Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Unterzakhn, Leela Corman's Uneven Look at The Immigrant Experience in Early 1900s NYC

Unterzakhn by Leela Corman
Schocken/Random House, 2012
Leela Corman's Unterzakhn is promising in concept but disappointing in execution. Set in the Lower East Side the early 1900s, the book chronicles the divergent lives of two young Jewish twin sisters, Esther and Fanya. The graphic novel's story is relatively unique for comics, a wonderful attempt at a look at early 1900s New York City history, the lower class and female experience at the turn of the century.  One girl finds herself enmeshed in the life of burlesque and prostitution, the other as an employee for a politically radical female doctor who regularly performs abortions. Unterzakhn is Yiddish for underthings - of course not just referencing underwear but the different underbellies of society each girl finds herself in. The girls' respective journeys are fairly representative of the trials of the underclass and women for centuries throughout the world, told in the microcosm of bustling, crowded, melting-cauldron New York. But the work's relative uniqueness of setting cannot overcome the weaknesses of the narrative. Once the different paths of the two main characters becomes apparent, their stories become somewhat predictable as the plot leaps forward years at a time, at one point needlessly digressing into one relative's tribulations back in the motherland. The book is too light and unfocused as a result, but it is still somewhat worth recommending - Corman's black-and-white indy art is fitting for the story and setting, and the work hits the necessary notes for your standard Art-House Comic, thus easily pleasing to anyone who often responds to such fare. This is Corman's debut graphic novel, having previously been a cartoonist working for The New Yorker. It is Corman's inexperience with the form that ultimately hurts the book, but for those used to only reading self-important art-house indy comix, this stands up just fine with other similar-ish books. It's still worth a read, but unsatisfying in the way that an overpriced meal at an expensive restaurant can be so unfulfilling.

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