Lena Fin­kle’s Mag­ic Bar­rel: A Graph­ic Novel

Anya Ulinich
  • Review
July 24, 2014

I paint unflat­ter­ing por­traits of every­thing,” admits the cyn­i­cal but often intense­ly sin­cere nar­ra­tor of Anya Ulinich’s first graph­ic nov­el, Lena Finkle’s Mag­ic Bar­rel. Lena Fin­kle shares many traits with the cen­tral char­ac­ter of Ulinich’s prose-based debut nov­el, Pet­ropolis, which was first pub­lished in 2008 and pre­sent­ed a seething­ly humor­ous com­ing-of-age tale about a Siber­ian-born girl, Sasha Gold­berg, who flees Rus­sia for Ari­zona as a mail-order bride in search of her absent father. Both women share a sense of con­tin­u­al­ly feel­ing at odds with every­one and every­thing around them, and of find­ing solace main­ly in the worlds of art and lit­er­a­ture and, on occa­sion, in friend­ship and sex. 

Ulinich has trans­lat­ed this world of expe­ri­ence into a text that is man­i­fest­ly, and intense­ly, crowd­ed: in Lena Finkle’s Mag­ic Bar­rel, each page attests to the claus­tro­pho­bic sen­si­bil­i­ty of a life lived fran­ti­cal­ly search­ing for answers, for mean­ing and for pur­pose. What I want most, is to keep mov­ing — for­ward, toward the unknown…” Lena may be bold­ly grasp­ing for an as-yet-unnamed future promise, but she is con­tin­u­al­ly harassed by mem­o­ries — of her Sovi­et past, her child­hood influ­ences and expec­ta­tions, her roman­tic mis­ad­ven­tures and min­is­tra­tions. With­in the first of four sec­tions of the book, we learn of the Hasidic cou­ple who tries to make Lena into a prop­er” Jew when she first moves with her fam­i­ly to Ari­zona in the ear­ly 1990s, of her sub­se­quent mar­riage to her first hus­band, Chance, a clerk at a local 7/11 who insists on call­ing her Anne Frank” when he learns that she is Jew­ish, of her affin­i­ty for read­ing — from Dos­to­evsky to the Dec­la­ra­tion of Inde­pen­dence. In the present of the narra­tive, at thir­ty-sev­en years old Lena Fin­kle is recent­ly twice-divorced, liv­ing in Brook­lyn as a pub­lished author and the moth­er of two girls, and on the brink of a self-iden­ti­fied sex­u­al awak­en­ing,” to take place with the help of an online dat­ing site. 

Lena’s great­est strength, her abil­i­ty to mine the var­i­ous and tex­tured lay­ers of expe­ri­ence and con­scious­ness that inform every moment, does not bring her any clos­er to her goal of find­ing a sto­ry­line and a sense of iden­ti­ty that suits her. She is often painful­ly aware of the ways this capri­cious search shades and shapes how she sees her­self and the world around her. The art­work in Lena Finkle’s Mag­ic Bar­rel is quite inge­nious­ly con­struct­ed — slop­py and rushed at times, fleet­ing­ly beau­ti­ful at oth­er times. Each page’s visu­al sen­si­bil­i­ty rein­forces the rest­less force of emo­tions — of hope, anx­i­ety, and courage, to name just a few — that dri­ve Lena’s quest. This bril­liant graph­ic nov­el visu­al­izes var­i­ous metaphors of immi­gra­tion, com­pound­ing and some­times even mud­dling them as the nar­ra­tor attempts to con­vey what it means to be trapped between worlds. As anoth­er pow­er­ful com­pos­er of the immi­grant expe­ri­ence, Anzia Yezier­s­ka, once wrote, Between my soul and the Amer­i­can soul were worlds of dif­fer­ence that no words could bridge over.” Ulinich here presents us with an ambi­tious excla­ma­tion of the lim­i­ta­tions of words, even when jux­ta­posed with images; they can nev­er bridge, but they can, if only remote­ly, ges­ture to the spaces in between.

Relat­ed Content:


Tah­neer Oks­man­’s inter­view with Anya Ulinich can be found here.

Discussion Questions