This article analyzes how Anya Ulinich’s graphic novel Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel (2014) engages in and expands upon Jewish writing practices. I argue that through her use of the graphic novel as a medium, Ulinich both draws on and subverts masculine writing practices and images of women that have dominated Jewish literature and culture. Through her cross-discursive, intertextual, multi-directional writing, Ulinich depicts her protagonist Lena as gaining a sense of self, but one that is fragmentary and constantly experienced and re-pictured through memory and in relationship to others. Ulinich also raises the question, without providing a stable answer, as to the place of Soviet Jewish memory in Jewish-American life, experience, and literature. She places Russian, Jewish, and American writing and gender norms in conversation with each other, suggesting the difficulty of reconciling these different visions for women and modernity.
In her semiautobiographical graphic novel Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel, Anya Ulinich tells the story of Lena, a twice-divorced Jewish woman who emigrated from the Soviet Union as a teenager to the United States. Ulinich’s use of the graphic novel medium engages Jewish writing both as a practice, and as a set of questions about what constitutes Jewish writing. Ulinich’s graphic novel is “cross-discursive,” combining verbal and visual discourse in ways that deepen the work each discourse performs throughout the novel.1 Many panels visually exemplify Lena’s multiple selves.
The graphic novel permits simultaneity of past and present not possible with conventional verbal narrative. Through the frames and gutters, readers project causality and have the time to look and re-look at a single scene or page that Ulinich has formed. The ability to move forward and backward, to pause, slow, or speed up gives readers greater control in making meaning when they read.2 Beyond its internal complexity, the novel is also inter-graphic and intertextual, responding both to previous representations of women and to major, primarily male authors. Ulinich most obviously engages Bernard Malamud, whose short story “The Magic Barrel” serves as a structural influence but also a foil for Lena’s story. Yet she also engages a variety of other authors from diverse national and linguistic backgrounds, deconstructing their heavily male conception of sexuality and gender.
The title and literary frame for Ulinich’s graphic novel borrow from Bernard Malamud’s short story “The Magic Barrel.” Malamud depicts the protagonist Leo Finkle having an identity crisis when he seeks a wife through a traditional Jewish matchmaker. Where Malamud focuses on masculine experience and interaction, Ulinich makes women’s experiences and sexuality visible. Rather than through a traditional Jewish matchmaker, Lena meets many men through OkCupid, which Ulinich describes as “like the magic barrel, so many guys” who Lena can potentially date.3 Malamud ends with an apparent match, but Ulinich moves beyond the bottomless barrel and depicts Lena’s life within a long-term relationship to a man called “the Orphan” and the struggles Lena experiences to understand herself, her partner, and friendships in light of her relationship with the Orphan, and then that relationship’s dissolution. The result is a sense of self, but one that is fragmentary and constantly experienced through memory and in relationship to others.
This cross-discursive form takes up Jewish writing practices, but visualizes them and expands them. Saul Zaritt argues that “Jewish American writing, in its multiple allegiances and linguistic uncertainty, form a supplement to world literature, an undecidable practice that simultaneously longs for the world and demonstrates its impossibilities.” In other words, it is central to Jewish writing to “confront” the world, but to do so without certainty as to whether and how to dissolve boundaries between Jewish writing and various other literatures. Zaritt prefers “Jewish American writing” to “Jewish American literature” because “Jewish American writing” is less demarcated from other literary niches and canons. Rather than suggesting that “Jewish American literature” is one institution alongside other ethnic, national, transnational, or international canons, “Jewish American writing” indicates the extent to which Jewish writing as a practice traverses various literatures. Jewish American writing is “multibranched and multilingual,” though Jewish American writers are typically also uncertain about what languages may be used and how to negotiate the problems of translation, obscurity, or universalization. Jewish American writing “moves between and among different (and not necessarily compatible) articulations of Jewishness, Americanness, and the world.”4
For Zaritt, Jewish writing follows “multiple directions,” and like other Jewish writers, Ulinich follows these multiple directions self-consciously.5 Her use of the graphic novel visualizes this multidirectionality: her pages collapse space and time between different sites of Jewish life, languages in which it is lived, and her creative use of panels, gutters, or the lack thereof draws the viewer in multiple visual and mental directions. Ulinich realizes Jewish multidirectionality on each page, moving beyond “inherently” Jewish languages such as Yiddish, Hebrew, or Ladino and even the self-awareness of “canonical” authors such as Saul Bellow or Isaac Bashevis Singer. The Jewish sense of the untranslatability of Jewish text and past is additionally realized in her work, which preserves its multilingual heritage visually where Jewish writers such as Bellow or Singer chose to universalize, to write in increasingly obscure Yiddish, or to allow the loss of translation. Ulinich’s visual text insists on reminding the reader/viewer of her multilingual acts of reading and writing, and her multidirectionality. These can traverse a single page literally, or expand conceptually on the planes between Russia and the States, or between past and present. Her work raises the possibility of Russian literature as one of the literatures Jewish writing traverses. But characteristically of Jewish writing, this possibility is left unstable or undecided, as her Jewishness unfolds as a process rather than a stable, essentialist set of characteristics.
