Liana Finck’s Skeptical Mythologizing

Just as there is a strong tradition in American literature of Jewish-American writers in the short story and novel form–Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, Cynthia Ozick, Saul Bellow, Joshua Cohen–there is also a strong tradition in American literature of Jewish-American cartoonists and graphic novelists - Will Eisner, Jules Feiffer, Roz Chast, Art Spiegelman and Ben Katchor, among others. Comics and cartoons, because they are made out of images, words, and narrative, come out of the literary and visual traditions, and I think some current work in cartoons and graphic novels, like Chris Ware’s work, or Gabrielle Bell’s, is just as powerful as any work being done in prose fiction - while also involving visual art, which is quite a staggering achievement if you think about it. Another way of saying this is there’s been a renaissance going on for some time now in the world of graphic novels, and a renaissance means a kind of ripening. To say that graphic novels are as powerful as the prose fiction being written, is to say that artists like Ware and Bell have achieved something unprecedented. Liana Finck belongs in this company, not only for her work in the graphic novel, but also–unlike Ware and Bell–her work in the single-panel cartoon.

Finck combines an impressionistic genius with a singular and lyrical style, creating art that is concentrated into various and endlessly interpretable images. Although she has recently published a new book–Let There Be Light (Penguin Random House, 2022), which is interesting in different ways–I think her more fascinating work so far has been in her first three: A Bintel Brief: Love and Longing in Old New York (HarperCollins, 2014); Passing for Human: A Graphic Memoir (Penguin Random House, 2018); and Excuse Me: Cartoons, Complaints, and Notes to Self (Penguin Random House, 2019). Finck's art is like experiencing the primary colors in a totally different, sophisticated, and sometimes wonderfully Yiddish-inflected way; like Katchor, there is a willed, mature child-like quality to her drawings that carries an enormous depth of thought, feeling, and imagination. In the process, she makes art that is imaginative and skeptical in subtle and profound ways, that bends the literary, visual, and cartoon traditions enough to snap and shape them in new ways.

Of her first four books, I think Passing for Human is her best. So, for the purposes of this essay, I’m going to focus on it, because I don’t think it has received the attention it deserves, and because I think the newer Let There Be Light, though a departure in some ways, still seems to me slightly derivative of it. Passing for Human harks back to novels like Italo Calvino’s If on a winter's night a traveler and Vladimir Nabokov’s The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, evidencing an interest in stories within stories as a metaphor for life as a continuous recurrence of endless re-startings. The first time I read it, and whenever I reread it–the test of a good book being if we can reread it and experience new things about it, and ourselves, others and the world; a shield against staleness, we could say–I feel I am encountering something I have never encountered before, because of the idiosyncratic memorability of her voice, the complexity and plasticity of her style, and her ability to tell an absorbing, funny, and moving story. Passing for Human is a coming-of-age tale that recounts Finck’s process of reaching a sort of maturity as an artist through the story of her parents meeting and herself growing up, yet the uniqueness of the book derives from the way in which Finck combines an autobiographical storytelling acumen with the wondrously minimalist, nervous line that is her own - and a sly sense of humor that has a soft touch and a strong kick.

Finck is an innovative thinker, meaning she does not get enough credit for her ability to reimagine traditional narratives in ways that explode these narratives and open them up for a wider audience. The etymology of “tradition” means both to deliver and betray; Finck, through her retelling of the Hebrew Bible creation story in Let There Be Light, and her more indirect (but I think more satisfying, more novelistic and less brisk) retelling of the same story in Passing for Human, is able to do what in the Jewish mystical tradition, through the teaching of Isaac Luria, is referred to as shevirah ha-kelim: meaning “the shattering of the vessels”. Or, what Harold Bloom, patron sage of good weird artists the world around, referred to in a title of a book of his lectures as Ruin the Sacred Truths. Finck, like any great artist, is a heretic, meaning she is subversive in fabulous ways; and the fact that she is a woman updating Jewish tradition in such a radical and enjoyable manner only adds to the reasons why she should be more read, and her achievement more appreciated and recognized.

Let me give an example of the innovative ways in which Finck delivers and betrays. In Passing for Human, after we have read the narrator Leola’s origin story about how her parents met–as well as her own narrative about school, and being bullied, like any good weird artist worth his or her salt, and finding solace, justice and catharsis through discovering her own voice after drawing a caricature of a teacher–Finck introduces the image and idea of the shadow, perhaps the most original conceptual aspect of the book. (Concepts in Finck's work are elastic; she does with them what she will, and this is one reason why her work is exciting.) We follow this concept and image of the shadow as it changes throughout the book, in the same way a metaphor in Emerson will morph and mutate as we read his prose, evidencing an enormous and thrilling adventurousness in thinking. For example, a shadow will fly through the window, give sage advice to a character - but then at another moment in time dwindle to a whisper, or even a non-presence, often equated with a kind of spiritual or artistic void or block. But it also seems to go and come as it pleases, with a more separate existence than we normally ascribe to an inward kind of creative conscience.

