Rendered in a combination of pen and graphite with exquisitely emotive precision, groundbreaking Chinese “alternative” cartoonist Yan Cong’s 2018 Paradise Systems release, Cry, is a sumptuous feast for the eyes, of that there is no doubt. But being that its brisk, economic narrative is primarily focused on immediate-post-break-up loneliness, what will surely surprise many is that it’s also a feast for the heart.
Not an easy one to consume, by any standard of measure, but one that lingers deliciously, that seeps in, its flavors revealing themselves over time as the work is allowed to stew, simmer, and be digested slowly. Yeah, I’m hungry as I write this — is it that obvious?
Ostensibly, this short-but-conceptually-dense book is about a guy, and a fairly typical-seeming one at that, who apparently does what a lot of typical guys do : takes his girlfriend for granted, doesn’t take time to understand her concerns, etc., until she finally decides she’s had enough and walks out the door, apparently never to return. He finds the business card for a sex worker lying discarded on a floor fairly shortly after and mulls over the idea of calling her to arrange a visit/appointment, tossing and turning through sleepless nights, only his cat for company, before finally deciding, what the hell, he’ll go over there — only to have the encounter go nothing as expected.
But that’s really only part of the story : the rest is told by and through anyone but our protagonist, even though it reflects numerous facets of his outer and inner life, adds crucial context and subtext to his day-to-day reality. What I’m getting at here, in an admittedly roundabout way, is that Cong uses the people, plants, animals, and even inanimate objects that surround and interact with his character to flesh out the narrative, to universalize it, to add dimension, depth, and texture to a tale that is only, and deceptively, “simple” on the surface level to begin with.
Every detail here matters, so pay attention to those floorboards, those cracks in the walls, those passers-by on the street, those crisscrossing electrical wires, that water rushing from the faucet — and realize that while that empty bed looms large, all these facets are important, and make up the world that this newly-single guy lives in. Consider how all these things go about their business, or simply continue to be what they are, regardless of his circumstances. Understand that the world keeps spinning, even though his world has ground to a halt.
That may sound uncaring, even oppressive in its own way, despite the fact that it is, of course, true — but there’s also a certain sense of freedom to be found, if you dig hard enough, in the idea that things keep on keepin’ on despite our reality falling to pieces. It means that we can go on, too — that our problems and challenges are only as large as we allow them to be, that there’s a bigger picture that we’re still a part of. Buuuuuuttttt —
You have to be ready to dip your toes back into those larger metaphorical waters, and whether or not this character actually is prepared to do so seems an open question at best, and one that you have to wait until the very last page to have the answer to. That “answer” will leave you a little perplexed, perhaps unsure whether to laugh, cry, or both, but it’s a very appropriate — I dare say even pitch-perfect — note upon which to conclude this quick, but highly memorable, journey.
Paradise Systems is a fairly new specialty publisher in the small press scene, and one that is doing a truly superb job of bringing the best in Chinese cartooning to American audiences. I’ll be looking at some more or their offerings in the next few days, including in the next Weekly Reading Round-Up column, but you owe it to yourself to give their stuff a look. Cry can be ordered from them directly by clicking on this link :https://paradise-systems.com/products/cry