Ulinich’s use of the graphic novel medium alters her ability, along with that of her characters and readers, to see. In this visual medium, the gaze is intensified, made literal via representation. This does not merely extend the gaze as a practice that women can share. It complicates that gaze, deconstructing the role of vision through a visual literary text. Because we can actually see the characters, we see not only the protagonist and the protagonist’s perspective, but we also see the other characters, the objects of the gaze. At times, we share Lena’s gaze, but at others gaze at her. Lena’s story is not a simple dependence on men, a belief that the right one will complete her. Margarita Levantovskaya argues that “Ulinich’s parodic appropriations of Malamud and Roth implicitly suggest an effort to destabilize the hierarchical nature of the relationship between Russian-Jewish immigrants and Jewish Americans who enjoy class and cultural privileges.”6 Lena rejects interpreting Malamud’s “Magic Barrel” as “a story about true love.” Lena reads Malamud on the bus, after having a nightmare about Philip Roth and rejecting Roth as a model for herself as a writer. When she awakens, she discusses the story with her neighbor on the bus, who will become Lena’s central love interest for the second half of the novel, known only as “The Orphan,” riffing on Roth’s own use of critical nicknames for lovers in Portnoy’s Complaint.7 Lena argues that Leo merely “[projected] his emotional need onto” the “random picture” of a woman that happened to fall off the matchmaker’s desk. Lena thinks “there should be a sequel where they get together and disappoint each other.” Ulinich fulfills this precisely through Lena’s dysfunctional relationship with the Orphan, which follows in the remainder of the novel (182–183).8
The question of whether and how to frame not just the larger story, but each individual scene, presents itself on every page. As a graphic novelist, Ulinich is aware of framing’s possibilities, but also graphic framing’s failures and constrictions.9 In a scene ultimately not included in the published graphic novel, Ulinich directly engages Bernard Malamud and the anxieties she has, as an author who borrows plot, discourse, titles, and questions from other authors (fig. 1). Lena is also an author—struggling to find her narrative—and in the deleted scene, we see Lena engage with her Self and her daughter, while God and Bernard Malamud look down on New York from the clouds above. Lena’s Self asks, “Are you really going to steal the title of Bernard Malamud’s best known story for this thing you’re drawing?”10 This metanarrative revealing Ulinich’s anxieties about framing is not included her final published text. But it is extant in Ulinich’s collection of original productions for the work and expresses how she struggled to make choices in piecing her narrative together. Though ostensibly about Lena’s literary crisis, the scene plays with Ulinich’s choices to title and frame her text. Lena clarifies how she reads Malamud: “it’s obviously about a crisis of faith and the rush to self-delusion!” (188) Like Leo in Malamud’s “The Magic Barrel,” Lena enters her first marriage pragmatically. Leo seeks a marriage because he thinks it will help him get a job as a rabbi, and Lena realizes she can begin her naturalization as an American. In other words, by their own account, neither character is looking for love when they enter their respective relationships. Lena’s interpretation that Malamud is not really about love is thus perceptive about the complexity of Malamud’s life, but is also an insight into her own past. While Lena looks down upon her Self during this conversation, she does not see God and Malamud in the sky. Malamud makes no verbal comment. However, he is visibly agitated and presses his hands to the sides of his face. God laughs, “Haha Bernie! That’s what you get for telling confusing stories!” Ulinich depicts the anxiety an author feels in forming their story in relationship to the work of other authors. Referencing and building on others’ work is classic literary practice. Choices such as how much to borrow, how much to change, and how to interpret the meaning of another author’s work help authors find themselves and their literary voices. But these choices and practices provoke crises of self too, and are an essential part of the editing process.
In contrast to Malamud’s focus on men and use of women as little more than a projection of men’s selves, Ulinich presents a well-developed woman and the chance to see something about the men she encounters, even if men are frequently objects for her. Visually, what it means to date is composed of many different images. Lena announces she became “A Tourist in the Country of Men” though online dating—her magic barrel. She is self-conscious about this broad-reaching claim, as depicted by the image of her Self sitting on topic of Lena’s calendar, reminding her that she only dated in New York (fig. 2). The first image of the digital magic barrel is not the men or Lena’s interactions with them, but her calendar. Presenting us with Lena’s calendar, Ulinich allows us to glimpse the way Lena attempts to her order her life temporally, even for just three weeks. The men she dates are described briefly, but this written text should be seen as part of the larger image. It is not merely straightforward literary narrative, but part of the visual and material life of Lena. It is as though we see into her personal planner, but with commentary. We read brief bios of the men, and we are introduced to them only through Lena’s mental process (111). It is only after this abstract look at Lena’s dating life that we see photographs of the men Lena encountered on OKCupid (fig. 3). A page depicting thirteen photographs of men has no traditional graphic frames and gutters. Instead, the photographs form a single image, the image of Lena’s emotional and mental experience of online dating. Where Malamud describes seeing photographs, we look through Lena’s eyes at these photos. Here, Lena is less self-conscious, insofar as her Self does not appear on the page.
The photos, however, do not appear as they actually would on a computer screen. Instead, Ulinich draws each photo as a physical print. This recalls Leo’s experience of flipping through photographs by hand in Malamud’s short story more than it reflects browsing through digital profiles. Further, by drawing the photos as physical prints, Ulinich’s page calls attention to the separate, physical (embodied) person in each picture. We experience Lena’s emotional reactions through her captions to each photo, such as “I didn’t want to date a guy in a wetsuit” or “any of the boys showing off their toys,” such as expensive cars. We see her conception of what makes a good partner, or at least what she thinks does not. We may sympathize with her sense that men who post nude photos may not have respect for their partners in mind but we also glimpse into the individual humanity of each man she rejects. We see Lena’s superficiality (perhaps inherent to the medium of online dating) and may at once laugh at and sympathize with the men struggling to perform the most socially enticing image of themselves, such as the guy holding a beer or the one playing guitar (112). Ulinich’s text tells and shows us Lena’s narrative, but it also comments on the ways we are visually constructed through several layers: how we comport ourselves, already a representation of our inner subjectivity; how we photograph ourselves; and then again through the at least thrice-refracted images of social media.
Through relationships and sexuality, Lena negotiates her sense of self as informed by both her adulthood in the United States and her childhood in the Soviet Union. In the Soviet Union, Jews and other religious groups “underwent … anti-religious and other modernizing campaigns.”11 In the post-Soviet era, in former Soviet Republics or new locations such as America, those who lived through the Soviet Union must negotiate multiple modernities, multiple ideologies and discourses on what it means to be modern. Ulinich depicts Lena’s experience of politics and economics through her relationships with many different others, including friends, sexual partners, and literary figures. The Soviet Union no longer exists, though the people she once knew persist and have undergone their own complicated negotiations with modernity that share some aspects of American capitalism but nevertheless offer an additional vision for modernity to Lena as she searches for a sense of self.
