Good-bye, Chunky Rice
by Craig Thompson (Pantheon, 2006)

What does it mean to need to find yourself, and how do you gather the strength to undertake that journey? The indefinable sadness of saying goodbye and the terror of the unknown is the subject of Craig Thompson's Good-bye, Chunky Rice, which won a Harvey when it was first released. Inventive, heartbreaking and completely fantastic, GCR is a story about a turtle named Chunky Rice who is leaving his hometown and his girlfriend, Dandel, a deer mouse. It's also about Solomon, a boarding-house friend of Chunky's. Solomon is a small wreck of a human being who never felt he was good at very much, who tries his best to heal and befriend a wounded bird named Merle. There's also a pair of conjoined Siamese twins ... on wheels, no less. This is truly an amazing story, and a very compelling read.

Chunky doesn't really have to leave, but he does want to. There's something missing in his life and he may not be able to find it where he is. Leaving for the sake of leaving is a legitimate urge, but ultimately it means facing the sadness of paths that must diverge. There is always a price to be paid for exploring the world, but there would also probably have been a price for staying behind (I do believe that however he wrote the story, whether from one angle or another, Thompson would have made it an engaging, soul-searching journey). It's a short book and a quick read but it creates such a visceral impression that the story haunts you for days. Essentially, GCR is about loss and the different ways people deal with it, about moving on with life in spite of not quite knowing what you want.

GCR is a lovely, quirky and very, very sweet little tale. Just a tad bit of criticism: it feels unfinished. The ending just doesn't seem as wistful as the author may have wanted it to be. There's no need for a Disneyesque finale, with a pretty bow wrapping it all up. But all good stories need closure, even if it's in the form of a question. GCR is one of those stories that actually create a craving for a resolution, mostly because of the way it is so neatly built up. Add to that the fact that the characters are so exquisitely well drawn, both physically and emotionally, and it perhaps becomes the case that the strength of the characters may have overshadowed the plot by becoming so much more vivid than the story itself.

Thompson's illustrations are the usual wonderful, eclectic black-and-white art. Lush to the point of cartoony, yet emotionally subtle, it telegraphs the genius that would later be behind Blankets and Carnet De Voyage. Thompson touches on exposed nerves like the adept miner of the human soul that he would become in his later work. There is no mawkish sentiment or melodrama. Thompson lets the story simply unfold while making its point in the quietly in the wings. This anthropomorphic predecessor to his autobiographical followup, Blankets, has the same quality of memoir about it, perhaps because Thompson was channeling his own personal experiences about leaving his hometown and simultaneously leaving behind a relationship that wasn't quite concluded, as a foundation for a real story told in a fairy-tale way.

Whereas Blankets is more personal, GCR is for everyone, with more universal themes. Thompson's stories are unapologetically open, as raw as the unhealed wounds he explores so deftly. At times, the honesty can be a bit overwhelming. Thompson has a true gift for capturing the experiences that make us human and showcasing them in stories that are loaded with wisdom and charm. You may have some tears in your eyes when the (somewhat incomplete) bittersweet ending rolls around, but you will be glad that you read it.

review by
Mary Harvey

15 August 2009

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