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#30. Luba: The Book of Ofelia, by Gilbert Hernandez
whereweather wrote in 50books_poc
 #30. Luba: The Book of Ofelia (Vol. 2 in the Luba trilogy; Vol. 21 in the Complete Love & Rockets)

2005 (material originally published 1998-2005), Fantagraphics Books


Warning: Long and obsessive plot details ahead!  This is a crazy long book -- 240 pages -- and incredibly dense, for a graphic novel.  Also, the storytelling modalities are highly refined and self-referential, full of interweaving, flashback and allusion; and also it's Part 2 of a three-part series-within-a-series.  So I take these reviews as an opportunity to parse the plot, to assure myself that I've actually followed what the hell is going on.
 

So!  This is the second part of Gilbert ("Beto") Hernandez's trilogy about the latest adventures of Luba, his protagonist, in America.  (For basics about Luba, you can see my earlier post about the previous book in this series.)

At this point in time, Luba and her children are in the United States, but her husband Khamo is stuck in immigration limbo.  Luba continues her quest to figure out what she must -- or can -- do in order to untangle his shady past, police record, and hazy criminal associations, so that she can bring him to join them.  (Like most of Luba's accomplishments, this is not really hindered -- and is perhaps made more impressive -- by that fact that, like some of the other main characters living in the United States, she still can't speak a word of English.)

 

Much of this section's narrative mechanics is fueled by the announcement that Ofelia, Luba's long-suffering older cousin, has decided to finally try being the writer she has always wanted to be.  This in-progress "book of Ofelia" gives, perhaps, the collection its title, although the phrasing also seems to imply (in its Biblical cadence) that she is instead the main subject of the book.  (Except that she isn't, really; she's not present throughout.  I keep thinking about the way that, in Spanish -- as I think I understand it, anyway -- this phrase, "el libro de Ofelia," does not make a distinction between the book *by* Ofelia and the book *about* her.  So this book, perhaps, is both.)

 

(On that note: one other thing I like is how much of the book's dialogue and internal thought-monologues are in Spanish.  The switches back and forth are frequent but consistent: the Latin American-born children tend to speak in fluent English to each other, but use Spanish with their parents, and to think in it when introspection is called for; the American-born children and adults think in English, although they frequently and fluently use Spanish with their relations.  Hernandez indicates the switches with the widely used comics convention of putting the "second-language" dialogue within brackets (and, in this book, some double-bracketing for other languages, like French).  When Hernandez' stories were set entirely in the Central American village from which many of the characters hail, he used to just put a note at the bottom of the first page that everything was in Spanish unless otherwise indicated -- a convention that Jaime has also sometimes used, e.g. in stories set among recent immigrants and jornalero workers -- but now that they've migrated to America, there's a lot more use of both tongues.)

 

So.  What's happening in the Book of Ofelia?

 

 

- The "little ones" -- Luba's younger children, Casimira (maybe 12, though she doesn't seem to have grown in years), Socorro (maybe 9), Joselito (maybe 6), and Conchita (under 2) -- are getting teased at school because the girls are too butch and Joselito likes to play dress-up.  Also, Socorro is being specially tested because she has a genius memory, and may be sent away to a school for gifted children.

 

- Ofelia has started writing her book, but is having trouble with inspiration.  She is also arguing with Luba a lot, as the book has caused her to revisit years of memories of how Luba has taken advantage of her.  Abandoned, again, to babysit the children, Ofelia agrees to take them out to listen to a scary, terrible thing: the sound of a ghostly baby crying among withered trees.  It frightens or saddens them all, and even cousin Venus has to agree that it's scarier than the "Frankenstein's grave" near her own house at home.

 

- Things are weird on the set of Pipo's show, a children's spectacular that she produces and which stars Doralís, one of Luba's other, older daughters.   Pipo's currently dating Igor (he doesn't speak Spanish, she doesn't speak English, but they get along!)  Igor used to date Guadalupe (another Luba daughter), who in turn is married to Gato, now Pipo's ex-husband.  Could things be more complex?  Sure!  Sergio, Pipo's soccer-star adult son (they are only fourteen years apart in age), is in love with the married Guadalupe... *and* he's sleeping with Luba's half-sister Fritz!

 

(This is the kind of soap-opera convolution and frenzied over-sexedness that makes people refer to Gilbert's recent work as being melodramatic, soap-operatic, "like a telenovela," or "like a fetish film."  It doesn't hurt that many of the main characters have specifically exaggerated secondary sex characteristics.  Pipo's is a huge, round bubble butt with a tiny waist; Fritz, like Luba in her youth, has enormous double-G breasts with a similarly tiny waist and slender legs.  And yet these are professional women, and we are supposed to take them seriously.  And yet Pipo always wears skin-tight hot pants and high heels, and Fritz rejoices in plunging necklines and tight shirts.  And yet, and yet, and yet... (Gato and Igor, furthermore, both have very large penises; we know Gato's dimensions to within the inch.  Although it turns out Igor wins by a hair, after we are treated to a scene of them comparing length and girth in the men's room.)