In “The Magic Barrel,” Malamud verbally narrated the visual selectively, and his verbal emphasis on the visual gives Ulinich both plot structure and topics for response and engagement. The process of searching for love—Leo visits a matchmaker and is faced with the pictures of many different women—leads him to ask if he ever loved anyone. The matchmaker tells Leo, “Listen, rabbi, if you want love … I have such beautiful clients that you will love them the minute your eyes see them.”12 Here Malamud’s characters see love as nothing but the visual—the male gaze at female beauty. Malamud’s story suggests visuality and beauty are the most important components of love. Ulinich’s Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel subverts these conceptions. Ulinich’s medium is graphic, but she uses this visuality to argue that love is not visual. It is complicated and related to internal processes that cannot be fully externalized in a visual medium. Love cannot be depicted visually, and no relationship or love exists in a vacuum. Lena is constantly surrounded by friends and family, and her lovers. Ulinich depicts Lena’s exploration of love as a saga through all her relationships and connections.
In contrast, Malamud depicts Leo Finkle as a solitary man. This protagonist is a stock character for Malamud, though his work depicts solitary Jewish men in diverse dilemmas and situations. Throughout his oeuvre, Malamud focuses on how a man could “create for himself a new life,” turning to masculine sexual energy and phallic literary devices to construct male protagonists in perpetual self-creation. Malamud is fixated upon male protagonists as fallen heroes, handicapped by their self-absorption.13 Malamud’s masculine protagonists fit the literary figure of the “schlemiel,” which Ruth Wisse defines as “a fool, seriously—maybe even fatally—out of step with the actual march of events.” The schlemiel inadvertently is comedic, a joke, though often in a way that invites pathos and political or cultural scrutiny.14
If the schlemiel traditionally invited pathos, and even became a symbol for nostalgia capable of teaching humanist truths and to embodying Jewish struggle in postwar Jewish literature, we might consider the negative consequences of the schlemiel’s actions more seriously in the work of Malamud.15 As a nostalgic figure, the schlemiel represents Jewish peoplehood, but that peoplehood is rendered masculine. Our sympathy or at least our literary attention is focused on the experiences of the men who are schlemiels, such as Leo Finkle. However, as Alan Cheuse observes, “most of the women who are the objects of the male characters’ affections are represented without question as simple objects of love.”16 In “The Magic Barrel,” the women who Leo considers as potential mates rarely appear even as embodied women: they are typically two-dimensional photographs, described fleetingly if at all. Leo stares at the photograph and describes this woman bodily. He considers her physicality and concludes with a larger desire to have her.17 Cheuse calls this passage “love at first sight,” but the passage reveals the lack of reciprocal relationship. Within the text itself, even the matchmaker questions, “Who can love from a picture?” alluding to Malamud’s possible skepticism about what Leo has found in the photograph.18 Malamud constructs Leo’s male gaze upon the two-dimensional woman. Leo looks at a photograph, we hear his thoughts on what could be a visual description of the woman, and we still really only “see” Leo. The woman, Stella, is nothing but a projection of his desire, his self. She appears in flesh only briefly at the conclusion of the short story. We learn little about Stella, only that Leo “pictured, in her, his own redemption” and rushed toward her.19
The central theme of Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel is how Lena continuously becomes herself despite or more specifically through disappointment in love, a course through which her character intersects with various images of Jewishness. Her self is under constant construction and torn in different directions. Sex becomes a central motif in that negotiation. Soon after she emigrates, Lena recalls that she met a man named Chance in a quickie mart. In her conception of womanhood and sexuality, formed in the Soviet Union, Lena expects to be married before she loses her virginity (82). This conception is more overtly shaped by her Sovietness than any other aspect of her sense of self. Since Chance wants to have sex, they get married in a hurry. Ulinich’s visualization of Lena’s spur-of-the-moment decision appears partway through a segment of the graphic narrative titled “The Brief Romantic History of Lena Finkle” (fig. 4). To emphasize the segment as memory and history, Ulinich draws the segment on notebook paper, evoking a sense of the materials used for education in youth. On a page with no panels and gutters, several images flow together. At the top of the page, Chance and Lena argue over Lena’s unwillingness to sleep with him. She asserts that “Sex is a big deal! It’s for married people …” Her Chance encounter with sex and marriage fulfills sex norms learned in the Soviet Union that have weighed on her conception of her body, sexuality, and self. The marriage is pragmatic, but the relief is not so simplistic. Initially, instead of pondering her bodily or emotional experience of losing her sexuality, Lena links a sexual relationship with Chance to the possibilities that relationship could open up for her. So while it is a sexual encounter, the more salient aspect for Lena is the intersection of her national and ethnic identities and needs, namely citizenship. Ulinich focuses on these possibilities visually. Lena envisions her green card, which Ulinich draws with Lena’s smiling face and thumbprint. Sexual experience per se is not her desire, but it does link her to place and fulfill her desire to be American. That Lena visualizes her green card while she and Chance discuss marriage and sex suggests the ways that sexual relationships actually make her American. She could not have achieved that status, at least not so quickly, without their marriage.
Lena’s memory of her immigration to the United States presents her sense of conflict over Jewishness. Orthodox Jews enabled her immigration, but she hated Orthodox practices and attending synagogue. Ulinich draws Lena’s memories in a more cartoonish fashion, and Ulinich has commented that, “The further back the memory, the more cartoony the drawing. Memory is cartoony. We remember the highlights, and details fall away.” She argues memory is “both simplified and exaggerated.”20 For example, Lena recalls understanding nothing during a Shabbat service, isolated behind the mechitzah in the women’s section as a teenager (fig. 5). This image represents a memory of the synagogue at the top of the page, broken off by a thought bubble that recalls her life in Russia. Thus her simultaneous experiences of synagogue Jewish life in America, and a memory of the Soviet Union, are achieved visually with the thought bubble linking the two. But it also suggests the separation of the Soviet Union from her American experience, marked by the thick black bubble outlining.
