The Ballad of the Happy Cafe: Mimi Pond’s “Over Easy”

Heart Shaped Rock on Windowsill

Heart Shaped Rock on Windowsill of Old House

Mimi Pond’s “Over Easy” (2014) made the Times graphic book bestseller list this Spring. “Over Easy” is another portrayal of a young woman working to define herself in a confusion of shifting cultural mores. Pond’s story is set in Oakland, around the same time as the first parts of Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis.” There are more similarities than the time frame, but in “Over Easy,” the risks are different, the scale closer-in. Pond’s theme is the counter-culture revolution. Bit of a pun there, for the stage is the “Imperial Café,” where Madge, like Marji of “Persepolis” an art school dropout, works her way up from dishwasher to waitress. In Madge’s view, the flower children have wilted, and we know what comes next, wintery thorns and fed-up punks and stones and drunks. The tone is set in comic book humor, in turns bawdy and raunchy, tough and touching. There’s less history, a smaller stage, than we find in “Persepolis,” but like Satrapi, Pond is a wit aiming at cultural targets.

I wrote about Marjane Satrapi and graphic writing in a post last week over at The Sultan’s Seal, Youssef Rakha’s blog. Rakha is a journalist and novelist. The Kenyon Review featured an interview with him in their “The KR Conversations” in June 2012. Regular readers of the Toads may note a bit more clarity and less ambiguity in style in my piece on Satrapi, not to mention shorter paragraphs, thanks to some nimble editing, but the dry sentence that skews and curls like the branches of a twisted cedar cypress remains my aim. That is the kind of sentence you don’t often find in graphic writing, though, where brevity of breath is necessary to allow the drawings to speak. Readers expect writers to conform to conventions encased in the style of a recognizable venue. Menu changes at the cafe can be disruptive. But graphic books challenge the experience and definition of literature.

“Over Easy” contains a few sentences that function like concrete poems, a coffee cup twirl, for example – you have to turn the book around in circles to read the sentence, a dizzying effect. And a sentence clothed, literally, in a dress. And another that wafts and waltzes across Oakland. The book is drawn in one color, the pale green of the 50’s and 60’s grammar school classroom. But the pacifying, school purpose green is thwarted by the counter-culture themes. Yet the tone is natural and realistic, in spite of the drug-hazed setting. There’s not much of a plot, unless you consider moving from the café to the bar for an after work beer a plot development. The book succeeds on its characterization and illustrations, and on the strength of the observations and reflections of the main character, Madge. Those reflections are limited though to her immediate environment. There’s not much engagement of life beyond the boundaries of the café. The war is over, and now this. But the close details of life within the café, the walks and bus rides to and from, in which we get a feel for life in Oakland, amid observant comments and informing dialog more than make up for the day-to-day storyboard episodic plot.

The realism and close-in detail of the drawings suggests an affinity with Edward Hopper, a link given the reader by several references in “Over Easy” to Hopper’s work. Hopper was not a cartoonist, but maybe he was, Madge seems to be saying, because the cartoon draws us into an atmosphere of assumptions and signifiers, the effect also of Hopper’s work. The idea of the signifier as a key to understanding Pond’s technique is also made explicit:

“It’s a busy weekend morning, and it’s very crowded. The crowd that piles up waiting for tables is a cavalcade of hipsters. And if you know anything about hipsters, you know that their signifiers tell you everything.”

Hopper’s paintings are significant in one aspect by their focus on the ordinary, the working class, the underclass, and how a crowded urban landscape can hurriedly empty out at night, leaving the focus on the light from a streetlamp or a neon light on a lone person or two, maybe sitting in a café or a bar or a small motel room, or standing on a corner waiting for a late night bus. This can be realism or nostalgia, naturalism or pastiche, and writing about it can lead to complex characters or caricature. Certainly parts of “Over Easy” are exaggerated, usually for comic effect. In places, the satire devolves to farce, particularly with the themes of drugs and sex, where no one seems to burn out and even free love can still be discounted to a quickie in the bathroom off the kitchen counter at the Imperial.

Lazlo, Madge’s boss, has four children, the oldest a 14 year old daughter, but children or old people don’t figure prominently in the book. Each character is well drawn, in illustration and dialog. The strips flow. Madge seems somewhat conservative compared to her peers, thus her attitude reaches toward a kind of desired normalcy based on reactions to her environment. She doesn’t like hippies. She makes fun of Patty Hearst, whose problems surely resulted, Madge thinks, from her choice to be an art history major at Berkeley. There are foil characters, each waitress highlighting another, the cooks playing off one another. Lazlo knows Latin, is “over-educated,” and the book ends with a sudden idea for a poetry reading at the café. The poetry surprises everyone in one way or another. It’s hard to hide behind a poem. Something gets revealed. The book ends in a poetic vision, where poetry is a kind of felt atmosphere that suggests longing and quiet in a particular light.

