Sunday, September 6, 2009

‘La Perdida’s’ Unreliable Narrator

The opening to Jessica Abel’s La Perdida, when Carla arrives in Mexico City, is all cluttered and rushed, with text boxes sometimes at both the tops and bottoms of the people-packed panels.

Abel is showing us the city’s own hectic life, with its taxis, vendors and mashers (“Hey, skinny! I’ll make you fatter!”). Once Carla gets inside her friend’s apartment, though, everything calms down. The drawing style remains scratchy, and heaven knows, these characters talk a lot. But the perspective remains hers.

That point of view demonstrates what any self-respecting English major would recognize as that of an unreliable narrator: Carla doesn’t realize what we the readers see, as well as what most everyone else in this graphic novel picks up on — even her practically anonymous neighbors figure out what’s going on before she does.

Her visit to Mexico City drifts from that of dizzy soap opera and having trouble paying the rent to one of a kidnapping and imminent danger. And Carla, the protagonist, not only doesn’t figure out what’s going on until it’s almost too late, but she’s oblivious to her own culpability in the action.

It’s a slow boil. Until the kidnap plot begins to unfold, the story is taken up with quick-to-take-offense Carla and her aimless friends drinking and doing drugs, and frankly none of them are particularly pleasant. The men in particular almost without exception come across as, well, dumb. It’s hard to be concerned about any of them once things turn violent and scary. (Just because they pull off a kidnapping doesn’t mean they’ve become any smarter or more interesting. They’re just more dangerous.)

But the cinematic drama of the final third of the book is truly effective. Carla, for all her self-centeredness, becomes a victim, too. Her final loss — her “perdida” — is moving. I guess all the more so for us being able to see what brought her to that point.

After all, the final passage of Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, the tale of another unreliable narrator, only works because of all that’s come before.

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