This image is thus a double memory: memory of her early disinterested participation in Jewish-American community, and memory of her memory of the Soviet Union. Language plays an important role in the visualization of her memory of synagogue life. Ulinich visualizes the prayers through a Hebraized font that repeats “nonsense syllable nonsense syllable.” The scene subverts Jewish-American paternalism over Soviet Jews, particularly the notion that Soviet Jews must be “saved” and shown the “right” way to be Jewish. In a scene that operates as what Russian scholar Sasha Senderovich calls a “scene of encounter,” Ulinich subverts traditional Soviet Jewry narratives. She does so by imagining the ways that Soviet Jews’ tolerated Jewish Americans’ naïveté and paternalism to facilitate their immigration from the Soviet Union yet rejected Jewish Americans’ efforts to assimilate their own practices.21 Lena’s rejection of Hebrew language text and prayer contrasts sharply with the literary texts Lena recalls and Ulinich depicts throughout the graphic novel as fully accessible to Lena, even when they are not accessible to all members of American audiences, such as Russian-language literature. Lena’s recollection of the synagogue visualizes her sense of exclusion in the United States. Through the visualization of Hebrew, the scene indicates Lena’s lack of socialization, or education into Hebrew-language prayer. She felt excluded from this form of Jewishness. Furthermore, the mechitzah or curtain dividing the women’s section from the men’s section obscures our view of the men’s prayers, as it does Lena’s. As a woman, she was excluded from Jewish ritual by halakha itself. Lastly, she was excluded from American citizenship. She sat in synagogue unable to see or to listen in any meaningful way to the ritual prayers, and thinks of her status in the United States. She recalls that the INS had rejected her immigration papers again. She was excluded from American society. These exclusions suggest why Lena might have a crisis in her sense of self: the promises of Jewish-American community and American inclusion that brought her family from the Soviet Union to the United States went unfulfilled.
As the top of this page considers Lena’s exclusion from Ashkenazi American prioritization of halakhic Jewishness by both language and gender in America, Lena considers how language and gender influenced her understanding of her Jewishness in the Soviet Union during her childhood. Lena compares the American Orthodox sense that one must practice halakha to her memory of the Soviet Union, where she recalls that, “In Moscow, you didn’t have to try so hard to be a Jew. It was like gender.” Ulinich plays with the constructed nature of both Jewishness and gender in Lena’s insistence on their “nature” as something “you were born with” (74). Visually, Ulinich suggests how one is “born” with Jewishness. Ulinich draws two versions of Lena as a child. In both cases, her wild curly hair defines her otherwise cartoonish appearance. These images draw on stereotypes of Jews, suggesting that she stuck out as a Jew as early as the sandbox. Lena plays with another child, who wears a nearly identical dress. This young child is nearly bald, while Lena’s hair spirals in many directions. Furthermore, this young girl asks, “Your name is Finkle? Are you a retard?” Her name marks her as weird; this is Lena’s earliest experience of what it is to be Jewish. Similarly, as Lena grows older in an adjacent image, she sticks out amongst two other children. Lena, a boy and a girl all wear the clothing of Soviet scouts or school children. The novel’s image is not in color, but I can imagine the bright red filling in the scarves the children wear. The young boy’s scant hair is combed down, the young girl’s light hair is neatly braided, and again Lena’s hair is bulky and spirals in various directions. In both the sandbox and the scouts, Lena’s eyes are wide. This is typical of Lena’s memory of herself, perhaps equal parts her sense of her physical features and a visualization of the frazzled stress she feels when socially othered. These memories are juxtaposed with her memories of the American synagogue, suggesting both simultaneity in Lena’s sense of self and memory, and a separation in time as the separate accumulated experiences of Lena’s life. On the page, they represent the different ways that rituals and ideologies of behavior inform who Lena is in the present. Her contemporary sense of self is formed by these layered memories.
In many cases, Ulinich’s pages lack panels with boundaries between images or sequences. The reader directs the order in which she processes verbal and visual texts and potentially processes a single page circularly.22 The loose possibility to process pages and images in multiple orders, and to read verbal text before, after, or intermittently while processing the visual embodies the very non-linearity of self-creation that graphic novels may represent. The bound codex moves forward, suggesting the march of time, but each page reprocesses that history just as an individual continually re-understands the events of her life and how these events relate to her present position. Ulinich critiques the linearity of novels through Lena’s voice at the end of Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel. Lena is also an author struggling to produce a book, and she thinks, “Novels are so stupid! With their plots, deliberate as garbage truck routes, and character development, steady as garbage collection” (342). Placing this thought at the end of Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel, Ulinich indicates her own suspicion of the ability of the novel’s form to depict experience. Events do not occur and then pass, as pages turn or garbage trucks collect bags. Ulinich suggests the importance of re-circling certain images and experiences as author and as readers, in order to gain some semblance of the ways memories, texts, and experiences resurface in life as lived.
This circular pattern throughout the graphic novel places an extra emphasis on memory to evaluate relationship. Memory itself is a Jewish motif. For example, Exodus 12, Numbers 15, and Deuteronomy 6 and 11 emphasize commandments to remember, which is embodied in halakhic practices from the Shema (a daily prayer) to the Passover seder. Furthermore, memory has been an essential practice of communal understanding and the academic production of history, as analyzed in Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi’s Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory and the many responses it has evoked.23 However, Ulinich reveals the disunity of Jewish memory and the difficulty for many individuals, especially women, to see themselves in communal narratives of memory.
“The Magic Barrel” focuses on Malamud’s masculine characters’ unreflective experience of the present, rather than reflecting on memory, the construction of time, and the construction of self and relationship therein. Ulinich makes the complexity of relationships more visible. This includes the complexity of Lena’s interactions with the men she dates, in the short or long term, and how Lena’s contemporary sexual interactions are always informed by her memory of sexual interactions in the past. This ranges from the disappointment she felt when she first lost her virginity to Chance, to her childhood memory of sexual assault.