“Over Easy” is a kind of comedy of manners, or a satire on the comedy of manners. One might assume, given the setting, no manners, but the counter-culture creates its own rules of respectability and values. Besides, Madge says:

“I need approval. I need respect. I want it to be clear: I’m not just a waitress.”

She is an artist, but she wants recognition in some established venue.

How should a story be told? Madge’s observations are keen, the interior of a bar, for example, “lit only by the juke box.” In another example, the Hopper like details convey tone and atmosphere and signify or trigger assumptions as Madge describes her rented, old house (which in today’s gentrified markets she couldn’t afford to rent):

“In these old houses, you will find, on old paint-flaked windowsills…tiny bronze hands, dried rosebuds, crystals, dead butterflies, heart-shaped rocks…old medicine bottles….”

Gentrification removes those items from the house and replaces them with a real Edward Hopper hanging from a refinished wall. Where does Madge get the idea that to be a waitress is to be “just a waitress?” Like Marji’s predicament in “Persepolis,” there are parents still at work in the background of one’s influences. Is the graphic book the recognition Madge was looking for as a waitress? Is the graphic novel gentrifying into literature?

“Over Easy,” by Mimi Pond. Published by Drawn & Quarterly, April 2014. 271 pages in a sturdy hardcover edition, thick paper, sewn and bound.

Abaft the Blues Fest

Red-orange earworms admonish taptoo! fashion,
now clear the drum is an old, beat suitcase
rigged with foot pedal, and, too, there they are,
tin bells on his curled toes, as literal as pencil lead,
as calloused as an oak pew hymnal.

Lavender fresh, she sang at Hop’s Hootenanny,
sipped mint juleps from a food cart pulled
by a calico cat in zither shade by a stream
under an old willow, but the bell pull string broke
under the weight of his monolog cartogram.

On top of it, academic aristocracy whizzed
by dressed in pressed berets and scholarly drafts -
what difference they followed the leader or not?
Collectors yodeled passwords, unlocking a juke joint,
and raspberry chords popped up oily fishes.

No need now to call placid plumber, three blue
hydrangeas wilting in bath humid heat,
down by the river, down by the wash,
down by the singing and the top posh posts
written with plush plumes of lacks and noods.

Safe sound spillway falls, noise overflows,
ears carp and loud lips cop bad press,
but dolce glissando this urgently close still
makes some sense, and at the first aid tent
they polish their moonstone eyes.

Paste fast food milk turns cast iron sour,
and butter curdles her chlorine-yellow hair
as they stuff bitter newspapers with trust,
dogpaddling thru pull duck old cobwebs,
but empty, golden juke boxes near finish him.

On Line 15 on the way back home, the night
quietly spinning, the river sparkling crinkly
as the bus crosses the Hawthorne Bridge,
a lone accordion pulls and lulls images only
understood asleep or listening to music.

Sidewalk Chalk Pastel with Haiku

Over at Miriam’s Wellan invitation to a haiku. And why not? As it happened, I was working on a post of pics that lacked captions, not that they needed any, but a bit of word garnish on a gallery augments the gadzooks. The haiku, posted on Miriam’s site, came in walking stride:

a            long            old            side            walk

a            child’s            pastel            chalk            drawing

blue             orange            bird             feathers

Oh blue bird’s posit
bald caw clears scald orange glory
down green wave evening.

Oh quick bird’s message
clear and cold sweet morning wake
again post evening.

Oh to be a bird
who sings each morning sunup
and feathers sundown.

Oh drifted droop bird
lands on hand chalk covered walk
feather dust bath wash.

Oh rabbit molt moon
rises on sun’s dwilting back
enough for one day.

Oh quiet streetlamp moon
paper birds rise up to you
words fall to sidewalk.

Oh artist angel
dance brushes painterly dust
sidewalk chalk drawing.

And don’t forget to check out Miriam’s Well.

 

Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart”

What is the “relation between literature and life” in Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart”? Maybe just this, that they both might move us to tears. But moving readers to tears may not have been Flaubert’s intent. If readers want to be moved to tears, all they need do is hit the streets, where reality resides, or watch the news. They don’t need books. But is crying into a book a kind of pleasure?

“’A Simple Heart’…moved me to tears,” Russell Baker said, in “Hymns to Joy,” a New York Times article, the quote selected for the back of a New Directions “Bibelot” (NDP819, 64 pages). What was omitted in the ellipsis was Baker’s simple guess that most literary folks probably will have read Flaubert’s tale of the long life of a 19th Century French servant, Felicite, but he had not. Baker selected it as he was gathering reading material to take on a vacation. But the angle of his article wasn’t about Flaubert or reading that moves one to cry, but the suggestion that reading for pleasure has become a lost pastime. But wouldn’t a common reader going on vacation want something a bit more éclair than Flaubert? But what is pleasure?