Then, in the penultimate section, we enter black pages, and the shadow itself narrates; and within the narration of Leola’s shadow, we are given a story narrated by Leola’s mother’s shadow to Leola’s shadow, about Leola’s great-grandmother, and her relationship to her daughter, Shoshana Reyzel. L’dor vador, in other words, what means in the Jewish tradition “from generation to generation,” meaning the importance of being connected to one’s history, one’s lineage, one’s people, one’s imaginative and real community. This is Finck’s version of it (although the whole book is, in a sense, a commentary through art on the meaning of l’dor vador), and it is beautiful, poignant, and powerful:

The last image is a gesture we could call, with much relish, Finckian. We see Leola’s shadow flying with her mother’s shadow, to see her great-grandmother playing with the shadow of her daughter, Shoshana Reyzel. L’dor vador. And there is in these pages such a sense of shaping, of clay, which seems like a guiding metaphor for much of Finck’s work, including her conceptualization of how art and babies are made.

What is the shadow? How might we think about it? I read it as analogous to the part of the human being that is capable of growing - not physically but inwardly, perceptively, socially, imaginatively, cathartically. A soul, in a sense. Finck’s achievement is her un-idealizing of the shadow, while giving us images of it that captivate the attention and make us think, feel, imagine, and wonder. She is a master artist - we can see a kind of almost frightening prowess in her drawings of different men in “The Gallery of Missing Husbands” from A Bintel Brief. The shadow is trauma and tradition - familial, literary, artistic, and otherwise. It’s the thing inside a human being that seeks, rages, and knows. Both a metaphor for the disfiguring and configuring aspect of influence, it is also desire, sex, the imaginary, and the actual. It can be lost and found; it can speak; it can skip a generation; it can be breathed into like a bellows, shaped like bread, lifted like a spoon.

And to read these pages is to realize Finck’s genius for playing with identification. The way in which we read the passage depends on our own shadow, but the work is rich enough to give out different valid interpretations based on the issues one’s own shadow brings to the page. Who do we identify with in the images, and what does that say about our own shadows? Art–its creation and reception–is not utilitarian or merely psychological, but there is a relationship between the imagination and psychology, just as there is a relationship between catharsis and social justice. The best imaginative works are, in overt and covert ways, meditations on love and separation, but powerful enough to enact those things via the dance of the work. We separate through anger, but the way in which we channel our anger dictates how we separate, and art is a form of that channeling, a form of violence that heals and pushes. This is why art is a process more of feeling than thought, since thought can lead to repression, and therefore limit the boundlessness of art; feeling, meanwhile, shapes thought, since the imagination is the shaping power for feeling and thought, and love the kind of engine behind the imagination. Passing for Human, like all the best works of art, teaches us how to read art by showing us what’s possible. This is one reason why Finck’s graphic memoir is masterful. It allows us to access our own shadows, to offer possibilities for human beings interested in narrative, image and voice, and gives us permission to think, feel, imagine, and find our own voices.

The plasticity of the image and concept of the shadow in Finck is part and parcel of a larger ability to give us works of art that can be interpreted endlessly. This in turn seems part of Finck’s complicated skepticism, for she is often somehow smiling and raising an eyebrow at the same time. There is a famous quote from Pirkei Avot to “build an open enclosure to the Torah.” If we read sacred and secular works as forms of Torah, then we can say that Finck’s work is both inviting and forbidding, because it is honest, sometimes enjoyably cruel, eccentric in the best way, and it opens literary, visual, and Jewish traditions to a wider audience.

As a cartoonist, Finck seems to have been influenced by Roz Chast (her interview with Chast here is fascinating), William Steig and Jules Feiffer, among many others. From Chast she derives an example for using her own experience as a Jew and woman to draw cartoons, though Finck’s sense of humor is different from Chast’s, like the difference between the head-shaking, grin-inducing oy vey (Chast) and the chuckle-causing of a Yiddish curse (“All problems I have in my heart, should go to his head”). Sometimes, especially in A Bintel Brief, she captures exactly a kind of Yiddish mood or ambiance; how a character in a Bernard Malamud story might speak, or the feel of a room. From Steig she derives a joviality and an interest in children's literature. And from Feiffer she derives a satirical edge and also something in her line - a lanky jaggedness, a scribble scrawl; something nervous, jittery and expressive, thin.