Graphic artists have depicted sexual explicitness from the beginning of the production of graphic novels, and that explicitness has been a key piece of what graphic novels offer artists, especially women.24 Will Eisner is often credited with inaugurating the literary tradition of Jewish graphic novels, and his work focused on immigrant experience as well as on sexuality. Ulinich’s graphic novel joins a conversation with other Jewish graphic novels as sites to explore trauma and violation.25 At the beginning of the novel, informing our views of Lena’s sexual experience throughout the novel, Lena records “The Glorious People’s Sex Education of Lena Finkle.” Lena stands in front of a giant banner printed with these words, and Lena wears the uniform of a Soviet scout. She is not smiling, saluting the banner, holding a scythe in one hand. Her sexuality, in other words, is fully visualized through the symbols of the Soviet Union. Her sex education proceeds in small chapters or “lessons.” Lesson two presents one of Lena’s earliest memories of sexuality as assault. This lesson is titled, “Human Penis as Instrument of Terror” (fig. 6). The title block for this lesson does not depict a literal penis, but the phallic buildings of Soviet block housing, suggesting the connection between sexual trauma and the Soviet Union for Lena. Lena’s back is to us as she approaches her home in Moscow 1984 intrepidly. The next two blocks jump to Lena entering the elevator in one of these buildings. On the left, a man whose face we cannot see stands behind her as she enters the elevator. On the right, we still do not see his face, though we see Lena looking down, bags under her eyes. We see instead his crotch, bulging in his pants. In the bottom panel, which stretches across the entire page, we are focused on Lena’s face, especially her eyes. They are wide and she weeps. Although in many scenes of her memory Lena’s face lacks much detail, here it is the focus. It has a cartoony character like other memories through the novel, but it is filled in and central, suggesting the importance of this moment in the formation of herself and sexuality (24).
Lena’s memory of the assault continues on a second page. Lena’s body is not depicted in detail, but in black silhouette. After the assault, which she has still not understood, a series of pictures portray Lena’s reactions. The graphic layout of her memory indicates how fragmentary her emotions were and continue to be. She is unable to use full sentences, and each picture—separated by the graphic gutters—does not represent Lena’s whole self. These fragments visually form a larger image of sexual trauma. For example, her eyes are even wider, though we do not see her whole face as she recalls that she stopped sleeping. Again, focusing on her eyes—wide, burdened by deeper bags—she became afraid of all men. We see only Lena’s eyes, and again, never the faces of the men. Denying us the ability to see men’s faces, Ulinich forces us to look from Lena’s childhood perspective. The forgotten vision of her assailant’s face forces us to wonder how the trauma has affected her memory. That all men do not have eyes draws our attention to Lena’s eyes and on what they see. Ulinich makes Lena’s sexual history visible while also suggesting the continuous impossibility ever to make assault visible, coherent as a narrative, or socially shared (25).
Ulinich’s graphic novel’s cross-discursive form is apt for expressing the elusive nature of trauma. Trauma is an interruption of narrative, and the visuality of graphic narratives allows the depiction of trauma without necessarily fully integrating or narrativizing it. Hilary Chute views making the traumas that are too often silenced visible—including but not limited to women’s experiences—an essential element of what constitutes feminism. That images are especially apt in revealing trauma and serving feminist projects is pitted against the culturally gendered stereotypes of images as excessive, emotional, and feminine.26 In the case of Ulinich’s depiction of Lena, we can link the visibility of trauma to how Lena must evaluate place. To return to Russia, especially to the large housing units, is to return to the place that shaped her, but this includes returning to the site of her trauma as a child in the Soviet Union. Her Soviet education in sexuality included both the normative value of women’s virginity but also the experience of sexual assault.
Visual circularity continues throughout the text, and its form realizes the circling that Lena is doing as she negotiates past, present, future, and their alternatives. Furthermore, speech bubbles appear as both verbal and visual text. As visual symbols, they represent relationship and especially dialogue, but they can also depict disconnection or fragmentation. A full-page image (fig. 7) depicts Lena with her boyfriend from her youth, Alik, and her American friend Eloise (38–39). These friends stand in for what each place represents. Alik is a relationship to which she cannot return, a set of hopes that could not come true. Placing these images adjacent to each other has an effect visually that works differently from how we might read the pages of literature. We can look from the central panel of the left page to the full-page painting on the right page. On another page, a conversation Lena has with Eloise blends into a conversation she has with her Self at the bottom of the page (fig. 8). The simultaneity of the conversations is made clear as speech bubbles serve both as boundaries, and obliterate any clear division between Lena’s external conversation with Eloise and internal dialogue with her Self. Eloise expresses the question of alternative possibilities in life, explaining that when she returns to Iowa, she asks herself, “What if I stayed … you begin to see a possibility of this whole alternative life. Also it seems like, at this place (and only at this place) you can actually start over.” But at this moment Lena interjects that she does not think so. The speech bubble, a visualization of their relationship and interaction, dominates the image. Here there is a giant speech bubble in between Eloise and Lena. It suggests the largeness of their relationship, but it also creates a kind of boundary between them. They can speak to each other, but they are entirely separated by their differing perspectives in this relationship (57).
Following this conversation about place, Ulinich visualizes the places at play for Lena’s attempt to make sense of the fragmentary pieces of her past. She does not seek to start over, as Eloise might suggest, but she revisits these images in her memory to make sense of herself in the present. Images prompt images, suggesting memory itself is visual. The windows of the airplane lined up in a single row on the flight back to New York remind Lena of the holes above Thomas Jefferson’s bed. As she pictures Monticello (fig. 9), Lena asks herself, “Does Alik even know the phrase ‘Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness?” (59, 62). Lena measures her Americanness against Alik, relating to him less as a person and more as a representation of her past and his place. She does not experience Alik as an individual, but as one aspect of herself. Ulinich integrates multiple mediums in this image. The question appears as a thought bubble, and Ulinich clips the text as it appears in Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. Ulinich demonstrates Lena’s American experience through Lena’s memory of a visit to Monticello, where she saw Jefferson’s home memorialized. When Lena thinks of Monticello, she recalls, for example, Jefferson’s bed built in between two walls and closet storage above. The images of Monticello are small, and do not indicate her being overwhelmed by it as a place. Instead, when Lena thinks of it, she recalls the “endless reproductions of the Declaration of Independence.” These reproductions were impressive for her, though their physical form was aesthetically modest: “from a hand-written draft to a tacky wood plaque in the gift shop, the badass text got only better from repetition” (61). Ulinich will return to this phrase as a metaphor for Lena’s understanding of sense of self later in the novel, indicating the inseparable nature of Lena’s construction of self and the places and ideologies within which she constructs that self. Furthermore, she makes verbally explicit the value of repetition over linearity in narrative or self-understanding.
