Jillian Tamaki’s new collection Boundless features nine eclectic short stories, with plotlines ranging from a mysterious and trance-inducing music download to a mundane but adultery-revealing infestation of bedbugs. Characters include talking animals, a woman shrinking to a sub-atomic level, and the producer of a pornographic sitcom from the ‘90s.
Seven of the stories appeared only individually in magazines and online, so Boundless is an especially welcome collection of Tamaki’s short works, ones that stand distinctly apart from both her longer collaborations Skim and This One Summer with writer Mariko Tamaki as well as her collected webcomics series, SuperMutant Magic Academy.
While all nine stories are unified by Tamaki’s signature artwork, her style and format vary. The longest tale spans over 40 pages, the shortest only 12. Two are black and white, one is brown and white, while others include one additional tone, a bluish gray or a muted orange, while still others employ multi-color palettes. Tamaki’s lines are sometimes sharp and her panels framed; other times her figures seem to quiver in the pages’ open spaces. Two stories even run perpendicularly, requiring readers to rotate the book and turn pages as if flipping a calendar. But despite all of its variations, reading Boundless is mostly a unified experience. The two perpendicular stories open and close the collection like bookends, while the middle stories explore a common thread of reality-warping media and consumerism.
“Body Pods” recounts the formative and continuing influence of a mediocre sci-fi adventure film on its now adult fans. Though the narrator has no interest in the movie, it haunts her through the obsessions of her successive lovers as they and the larger fan base mourn the deaths of aging cast members. By the end she not only hates the film, but prefers her isolation.
Although the narrator of “Darla!” recalls his work on an obscure TV sitcom fondly, he ends his story similarly alienated. Like the sci-fi film and its star, the TV show is the receding highpoint of his increasingly mediocre life. Although the former producer appreciates the attention of a new generation of internet fans, their snide attitudes seem to undermine the value of the show and his life in general.
Boundless, “Sex Coven”
“Sexcoven” explores another fan world, this time of a six-hour recording of an atonal drone that produces hallucinogenic euphoria in dedicated listeners. Like the sitcom, the mp3 is from the ‘90s as recalled now by its no-longer entranced followers. But here Tamaki takes a wider approach, tracing the progression of the phenomenon through a range of transitory characters, until settling into the plight of a small group of the most dedicated. But the story still ends with a young researcher interviewing one lone and lonely member long out of touch with her splintered group and life.
Tamaki’s meta-narrative of alienating media consumption takes a slightly fantastical turn in “1.Jenny”, one of only two stories not previously published. The main character, Jenny, grows obsessed with an alternate version of herself who exists in a mirror Facebook, an internet phenomenon which, like the Sexcoven mp3, appears one day without explanation. Unlike the previous TV, music, and movie obsessions, Jenny’s is current and all-consuming. When her alternate self, 1.Jenny, finds happiness in a relationship, Jenny plunges into jealousy and depression. But unlike Tamaki’s other protagonists, Jenny unplugs, seeks therapy, takes up swimming, and finds new equilibrium. When she does eventually glance at the other worldly Facebook again, she can’t help but feel triumph about her mirror’s break-up. Tamaki lightly questions Jenny’s cruelty, but her state is far better than those of the collection’s other protagonists.
“The ClairFree System”, Tamaki’s most overt critique of consumerism, is more ambiguous in both conclusion and structure. She juxtaposes the text of a well-practiced sales pitch with a sequence of narratively unrelated images. For example, the narrator’s description of crying with joy at the sight of her acne-free face borders a two-page spread of a mother breast-feeding a toddler. While the juxtaposition might evoke a range of possible meanings, the core effect is disconnection—arguably the same disconnection underlying the speaker’s manipulation of a potential client with false emotion and promises. The story ends with the narrator grasping the other woman’s hands, presumably to apply a skin cream sample, but the white hands floating in the panel’s black background suggest a desire for deeper human contact, one made impossible by the narrator’s goal.
Tamaki’s most realistic tale, “Bedbug”, constructs no fictional products or internet phenomenon, but its narrator suffers more than all others. Her adultery manifests physically in bedbugs that nearly destroy her marriage as she and her husband pick through their belongings, disposing of everything but the most essential items. A honeymoon-purchased neck-pillow and the bed itself both go. Not unlike Tamaki’s other narrators, this one is an English professor and novelist, and she understands herself through media-transmitted clichés she both mocks and embraces while suffering the deeper alienation. She keeps her affair a secret as she accepts her husband’s embrace in the final frame. The story is poignant, though a Tomine-esque outlier in the collection’s range of genre and subject matter.
“Half Life”, appropriately the collection’s shortest work, is also its most fantastical. The narrator begins shrinking for no reason. Initially the effect is pleasant; out-grown dresses suddenly fit again without the inconvenience of dieting. Soon she needs new shoes too, and then “objects start rejecting her” as she can no longer open jars of food. But she admonishes herself for speaking harshly of things like spoons, because she is “the uncalibrated one”.
In the end, she merges with the emotional life a dog who swallows her as microorganism, but she can’t be sure if the feelings she detects are the dog’s or just her mind playing tricks on her. The ambiguity is striking, but the overtly fantastical conceit and the peripheral attention to media or consumerism place the story outside the collection’s mostly unified whole.
The opening and closing works, “World-Class City” and the titular “Boundless”, stand apart from the middle stories. Neither are narratively driven and instead echo the verse style and animal imagery of children’s picture books. Rather than depicting urban landscapes, life in a so-called world-class city features monkeys and plants and ambiguously drawn natural shapes, beginning and concluding with watching human figures drawn as if peering over the page edges.
While otherwise unlike the consumer media of the middle stories, the repeated, sing-song phrase of “World-Class City” does create an artificial prism that warps its unidentified speaker’s understanding of life there. “Boundless” follows a sequence of narrators in an exploration of the paradoxically bound nature of animal life. Squirrels continually test each other’s territorial edges, while birds watch for even a single, nearly invisible but deadly spider thread, and a lone, Hobbes-quoting fly ends its brief, brutish life crushed in the pages of a closing book—a fitting ending to Tamaki’s collection.