BookBin2011: La Perdida

This was a last-minute impulse grab from the graphic novel section as I was trying to leave the library during my last visit. I’d already pulled a stack of books from this section (most of which I’ve already finished and written up here), but there was something so very…forsaken about this novel. It sat, separate from the other novels, missing its dust jacket, its hardback cover showing its title and author only on the spine. I don’t know why, but I have a bit of a soft spot for hardback books that have lost their jackets.

And thus I ended up adding Jessica Abel’s La Perdida to my stack of selections. Translated as “The Lost,” La Perdida leads us through a year-long look at life in Mexico City, as experienced by the novel’s protagonist, Carla Olivares. Born to an American mother and Mexican father, Carla spends most of her early life trying to distance herself from the Mexican half of her heritage. However, as she grows more disillusioned with her urbanal existence as a 20-something Chicagoan, she decides to leave everything behind to drop in on her ex-boyfriend Harry, a rather stereotypical “wealthy WASP” who has chosen to live in Mexico City because his literary hero, William S. Burroughs, lived there for a brief time (he fled to Mexico City to escape possible jail time in Louisiana only to end up in a Mexican jail after killing his wife during a drunken game of William Tell.)

[Loba Tangent: There is a part of me that was greatly amused by the serendipity of discovering so many references to Burroughs throughout this novel, considering my recent discovery and appreciation of Beat Generation literature.]

Harry soon tires of Carla’s presence and kicks her out. However, rather than return home, Carla chooses to remain in the country illegally, an expatriate desperate to not only experience “true Mexico” but to be accepted by a collection of locals with whom she has become friends since her arrival. These include Oscar, a winsome if somewhat witless drug dealer who dreams of one day touring the United States as a renowned DJ and with whom she falls into a rather indeterminate relationship; and Memo, a false prophet of ¡La Revolución! who hides his more unscrupulous activities behind a constant barrage of criticism and condemnation he lays upon Carla for her comfortable capitalistic American upbringing.

I won’t go into the events that transpire once Carla finds herself totally immersed in local life. I wish I could say it’s because it’s a fascinating story. It is somewhat intriguing, if not utterly predictable. Also, I can’t help but feel as though this tale is ultimately a negative stereotype, both of Americans and of Mexicans. If this story is to be believed as embedded in truth, we’re all reprehensibly spoiled and consequently naive in regard to the harshness of life outside of our insular capitalist existence (okay, one or both of those statements are admittedly true in more instances than they should be). And all Mexicans are manipulative, shiftless, and criminally inspired.

There are positive aspects to the novel. Abel, who lived in Mexico City for 2 years, captures the straightforward, simple beauty of the city and her characters through art that is equal parts restrained and elegant. Her black and white linework vacillates between comic caricatures and renderings of surprising realism. Also, the insider view of life in Mexico that does not directly relate to the main story is fascinating. Even though I understand that the ultimate point of La Perdida was to tell the story of Carla’s unfortunate adventure during her year abroad, I wished that the book had been more of an illustrated travel log of a less-titillating variety. More focus on the experience of adjusting to total immersion in a foreign culture and less focus on “Hey, how can we make everyone look awful by the end of this story?”

Final Verdict: This was an uneven yet somewhat intriguing graphic novel (as well as one of the wordiest illustrated stories I think I’ve ever read), and many of Abel’s illustrations are quite captivating. I don’t foresee adding it to my graphic novel collection, but I’m glad that I grabbed it from the shelf as I was leaving. It gave me a mildly informative glimpse of life as a temporary expat. It also taught me the phrase “Chinga tu madre.” That’s bound to come in use at some point…