Her memory of Monticello contrasts with the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, a massive art museum composed of many opulent buildings including the former palace of the Tsars. Lena recalls, “I couldn’t stop thinking of these two places side by side: St. Petersburg’s acres of gold-plated excess and the relative poverty of Monticello” (61). In her contemplation of America and Russia, she considers specific experiences and their symbolic meanings. Ulinich visually depicts Lena’s multiple selves not just through Lena’s multiple bodily selves, but the places in which she has become herself. Not just Russia and the United States abstractly, but St. Petersburg and the Hermitage contrast with New York or Monticello. Her visit to the Hermitage with Eloise constitutes a central part of their visit to Russia. Ulinich depicts the rooms of the Hermitage in great detail (fig. 10). The full-color large panels depicting the Hermitage suggest its grandeur with even greater emphasis and are some of the most striking in Ulinich’s collection of original artwork produced for her graphic novel (46–48).
However, Lena is ultimately unmoved by the Hermitage. It is an empty spectacle. Jefferson’s house is much less extravagant in her visual memory, and Ulinich paints Monticello in small snapshots rather than two-page spans as she does the Hermitage. At Monticello, aside from Jefferson’s material modesty rather than spectacle, Lena prefers the visual repetition of the Declaration of Independence. The importance of small places at this point has an impact on Lena. Later in the novel, she returns to Russia and avoids the Hermitage. It is unable to convey anything about her sense of self in its false grandeur. Lena shows her children the Soviet block housing rather than the touristy Hermitage to convey something of her true self. Beyond allowing her to consider how she fits into multiple geographies and ideologies, she also questions her own and Alik’s independence, as well as “a life of independence” built on her own work rather than financial inheritance (60–62, 346–347). This foreshadows the trouble she will face in the second half of the graphic novel with “the Orphan,” who lives in squalor but is rich due to his inheritance. Through Alik and the Orphan, Lena grapples with what independence means and how work, money, and social class influence her sense of self. Lena may have been superficial about photos on OkCupid, but her assessment of the Hermitage and Monticello critiques obsession with external beauty, harking back to her own early dating experiences as well as Ulinich’s critique of Malamud through Lena.
Lena travels as “a tourist in the country of men” (111). This metaphor suggests how sexuality helps Lena negotiate her relationship not only or even primarily to men but also to places and politics. Ulinich has likened a mid-life crisis to a second immigration.27 Through her travels in the “country of men,” she works out her sense of self in between, within, and against the countries of men, America, the Soviet Union, contemporary Russia, and the Jewish state—whether Judaism, Israel, or Jewish ethnicity. The panel containing her statement that she “became a tourist in the country of men” is to the right of a page on which Lena declares, “From now on, I will only have sex with people I want to have sex with!” (fig. 11). This statement suggests the pressure and coercion through which Lena has experienced and understood sexuality. The font size of “the country of men” is especially large, drawing the eye to the page on the right. One can then return to the visual image of Lena reflecting upon her sexual experiences on the left page. This page shows five versions of Lena. There is the Lena thinking these thoughts. We see her from behind, her hair wet from the shower and body wrapped in a towel. She stares at herself in the mirror. Lena’s mouth is slightly open as she talks to herself, but her reflection is tight-lipped and somber. Her reflection does not eye her directly, but stares off into the distance—her mind elsewhere in time or space. The medicine-cabinet mirror has three panels, and the effect fragments what Lena can see of herself. Her face is spread across the three mirror panels and is therefore visually slightly disjointed. We can clearly see who she is, but it does not quite fit together perfectly (110).
These two versions of Lena dominate the image, but they are not the only two. Her gaze into her reflection already demonstrates how fragmented her self is, but the other versions of Lena continue to play visually and verbally with her many internal lines of thought and memories. Lena and her mirror reflection stand in a towel, nude but covered, but her Self stands to the side fully nude. Here, her Self encourages her not to beat herself up. Additionally, the lower panel features two more Lenas. Past Lena as current Lena remembers her is cartoony, disoriented, totally wide-eyed and frazzled. Adjacent to past Lena is past Lena’s Self, not frazzled and disoriented but composed. Ulinich thus reverses what Lena experiences externally and internally. In past and present, Lena experiences her disorientation internally, but Ulinich doubly externalizes it through altering Lena’s appearance and through the Self who follows her everywhere and depicts Lena’s internal monologue as if it were an external dialogue.
To understand how she embodies the norms of these countries, she must explore herself bodily. Sex with men is not really about the men, but the ways sexuality has shaped Lena for good and for bad. However, Ulinich does not always focus on visually depicting sex in order to represent Lena’s process of understanding how she embodies herself. For example, on the second page, where Ulinich engages D. H. Lawrence’s detailed descriptions of sexual intercourse, we do not see Lena having sex but we see her lying in bed with her daughter and we see text from Lawrence’s novel (fig. 12). Contemplating Lawrence, Lena rejects the idealization of sexuality in Lady Chatterley’s Lover between Connie Chatterley and the gardener. Instead, Lena thinks, “there is bad sex, and almost-goodsex, and even sort of good-ish sex.” This thought bubble is imposed upon the text. Ulinich thereby suggests visually that Lena can only read Lawrence through her own unfolding sexual experience. Lena explicitly considers the disappointing nature of sexual encounters, thinking to herself that “orgasms with [men] share a certain quality with humanitarian aid sandwiches scarfed down in the dark,” continuing the comparison between sex with men and immigrant travel between countries. Lena’s thoughts offer a critique of sexuality-as-fulfillment, but Lena’s Self appears to second-guess this critique. Ulinich draws Lena’s Self very small and in the corner. Yet her speech in her speech bubble is the same font-size as Lena’s internal thoughts, suggesting her Self-consciousness as equally important. Her Self asserts that “Just because you haven’t seen something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist!” Her Self thus uses a visual metaphor for experience and at the same time allows Ulinich to suggest the on-going reassessment of experience versus social images and ideals (175).
