I confess that I’m not very good at graphic novels. I’ve read only a handful of them, and my tendency is always the same: to read the words and race past the art. I have to force myself to slow down and look at what, after all, is at least half of the story in this medium. I enjoy them, but I may not really be the best audience for them.
All this is to say, somewhat diffidently, that I couldn’t really get into Good-bye, Chunky Rice, by Craig Thompson. I read and enjoyed his graphic memoir, Blankets, a couple of years ago, and decided to search out his debut. It’s the story of a turtle, Chunky Rice, who has decided he must pull up stakes and move on (why? the urge is never clarified), leaving behind his best friend (girlfriend? I couldn’t ever tell for sure), a mouse deer, Dandel. The narrative alternates between three story lines: Chunky Rice’s adventures aboard the ship he takes for the Kahootney Islands, including a pair of conjoined twins, a Motown-hating sea captain, and a faceless cook; Dandel’s roaming around the town Chunky Rice has left, collecting bottles so she can write him messages and throw them out to sea; and the history of Chunky Rice’s former roommate, a lonely longshoreman who befriends a canary, Merle.
The art is beautiful, I’ll give it that. The pictures tip and flow into each other like the sea our turtle-hero is sailing on, and the layouts are interesting. Thompson makes the turtle and the mouse innocent and bittersweet; there’s scarcely a happy moment in the novel, which explores love and loss and longing. But it never cohered for me. It’s more of a novella than a novel, and perhaps that contributed; it was a bit too short to have much of a story arc, and many of the characters are surreal caricatures. It wasn’t a challenging story — there’s no such thing as goodbye between friends! — and I was left feeling a bit disappointed, as if I’d had emotions evoked with no substance behind it. Still, it was pretty to look at, and after this and the beautiful Blankets, I’d read more of Thompson’s work.