 

- Boots has been imported from the old country to straighten out Pipo's books, which have become a hopeless shambles under Gato.  Gato announces he is also writing a tell-all book involving Pipo.  Boots begins to take notes on the complicated love geometries that surround her.  

 

- Weird random, half-true "folk tales" from Doralís's show, in which she dresses up in ever more amazing and extravagant costumes.  

 

- Khamo storms out of the house after a fight, and Luba goes after him.  Deciding that they need to "make sure Mama's all right," Socorro and Joselito hotwire the neighbor's car and take off on a joyride.  (Is this a normal thing to do in Southern California, or do kids just get more opportunities to observe how cars are used?)  We are introduced to Hector, a strikingly handsome if shaggy young Latino man, who has just been kicked out of his apartment by his stripper fiancée, and is on a late-night booze cruise in a friend's pick-up truck to avoid having to go back home and crash at his parents' house.  After his friend drops him, Hector goes on a long, free-associating ramble around the silent suburban streets, talking to streetlights and to snails.  

 

This turns out to be useful, because Socorro and Joselito have crashed Mr. Lorenzano's car; after they sneak away from the crash, they meet Hector, who walks them safely home.

 

- At the mall, Joselito and Socorro recognize Hector.  They are out with their Aunt (Tía) Fritz, and thus do Fritz and Hector meet (the title of this particular vignette is "Meeting Cute, Fucking Cuter," which,  I admit, makes me love Gilbert Hernandez for just a moment).  

 

Fritz and Hector, as the title implies, meet and fuck a few times.  But, as Fritz explains, she has too many men in her life right now; she would like to introduce Hector to her sister, Petra.  "Story of my life!" complains Hector.  "I meet the perfect woman and she uses me like so much beefcake.  Oh, woe is the life of a sensitive stud..."  

 

Petra -- a recently divorced blonde bombshell with two daughters, who works as a medical technician and spends all her spare time weightlifting, working out or in the pool -- is gradually prevailed upon to meet Hector.  In the meantime, we are introduced to all the other men in Fritz's life, and are treated to the narratively relevant spectacle of her getting fucked doggy-style by five different men over the course of eight pages.  (This is a... thing... about Gilbert Hernandez's work these days: it's not just that there's sex, it's that there's so _much_ sex, and so much spectacle around it, that on and off it really does become more erotica -- or, we could easily say, pornography -- than anything else.  The nature of the spectacle also makes it very clear whose benefit the depictions of sex are for, and who is supposed to get turned on by it, and how.  All of Fritz's sex scenes are depicted from the same perspective -- with a crystal-clear view of her huge breasts bobbling, and of the faces, though not the butts or thighs, or the men -- and, you know, it feels pretty obvious whose benefit all this spectacle is for.  (Hint: it's not women, of any orientation, and it's not gay men.)

 

(This is part of what makes me feel so ambivalent about Gilbert's current work.  The differences between the way he and Jaime portray sex make for an instructive contrast, and sort of underline some of the reasons why I feel so differently about the brothers' work.)

 

Anyway!  So: Porn fest, porn fest, Fritz has big breasts, Hector enjoys cunnilingus.  Fritz's boyfriend Sergio returns from overseas and bangs her in her office, and Hector finally gets introduced to Petra at a backyard party to which she's invited all her friends from the gym and church.  Nonetheless, they like each other, and Hector walks away with his head full of internal monologue.  (He is apparently the author's new stand-in: the eternally young, schlubby and geeky yet magically attractive, "ordinary guy" who will get to have sex with all the astonishingly proportioned female leads.)

 

- Pipo and Fritz take Luba to their favorite fetish club.  Everyone's dressed in leather and latex: Fritz and Luba show off their huge breasts, Pipo her sculpted thighs and ass, Pipo and Fritz their impossibly tiny waists.  (Refreshingly, Boots, who is three feet tall and shaped like R2D2, is also in attendance.) 

Sergio, Pipo's son and Fritz's boyfriend, has come too -- to "keep an eye on" them -- and also putting in an appearance is Fortunato, the magical sex-sorceror guy.  (Have I mentioned Fortunato?  He has sex magic: all women will sleep with him, and do.)  

Amazingly, the male characters have not been required to don latex in order to enter the club.  The contrast is truly remarkable, but no explanation is forthcoming.

 

- We get a Fortunato flashback -- Luba slept with him too, while her husband was out of the country -- and then hear the story of Fortunato's origins.  Pipo, Fritz, Boots and Fortunato are all naked.

 

- Hector and Petra go on a date.  The whole thing is from Hector's internal-monologue perspective.  They like each other.