Many of the graphic novel’s pages that engage with literature include multimedia visual productions that have all or part of an original text pasted into the picture. Literature is important to Lena (and to Ulinich). It is a means to reflect upon gender roles, as well as other aspects of culture. In one memory of “silly academic panels,” which Lena confesses to have liked more than being an artist, a large poster declares the question, “Does Literature Matter?” (168). Lena’s search for a sense of self through literature and Ulinich’s visualization of this search declare the answer to what, in the end, becomes an absurd question. Not only does Ulinich show that literature matters, but she shows how it matters, especially in the lives of individual women. Lena’s most intense and visually graphic sexual relationship is not with the men she dates in rapid succession, but with the Orphan. This relationship is introduced via two major literary figures, Philip Roth and Bernard Malamud. In a panel split by a rip below an image of Lena asleep on the bus next to the man she will come to call the Orphan, she dreams of an encounter with Philip Roth. Convinced by Philip Roth (in her own dream) that her work is not like his, Lena instead chooses to fashion herself after Malamud (182–183).
However, Malamud is far from the only author with whom Ulinich engages. She draws on similar themes to those that appear in D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Ulinich takes up a similar frank exploration of human sexuality and ideology to Lawrence, but rejects the profound relationship that Constance Chatterley experiences in Lawrence’s novel. Lena connects reading the novel to a particular moment earlier in her life but now rereads it in light of new experiences. We see Lena read the book in bed (alongside her sleeping child), and she recalls reading it “right after college … Josh and I were working at a dot-com.” She remembers that she “related to Connie Chatterley … but only up to the middle of the book” (174). By visually including the text of Lena’s copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Ulinich envisions several things. We see the importance of the materiality of the text and the physical experience of reading. Reproducing pages from Lawrence’s novel in Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel, Ulinich is also able to cite passages at length that contextualize passages of the novel that most clearly influence the themes Ulinich responds to in her own work. Additionally, we see the text in English. We might expect to see Lawrence’s work in English as that was his language of authorship, the visualization of English is especially striking and salient given that on other pages Ulinich cites (and sights) pages of Russian literature in Russian. Those pages are visually unavailable as context to readers not fluent in Russian, even if they have read Russian literature in translation, which might characterize much of Ulinich’s presumed audience in America.
These languages, which so profoundly influence Lena’s understanding of herself and her sexuality (to some extent, inseparable entities), also sharply contrast with Lena’s skewering of the Hebrew that seemed so irrelevant to her in childhood. The visuality of the language and reading experience are important, as is the multi-layered construction of the panels of the graphic novel. Ulinich layers painted and sketched images of Lena, thought bubbles, and narration on top of the reproductions of novels. The multi-layered artwork thus embodies the multiple subjectivity that Lena experiences and that Ulinich conveys as a central argument of her novel. The multiple layering is clearer in the original artwork than in the printed graphic novel. Mass production of the novel necessitated scanning and flattening the pages. But in the original productions, one can see and feel the cut pieces of cardboard and paper, the glue and the slices that fit several separate pieces together into an image that appears complex and whole.28 Ulinich’s process of creating the graphic narrative, in other words, also embodies the pieced together fragments that she portrays as the components of Lena’s self.
Ulinich draws a section of Lena’s memory attributed to “My Culture is Stranger Than Yours Productions” titled “The Intellectual and the Darling.” This section begins adjacent to present-day fear that she is “turning into a Russian wife” in the way she treats the Orphan and a memory from her childhood when she decided never to become a “Russian wife,” or at the stereotype Lena formed between Soviet ideology and watching the relationships of women in her own life (fig. 13). Her childhood decision not to be a Russian wife places an angsty cartoon Lena in between two scenes, “The Living Room” and “The Kitchen.” Her mother and aunt are squarely planted in the kitchen in 1980s Moscow, while her father and uncle declare, “One is not a complete human being if one hasn’t read Tolstoy.” Jumping off from the question of gender roles and being a complete person, Ulinich introduces and depicts “The Intellectual and the Darling.” Ulinich draws these characters not from Tolstoy, but also Russian playwright Anton Chekhov. Ulinich draws Chekhov himself as the “Intellectual” (along with Lena’s father and uncle), Lena’s mother as the “Beauty,” and her uncle’s second wife as the “Darling.” The verbal text selects a context for these characters and Chekhov’s short story, “about a woman without a mind of her own” (270–271). In Lena’s memory, Ulinich depicts various characters from Lena’s family life. But in Lena’s present, she holds the book materially in her hands and sees it with new eyes, asking new questions (fig. 14). We see the book over Lena’s shoulder and in her hands as she rereads it. She concludes that as a child she read the story ideologically, but as an adult, she sees new components, namely love. She sees “the love component” as directly relevant to her own life and relationship with the Orphan. Returning to Jefferson as a symbol of freedom and happiness within Lena’s relationships, Ulinich depicts Lena pinning a portrait she painted of Thomas Jefferson to a wall at the Orphan’s apartment (275). Lena becomes torn between intellectual independence and love, questioning whether it is possible to have both.
Negotiating multiple visions of the past, Ulinich negotiates multiple visions of the present. And though Ulinich integrates Jewishness into her vision, she does not create Jewish community as the or even a body of authority. Instead, she frequently rejects it, especially in the United States. Ulinich places the individual—Lena’s search for self—at the center of her literary and visual analysis of multiple modernities. Ulinich complicates representations of women and what constitutes feminist media. Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel shows that women’s relationships and conversations with each other are meaningful, even or perhaps especially when about love or sex. Although sex and love may be the topic of conversation, much more is actually taking place. Lena constructs a complex if fragmentary sense of self rather than a one-dimensional desire for love as the sole means of completion of womanhood. This complex representation of women’s experience of multiple modernities can urge us to ask how we can place women as authors, artists, characters, and bodies within the study and “canon” of Jewishness, whether literary or religious, and within the study and canon of religion and culture in general.
