There’s a short story by Madeleine Thien called “A Map of the City.” In that story the narrator talks about a furniture shop her father owned when she was growing up. She loved going there so much she used to pretend to be sick in order to stay home from school and be taken to the store instead. She would lounge on a plastic lawn chair in a doorless storage closet with a little curtain pulled closed for privacy. During one of those times a customer stumbles upon her:
“Jesus Christ,” the man said, stepping backward, his hand dropping the curtain… The man stared at me, aghast.
I have trouble remembering how the rest of the story goes but I think about that scene a lot. Especially how it felt to read. I felt embarrassed. For her or him, I’m not sure which, but I could picture his face. And hers.
It’s something about the awkwardness of being caught (or catching someone) playing in some private way, perhaps. I can’t escape it. Or get enough.
Aisha Franz’s Earthling is filled with moments like that.
In fact, a similar scene occurs when Mädchen’s mother goes to the dry cleaners and spots a little Asian girl, sitting up on a high shelf, fiddling with a rubik’s cube.
Mädchen’s mother and the child stare at one another for a moment before the clothes arrive. The scene lasts no more than a few panels. The encounter is brief. Random. Quiet. Highly awkward. But also kind of perfect. That’s how it feels anyway. And not just that scene, the book in general.
When it comes to Earthling things don’t quite fit together. Of course, that may be part of the general theme—the strange alienness of adolescence—but the story isn’t just about Mädchen; it’s about her mother and older sister too.
They’re all kind of a mess. They look it. And though I’ve grown obsessed with Franz’s smudgy aesthetic, it was off-putting at first.
A smudge can suggest such different things. While there’s an audacity to it, i.e. rubbing something in, it can also be rather humble—a sign of having been mistaken, i.e. rubbing something out (or having tried to).
Earthling is both.
Scribbles extend well past the edges of the frame–or without a frame at all. Franz has the confidence to draw outside the lines, sure, but there’s lack of cohesion to it too—the absence of some clear message about the inherent messiness of life or what it means to grow up.
The story isn’t smooth or straight-forward. The penciling may feel familiar, even child-like, but it’s not nostalgic. It isn’t comforting.
The effect Earthling has is, rather, immediate. Fresh. When I finished reading I half expected to look down and find lead on my fingertips. And maybe that’s it:
Earthling gets your hands dirty. It rubs off on you. And, like the antics of its three characters, caught up as they are in their own private play, it forces you to stop, to take a step back—aghast—because it catches you in those moments too.