 

Petra invites Hector on a romantic getaway.  The reader, though not Hector, understands that -- sort of amazingly -- she has booked the hotel room so that it's in full view of her remarrying ex-husband's wedding party, which has a clear view of them going at it through the windows.  

 

Hector is racked with guilt about not coming clean to Petra about his previous sexual relationship with Fritz, but he remains too cowardly to do it.  Fritz's attitude toward Hector, meanwhile, remains weirdly flirtatious.  (Which doesn't seem as stable as you might hope for, coming from a psychotherapist.)

 

- Venus and Doralís hang out.  (Doralís is Luba's third-oldest daughter -- or is it the second? --  and stars in a TV show that Pipo produces.  Doralís, too, has an astonishingly proportioned body: her mother's gigantic breasts, accompanied by amazingly curvy thighs and butt.  She's like a '40s pinup bombshell cranked up to 18.  I have no idea how she finds clothes that fit.)  Doralís wants to make a film about the life of her and Venus' grandmother, María.  Also, Doralís has recently been getting nosebleeds.

 

- Too much twisted-up stuff going on!  Someone has leaked the rumors of Doralís' lesbianism to the Latino tabloids, so Pipo's TV show is on the rocks.  Also, Pipo is increasingly obsessed with Fritz (even though Fritz is dating her son Sergio, and even though Pipo's sleeping with Igor, and even though Pipo keeps repeating that she's not a lesbian).  Plus, Sergio keeps professing his love to Guadalupe -- who is, remember, married to Sergio's former stepdad.  

 

Guadalupe has taken up belly-dancing along with her aunt, Fritz.  Perversely, she is starting to fantasize about Sergio.

 

In the woods, Sergio kisses Guadalupe.  By a hill, Pipo kisses Fritz.  Neither kiss goes well.  Everybody's stressed out.

 

Boots' careful investigative work reveals that Gato (Pipo's ex, Guadalupe's husband) is the one who sold Pipo out to the press, in collaboration with a mole planted in the chorus.  Pipo plans to sue the newspaper that printed the rumors.  Defeated, the usually indefatigable Gato is more down than we've ever seen him.

 

- Doralís is pressing ahead with her plans to come out; in consequence, her show's sponsors are freaked.  So Pipo tries changing the format to a nighttime one aimed at adults, with no more kids around.

 

Sergio is still declaring his love to Guadalupe.   Guadalupe is still resisting.  Pipo is sexually molesting Fritz in private.  Fritz appears to be... sort of enjoying it?  Maybe?  (That's a weird  lesson, Beto: force your attentions on someone and she'll eventually come around?...)

 

- Flashback to Pipo's first visit to the United States, when she was Gato's teenage bride and Sergio was a toddler.

 

- Flashback to Pipo's own first encounter with Fortunato, many years later.

 

- Time out for an exotic sex vacation!  Whoo!

 

Pipo and Fritz are holidaying in some unspecified French-speakng locale (the background details seem to place it in northern Africa).  Sergio flies in, apparently for a soccer game, and Pipo semi-accidentally becomes a voyeur to Fritz and Sergio having kinky sex with a loaded gun.  Later, Pipo and Fritz bail on Sergio's game in order to double-team a guy with two penises.  (I'm not completely sure why they're so eager to do this -- neither the guy nor his penises are particularly attractive -- but  I guess they're really turned on by the novelty value.)  

 

Some tension is developing in the environment: it's the anniversary of a massacre by Catholic soldiers, and hostility toward foreigners -- especially Catholics -- is running high.  At this juncture, Fortunato reappears (dang! that guy's everywhere!), and Fritz disappears with him for a few days.  Pipo seeks her out.  Lots of group sex, but Fritz still won't let Pipo touch her breasts.

 

We learn more about Fritz's bizarre psychosexual high-school experiences, and the sources of her gun fetish.  (Didn't _any_ of these people have a normal childhood?)  The political tensions erupt, and Pipo, Fritz and Fortunato are forced to steal a car and flee.  Pipo's libido gets away from her, and she becomes emotionally abusive toward Fritz.  This seems to have the effect of making Fritz letting her feel her up.  More group sex.  After they escape home, Pipo starts sending Fritz expensive necklaces.

 

- Back in California, Khamo is helping some people catch drug dealers. Maybe they're cops, and maybe they aren't.  In either case, he seems to be beholden to them.  Public opinion is turning against Doralís, and at home, the kids are being a pain in the ass.  But somehow everything's still going well.

 

- Venus has a soccer match.  (Venus' ten-year-old escapades are such a refreshing escape from the kinked-up, fucked-up stuff going on among the adults!  I really like Beto's child characters; I wish his adult world could take a couple of common-sense, emotional-veracity lessons from them.)

