Created by: Frédéric Boilet
Published by: Fanfare/Ponent Mon
ISBN: 8493309346 (Amazon)
Autobiography is by its nature one of the more conceited art forms. Concocting a story of one’s own adventures to the end that they will be enjoyed by a readership of more than one’s own friends and family takes a fair amount of self-confidence. Or hubris. Or arrogance. To imagine that one’s own story is as valuable a use of a reader’s time as a fictional character’s takes guts. Or moxie. Or chutzpah. And then for an author to specially select for his autobiographical pericope a couple months’ dalliance with a young woman and detail his own skill as an adventurous lover—what does that take?
Frédéric Boilet’s apparently autobiographical Yukiko’s Spinach is part journal, part intimate recountment of a two-month-long interlude with a girl he meets at a gallery opening in Japan. So far as romances go, we learn from the start that this one is probably doomed to a brief lifespan since Yukiko, the object of Boilet’s interest, is herself interested in someone else and will pursue that entanglement as soon as opportunity allows. It’s in the meanwhile that she’s willing to engage Boilet (or his autobiographical avatar) in some fitful and adventurous physical pairings, necessarily accelerating the evolution of their relationship at unnatural speeds towards its foreseeable culmination.
As a book primarily interested in Yukiko’s temporary place as Boilet’s carnal muse, the book amusingly (from a very meta perspective) goes to deliberate lengths to demonstrate Boilet’s part as a persistent, attentive lover. Whether absolutely non-fictional in this aspect or not, Boilet posits a version of himself that is a kind of indefatigable superman of the intimate. In the midst of their congress, he lingers over every part of Yukiko’s form, making each portion of her body a new standard of beauty, even to the point of remolding imperfection (such as chicken pox scars) into aesthetic wonders. He turns every private moment into an opportunity to once more ravish his lover, disrobing her even as she dresses from their most recent congress.
As a story about two people luxuriating in a languid sort of passion, Yukiko’s Spinach is actually pretty refreshing in that it sees little need to make any sort of narrative statement beyond this. This lack of pretension may itself seem “artsy” or even pretentious to some, but I found it elevated the value of the book. But when one considers that this is presented as autobiographical, the book moves beyond merely a statement about interpersonal intimacy and into a whole realm of psycho-social cross-cultural dynamics.
Yukiko’s Spinach is named for an instance in which Boilet lingers over every part of Yukiko’s nude form. Ears, nose, neck, breasts, and so on. When he arrives at her navel, he mispronounces (as he is speaking entirely in Japanese) and uses a word that sounds like spinach rather than like navel. It’s a humourous error and introduces a bit of levity into a scene that could have otherwise played as too heavily romantic. The mistake opens the book up to a number of interpretive frameworks. Is Boilet merely recounting an interesting sexual anecdote or does he wish to say something more? Whatever his purpose, Yukiko’s Spinach at least functions as much as a glance into the marriage of distinct cultures as Yukiko’s “spinach” does within the context of her and Boilet’s relationship.
Boilet’s character in the story seems part of an expatriated group of French artistic types and is familiar enough with Japan and the ins and outs of the culture to behave as some kind of nouvelle native. But despite having come so far, his culture and that of his romantic interest are each their own and it’s clear that his goals are not hers (and vice versa). Even the manner by which they communicate uses different vocabularies—and though they may be able to suss out each other’s meanings, there will remain any number of trivial obstacles like Yukiko’s “spinach.” At least such barriers will persist until the couple grows fully accustomed to each other, becoming natives in each other’s personal kingdoms—or better, forging a new one, with its own rules, customs, and language, like Howard W. Campbell Jr’s das reich der zwei. Yet because of the colossal strength of these individuals’ particular personal anthems, we know such a nation of two will never likely come about.
So Yukiko’s Spinach exists as a revelry in a moment, a snapshot of the perfect vacation marred only by the inevitable collapse and loss at its conclusion. As autobiography, one wonders what Boilet was trying to communicate to himself—for memoir as often speaks some truth to the author as it does to the reader. If he seems somewhat set adrift (exemplified by the transient nature of his dalliances), perhaps that is a reflection of his status as a resident foreigner. He’s clearly looking for stability but simultaneously doesn’t seem to rely on its attainability. Boilet’s character seems a man trapped in flux. It’s an interesting place for a protagonist to be and most of us could probably relate on some level from at least one moment in our lives.
One of the standout praises Yukiko’s Spinach will receive almost across the board is in regard to its artistic vision. The reader sees the story unfold almost entirely in the first person. The camera through which we encounter Boilet’s experience with Yukiko is, for the most part, lodged in Boilet’s own eyes. It’s a curious technique and we are treated to a man with a perspective that roams over the entirety of his surroundings, rarely meeting Yukiko’s gaze eye-to-eye. Through this scattering of vision, Boilet unveils a character that might otherwise remain unknown. His avatar is made real by his evident distractions.
Boilet also uses a photorealistic style that generally pays off well. He almost certainly uses models extensively (and a later story, Mariko Parade, apparently involves Boilet and his next model, whom he meets in the final pages of Yukiko’s Spinach). This lends to the veracity of these experiences and conveys the idea that these are real people with real motivations and personal curiosities. On a couple occasions, the drawings feel awkward (such as when he depicts a fellow French expat who may be leering bizarrely at Yukiko), but on the whole they are accomplished and flow well within his framework. The other formal trick Boilet uses to magnify his narrative flow is the inclusion of journal pages that contain a variety of sketches and written lines. These further ground the story in the subjective narration of Boilet himself. Despite how cool Boilet’s art is and how well-chosen the moments, angles, and subjects are, it may have been the inclusion of the journal pages that solidifies Yukiko’s Spinach as great art.
With its rugged and frank sex scenes, Boilet’s book will not be appropriate for some readers and may put off others. Personally, I did not find the book (for all its explicitness) erotic. Perhaps it was the documentary nature of the thing or its surreal first-person presence, but I felt that Yukiko’s Spinach was more an anatomy of a relationship than a lush and purposed turn-on for those in search of a sensual thrill. It’s a shame that French books have such a difficult time finding a market in the US. Boilet’s work here is pretty phenomenal and along with Fanfare/Ponent Mon’s other books in the Nouvelle Manga line, Yukiko’s Spinach marks a worthy direction for comics and there’s plenty to investigate for Americans who take interest in the medium and its forms.
It does occur to me that this may not actually be autobiography, that it may instead be some kind of hyperfictionalization of Boilet’s experiences—a kind of codified wishful thinking on the author’s part. While that would certainly complicate the reading, I think it would make for a more delectable interpretive puzzle.
Good Ok Bad features reviews of comics, graphic novels, manga, et cetera using a rare and auspicious three-star rating system. Point systems are notoriously fiddly, so here it's been pared down to three simple possibilities:
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I am Seth T. Hahne and these are my reviews.
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