To give a brief sense of Finck’s tentative accomplishment in the one-panel cartoon form, here’s a 1930s New Yorker cartoon chosen at random from volume 1 of The New York Encyclopedia of Cartoons. The artist is Richard Decker. In it, we can see some things that Finck extends from that tradition, as well as things she discards. Here’s the cartoon:

Like many New Yorker cartoons, we have to take a few moments to pause and figure out what it means. As we look, consider, and think about it, we realize that a man in a horse costume has had some kind of physical or emotional issue (explaining humor is a mug’s game), and that the man to the left, addressing the house, is asking if there is a doctor in the audience. I don’t know what other people think, but I don’t find this cartoon funny. It feels labored, even weirdly somber - the wash of shadows in the background of the drawing; the dress of the men, and its suggestion of suited professionalism. Even the horse doesn’t really tickle the funny bone.

The cartoon feels formulaic, though that shouldn’t be surprising. New Yorker cartoons are mostly based on a formula, albeit a successful one, like Coca-Cola, that often involves poking fun at society–mostly from the perspective of very literate society people themselves–while signifying a sort of contemporaneous knowingness. Many of the jokes take place in an intellectual world involving things like visual art, or references to myth or psychoanalysis, and there is usually a light touch and a fun-if-you’re-in-on-the-in-joke troping of tropes, narratives, myths, and motifs. The humor, like all humor, derives from incongruity and satire. We might see galley slaves discussing management theory, or a cat holding a “Jesus Love You!” sign, or a husband dog confessing very soberly to his wife dog in a bed in a fancy apartment that he has fleas. The spirit of New Yorker cartoons are often buoyant, knowing, kvetchy, and world-weary, like someone giggling incredulously.

A relationship between the cartoon form in the New Yorker and painting is moot - one doesn’t feel New Yorker cartoonists are attempting to be Picassos or Miros or whatever, and the very sharp, shrugging, what-do-you-want-from-me winking humility of the one-panel New Yorker cartoon is what makes the form heymish. Finck’s one-panel cartoons poke fun at these formulas in marvelous ways, honoring the past while exploring new territory, akin to Manny Farber’s concept of “termite art”. Another critic, Clement Greenberg, once wrote in a short book review of Steig’s All Embarrassed:

A good deal of automatism has gone into [the drawings] as well as a full acquaintance with Klee, Picasso, and particularly Miro, yet they do not manage to escape the neatness and the formularization of the cartoon - nor will they until Steig forces himself to leave his forms more open and to take into greater account the shape of the page.1

This is a fascinating comment, because Greenberg looked at drawings as paintings, or at least in the context of painting, and therefore with a similar set of qualitative expectations. Greenberg is an easy target, like Harold Bloom, because the best critics always have a particular slant - if they didn’t, their criticism would be too chaotic. But ideally the slant is helpful for the art at that time, and can open directions, as Greenberg did with the Abstract Expressionists and Color Field painters, or Bloom did with John Ashbery, A.R. Ammons, Jay Wright and James Merrill, or early Yeats, or Farber did with B movies. A slant is a way of seeing and therefore a way of valuing; and I think Finck, like the best artists, sees the world in an important and different way, and that her cartoons are therefore a form of criticism, just as criticism at this point, in works by Bloom or Greenberg or Farber, is a form of art.

For example, my favorite of Finck’s cartoons is this, from her Instagram page, with the title “Mood”:

How do we read this? It is hilariously simple, and yet somehow bizarrely complicated. What do we see? Is it a man, horizontal, placing his hands in his pockets? Is it the infinity sign with a significant chunk of it missing? Is it a casual pincer? Faulty goggles? A dog with a too-close word balloon? A dog kissing a masked chicken? The point is that Finck raises enormously provocative questions about perception, and its relationship to interpretation. For Finck, there is no difference between how we perceive–how we see ourselves, others, and the world–and how we interpret: how we think about ourselves, others, and the world. In a way, it is a different form–Finck’s posts on Instagram–than either her books or her one-panel New Yorker cartoons. Finck’s IG postings are more processual, and they are heuristics for both thought and identification, challenges, puzzles, check-ins, means for gauging where she as an artist is at. I don’t know if Finck’s one-panel cartoons or IG posts approach the depths of her work in the graphic novel, but that would seem like a preposterously unfair expectation for a one-panel cartoon or drawing (would it?). But Finck’s work, like the emergent genre of flash fiction, or even an album like The Magnetic Fields’ Quickies, or the vignette approach in Let There Be Light, seems to change the quicksilver link-click quality of our culture into a virtue rather than a distraction or rabbit hole: she can make even an instant profound, and she does it with a style and courage that is her own.

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  1. From The Collected Essays and Criticism, Volume 2: Arrogant Purpose, 1945-1949, John O'Brian, ed., p. 11 (University of Chicago Press, 1986).