Lena experiences anxiety and frustration negotiating how multiple languages, relationships, places, and political structures influence her present position. Though she is frustrated in her inability to integrate the fragments of her past easily, a therapist tells her, “You can reclaim those places and things for yourself, eventually. You’ll build other associations” (340). The therapist articulates what Lena can accomplish in her understanding of place, which Ulinich has visually depicted in Lena’s building of new associations with literature. Furthermore, Lena builds these associations through relationships with others. Neither languages nor places have stable, inherent meanings, not even when they present strong ideologies of politics or modernity. Demonstrating this, Ulinich engages with Jewish writing practices of weaving multiple languages and canons to realize her narrative. Ulinich rejects the power of Hebrew or English to define Jewishness, integrating Russian writing in her graphic novel and her protagonist’s sense of self. Lena returns to Russia with her children. In so doing, she revises how Russia matters to émigrés and Soviet Jewish Americans. She does not take her children to the touristy Hermitage, as she did with her friend Eloise. Instead, she takes them to her old neighborhood to view the block tower housing where she grew up. It is this residence, not the tourist sites, that ultimately influences Lena and becomes the most important place to pass on to her children. She returns with a more confident sense of self, even if “it was disorienting” to view her old home in the wake of her broken relationship with the Orphan (347). This disorientation is integral to Ulinich’s process, like that of other Jewish writers, which positions itself between multiple places and languages and must find a way to make some sense out of their relationship.
After her relationship with the Orphan ends, Lena asks Eloise, “Pursuit of happiness … that’s normal, no?” Thus she continues to attempt to understand her sexuality through Jefferson—symbolic of her attempt to become fully American. However, Eloise suggests she let go of this single-track attempt to be “normal.” Eloise argues that Lena has a “sense of self the size of the Empire State Building,” another American landmark. This oversized sense of self has been Lena’s obstacle throughout the novel (333). Lena has an over-sized sense of self insofar as all of her relationships have been mirrors for her own needs and her search for a reconciliation between her past and her present experiences. Her earliest experiences, including traumas, took place in the Soviet Union. Lena is unable to process these experiences until mid-life in the United States. At this point, she has focused on herself—much in the vein of Malamud’s characters throughout his works and of Leo Finkle in particular. Yet Lena struggles with this sense of self: both to create it and to contain it. Malamud’s male protagonists are unselfconscious about their preoccupation with themselves, and Malamud’s writing does little to reveal the relational carnage of his masculine characters. Ulinich subverts and critiques these gender roles, and in so doing reveals more of her heroine’s layered identities. Ulinich visualizes and narrates Lena’s Americanized self, but also the non-linear process through which this sense of self is continually produced, its complexities, and occasional narcissistic tunnel vision.
Hillary Chute, Graphic Women: Life, Narrative and Contemporary Comics, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), 2.
Anya Ulinich, “Drawing Lena Finkle: Sex, Love, Immigration, and a Search for Self” (lecture, Lafayette College, Easton, PA, November 3, 2015).
Saul Zaritt, “Maybe for Millions, Maybe for Nobody: Jewish American Writing and the Undecidability of World Literature,” American Literary History 28:3 (Fall 2016): 545–547.
Margarita Levantovskaya, “From Anxiety to Disidentification: Lara Vapnyar’s Memoirs of a Muse, Irina Reyn’s What Happened to Anna K., and Anya Ulinich’s Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel,” East European Jewish Affairs 46:3 (Dec. 2016): 313.
Levantovskaya, “From Anxiety to Disidentification,” 323.
In-text citations are to page numbers in Anya Ulinich, Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel: A Graphic Novel (New York: Penguin, 2014).
Chute, Graphic Women, 2.
Anya Ulinich, Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel, original artwork, Lafayette College Special Collections, Easton, PA. Unless otherwise stated, all emphases in quotations in this article are present in the original.
McBrien, “Mukadas’s Struggle,” 128.
Bernard Malamud, “The Magic Barrel,” in The Magic Barrel (New York: Farrar, Strauss, & Cudahy, 1950), 207.
Nicholas Delbanco, “On The Magic Barrel,” in The Magic Worlds of Bernard Malamud, ed. Evelyn Avery (Albany: SUNY Press, 2001), 39; Daniel Walden, “Bernard Malamud and his Universal Menschen,” in The Magic Worlds, 167, 171.
Ruth Wisse, The Schlemiel as Modern Hero (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971), 3.
Ibid., 72–73, 93–107.
Alan Cheuse, “Bernard and Juliet: Romance and Desire in Malamud’s High Art,” in The Magic Worlds of Bernard Malamud, ed. Evelyn Avery (Albany: SUNY Press, 2001), 153.
Malamud, “The Magic Barrel,” 208–209.
Cheuse, “Bernard and Juliet,” 154.
Malamud, “The Magic Barrel,” 213–214.
Ulinich, “Drawing Lena Finkle.”
Sasha Senderovich, “Scenes of Encounter: The ‘Soviet Jew’ in Fiction by Russian Jewish Writers in America,” Prooftexts 35 (Winter 2015): 99.
Tahneer Oksman, “How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?”: Women and Jewish American Identity, in Contemporary Graphic Memoirs (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), 88.
Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory (Seattle: University of London Press, 1982).
Chute, Graphic Women, 18.
Josh Lambert, “ ‘Wanna watch the grown-ups doin’ dirty things?’: Jewish Sexuality and the Early Graphic Novel,” in The Jewish Graphic Novel: Critical Approaches, ed. Samantha Baskind and Ranen Omer-Sherman (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2008), 46.
Chute, Graphic Women, 2–5.
Ulinich, “Drawing Lena Finkle.”
Anya Ulinich, Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel, original artwork, Lafayette College Special Collections, Easton, PA.