Like Baker, I had never read Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart,” and I wasn’t sure I’d ever heard of Russell Baker. A cursory search found a witty, prolific journalist, and a host of Masterpiece Theatre – ah, of course. But I was sure of Harry Levin, also quoted on the back cover, having read his “Critical Introduction” to James Joyce. In Levin’s book “Gates of Horn: A Study of Five French Realists” (1963), he says his subject is “the relation between literature and life.” Can literature not true to life move a reader to tears? Should literature resemble life? But what is life? In any case, while I wasn’t moved to tears by Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart,” I was moved to put something up on the blog – but what?

A recent post over at Bristlehound’s “navelgazer” blog takes on death as its topic. It’s a good post, witty and courageous. But as I get older, I think less of death than I do of getting older. Jenny Diski recently put something up at the Guardian on the topic of aging, concluding aging might be something easier to read about than to live through. I’ve written a bit about aging in past posts, and Flaubert’s passages on Felicite’s aging and passing reminded me of Atul Gawande’s moving articles on aging. How we respond to death may simply reflect how we respond to life. If life is a bummer, so too is death. If we take grudges to the grave, or we let others pass without our making amends, life is constriction. But none of this should bring tears to any reader’s eyes. Flaubert named his heroine Felicite for a reason, and he was a master of realism. Felicite is happiness, happy, another Gawande theme. But what is happiness?

Felicite is happy in spite of her predicament. This is why Flaubert named her Felicite – she is Flaubert’s definition of happiness. Her life begins with the existential decision to leave home after a potential partner jilts her for a chance with a woman with some dough. The only dough Felicite knows is the kind made into bread. But while Felicite is dependent on her mistress, she is independent in her capabilities, her skills, her ability to read others. It all seems so random, yet the plot elements also seem to fall into place naturally, inevitably, logically. Felicite examines her life, and it is worth living. Her every day is part of the exam, a test, in the end, she passes, even as the house decays and implodes upon her, while life in the street explodes with color and ritual and motion.

Allotment of Melancholy

ThistleAt the far end of the abandoned allotment,
amidst a nest of thistles and thorny briers,
melons grew, in the shade of a holly tree,
and cauliflower, collared by an old cement
wall, its once smooth patina worn rough,
sand and gravel flaking and falling off,
hairy creepers and mosses bolting on.

Cheated out of sunshine in the afternoon
shadow of the dark green holly, the melon
flowers withered, and fruit refused to set.
Only one in nine survived, a random vine
lucratively climbing up the wall and thru
a fence, squashing into a square section
of wire, hanging tentatively in the sun.

The melon was watered by an old woman
named Irony, who rummaged the once
lusty garden for volunteer fruits, herbs,
and vegetables. She gathered mustard,
chamomile, rosemary, whatever she could
find in the wild thickets. Irony, shaped
like a thorn, rode a bicycle to the garden.

She carried water in a jug in the basket
on the handlebars and put her cuttings
in saddlebags that hung over the back fender.
She noticed a morning glory had sprouted,
threatening the melon. She pulled the invasive
vine away, uncovering on the wall names:
“Adam Hugh Penelope & Lily – 1943.”

The names were scratched into the cement,
crudely, as if with some blunt instrument
improvised for printing, but deep enough
to still see as the wall face peeled away.
To every season there is an allotment
of time, a measure of sour spoils
as soon sprout start to diminish.

Sea Chanty at the Wave Door Inn

FishA pip with ivory key opens Flat 9
a single berth frigate thick
anchored against treachery.

…Sing, slosh, go quick

Somber sailor stows weary bags
samples and strolls up Dolphin Bridge
across dreary docks and yawning yachts.

…Boil, boys, go quick

Away across the bay retired
fishing boats lean satisfied
old fishermen falling fence grasses.

…Sing, blast, go quick

Genteel joint jangles with jazz
brittle black guitar soft in the breeze
smooth nickel strings flat wound.

…Sing, quaff, go quick

Ballasted double scale bass mast
cherry kit pearl edged march snare
weather polished saxophone droops.

…Sing, dogs, go quick

He takes the troglodyte trail
blue green seaweed fills slowly
night sky triple dotted whole notes.

…Sing, land, go quick

Guzzles bottled bitter ale
blue taxi breezes by rigged for rough weather
spills yellow over green street.

…Sing, loop, go quick

A reenlistment party whoops adrift:
One tells a tale of an antediluvian mermaid
singing in the surf to the drunken sailor
early in the glassed off morning.