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Short Story Month, Day 28: Jillian Tamaki


Photo of artist and author Jillian Tamaki
Jillian Tamaki

"Bed Bug" by Jillian Tamaki

I read Jillian Tamaki's book Boundless earlier this year after seeing it recommended somewhere. It was touted as a graphic novel, which made me think it was one long story, so I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it was actually a collection of stories. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised since many graphic novels are basically novels in stories, but this isn't even that. There's no one cohesive narrator or setting or situation to provide a through line. It made me think that the greater literary world's ideas of graphic literature are still pretty inaccurate. I'm used to reading short stories in comics and larger graphic works, but I'd never really thought about calling books like these graphic short story collections before, and I don't see a lot of people doing so.

With that in mind, I figured a graphic short story would be good to include within my Short Story Month posts. "Bed Bug" (which is in Boundless) tells a pretty everyday story of a couple going through the stress of removing bed bugs from their lives. But, of course, the bed bugs are a device for other problems within their marriage, and I like how the itch of bug bites is used to showcase those problems. Little details become important, like the fact that the narrator was the first to get bitten and the fact that they'd not gone anywhere or had any houseguests, making the appearance of the bugs not only an enigma but a suggestion of stagnation. There's also the suggestion that she is the problem—that she is the reason their lives have become complicated—and we can see her feel guilty about all she has done to her husband, Jeremy, while simultaneously take her frustrations out on him.

And yet, there is reason to sympathize with her and to recognize the frustrations of a life that feels mundane. A lot of that is portrayed not through the words but through the art, with the exhaustion drawn into the characters' faces, the frustration apparent whenever they scratch a hidden itch. There are two panels in the middle or so in which they're folding clothes at the laundromat, and a person walks by and stares, and it's hard to tell if the backwards gaze is for the many bags of laundry or for the couple silently folding. Much as it seems like their problems are internal, we can see them seeping outward, noticeable no matter how much they attempt to conceal their problems. I doubt this is a story that would have as much impact in written words alone. The lines on their face and their distance even when they're close together speak volumes.

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