“Shortcomings” (2007) is a graphic novel by Adrian Tomine. It tells of Ben Tanaka and his lack of success with women. He is a 30-year-old Japanese American who runs a cinema in Oakland, California. He has never been with a white woman – but wants to be. Just then his Japanese American girlfriend leaves for New York for four months.
Early on he says:
Why does everything have to be some big statement about race?
But trying to make nothing about race winds up making everything about race.
I found out about this book a year ago on some blog and saw it a week ago by accident at the library. And then, just now while I was making my tea, I started reading it. I did not even get my tea till I got to the end. It is over a hundred pages long but with all the pictures it has maybe only 20 pages worth of words.
Trying not to give away the plot:
Ben Tanaka finds fault with everything and is himself something of a loser. The only woman who truly likes him, his best friend, is a lesbian. No one is completely honest with him so things are not always what they seem. His cluelessness is made even worse by being so self-centred that I laughed through most of the book.
His Japanese American girlfriend finds his porn. But what gets her upset is not that all the women are naked but that all the women are white! He plays it off, but she is on to something.
He sees his thing for white women as being completely innocent and not kind of strange. But he sees Asian women with white men in a completely different light: white men are just using Asian women, they do not love them, they have some kind of sick fetish, etc.
And while he is dreaming of white women, he fails to see the true beauty right in front of him of his own not-white girlfriend. Something the story makes clear.
His unexamined internalized racism bites him yet again when he seriously believes the stereotypes about the “size” of Asian men.
His best friend is full of insights about him, but most of it seems to be wasted on him – but not on us.
The San Francisco Bay Area view of New York made me laugh too. One character, seeing New York for the first time, says:
… and over there is the Brooklyn Bridge. Doesn’t it make you feel like you’re in some nostalgic movie about being Jewish or something?
Since the book is so short and since not everything is what it seems, it is probably worth reading a second time.
I would not have bought the book with my own money, but it was worth getting out of the library. And it does make me interested in his other books. Or if he writes another Ben Tanaka book.