an emotional understanding of loving more than one person at the same time is to her credit as a creator and a human being.


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