 

In this short story, under the watchful eye of Coach Petra, a.k.a. Mom, star youth-league fútbol players Venus (Martinez) and Glinda Gonzales compete in a soccer match, working out some of their strained history together as well as vying for the attention of Miguel Morales, "the cutest boy in our class."

 

- A meteor is approaching Earth!  Everyone is tense again!  Oh noes!

 

Steve Stransky, the buffoonish yet eternally cheerful white surfer guy, has re-popped up.  (He hasn't been a huge part of the storyline since "Love & Rockets X," way back in the day, but he's one of Igor's best friends so he wanders in now and then.)  At present, thinking about the meteor makes him want a spliff.)   Steve is variously asked, begged and pressured into doing a variety of favors for a variety of old and former friends, including re-hooking up Fritz with her scrounging and abusive ex-husband, Scott; and connecting JR Brooks (a former "gang-banger," from back in "Love & Rockets X") and Tyrone Bone with a gallery director who will show their edgy abstract artwork.  This includes an apparently brilliant piece entitled "The Meteor Loves Us All Equally."

 

It turns out that, somehow, even though Fritz is a professionally trained and highly successful psychotherapist, she is totally unstable and vulnerable when it comes to being manipulated by Scott.  Therefore, Petra decides to take things into her own hands: she buys a wig, false mustache, and voice transformer, dresses up as a male hood, and kicks the shit out of Scott in an alleyway.  Everything ends well, I guess.

 

- Luba and Khamo do the mysterious men more favors.  Nothing makes any sense.  

 

They are, however, apparently free and clear at last.

 

- Petra drives Hector to his court date, because his ex-girlfriend (a stripper -- not, apparently, the stripper who kicked him out of his apartment at the start of the book, but the stripper he was dating before that) is trying to take out a restraining order on him.  Hector says she's the psycho, and since we're in his POV we know this is true.  Also, Fritz is starting to act really strange: she keeps flirting with Hector and acting possessive while Petra's back is turned.  Hector decides there's something about him that brings out the psycho in a woman.  But Petra seems to be stable.  Maybe, Hector reflects, it's because she's a born-again Christian.

 

The ex wins her restraining order.  Petra is more angry about in than Hector is; as usual, she takes it out on the punching bag in her home gym.  Fritz is behaving unstably, stripping down and trying to seduce Hector while Petra is in the next room.  

 

The ex is stalking Hector, following him around to his favorite bars and then calling the police on him.  It turns out she really is kind of a psycho.  Petra deals with this by putting on her thug costume in secret and beating the shit out of her in an alley.  

 

We learn that the meteor has missed Earth, after all.

 

- Back to telenovela drama on the set!  The Spanish-language tabloids continue to print innuendo about Doralís, and now they're adding rumors about Pipo and Fritz: "Is Pipo dating her own son's girlfriend -- Doralís' aunt?"  Doralís doesn't seem to care: she's not bothered by her TV show's imminent demise (unlike Pipo).  Also, we learn that Doralís has _also_ been sleeping with Fortunato.  (WTF?)

 

- Hector and Petra get stoned.  Then Hector has to go downtown and pick Luba up from a bar.  This is hard to do when you're wasted.  

 

- Fortunato is a street magician.  He seems to do all right by it.  

 

- Hector and Venus read comic books together.

 

- It seems like things are sliding toward some kind of tipping point.  Fritz and Pipo are officially "dating."  Sergio is completely freaked out by this; he projects Guadalupe's failure to return his love onto this terrible sin, and vows to "fix it" for good.  "You did this, Mama... You made it this way, and I let it happen... I'll end this twisted horseshit for good."

 

Although Sergio is starting to get bad press, and he keeps getting jumped by villains who want to break his knees, he continues to lead his team to victory.

 

- Doralís' show is over.  Guadalupe is reflective.

 

- Luba and Ofelia are fighting again.  (Finally, Ofelia re-enters the book!)

 

- Ofelia gets on a plane, and goes to visit Socorro at her special school for genius kids.  They discuss where she got her amazing intelligence from.  (Ofelia opines it was from Luba.  Socorro has a hidden fear that it came from her father.  Everyone knows she's not Khamo's biological daughter; the rumors have it that her real father was a charismatic serial killer, who lived in hiding among the Palomarians for months.)

 

- Maricela runs into Khamo on the street, watching a house fire.  She discusses it later with her partner, and begins to reconsider letting her mother back into her life.

 

- Pipo molests Fritz on a beach.  Fritz seems to be becoming more willing.  Pipo announces that she's thinking of leaving Igor, because she has the idea that she carries some kind of curse for the men in her life.  Fritz shrewdly suspects that Pipo is afraid of her own feelings toward Igor (who is, after all, a genuinely nice guy, apart from being hung like a horse).

 

- Petra finally enters her first boxing match.

 

- Grading papers at home, Guadalupe is stressed out.  At Gato's suggestion, she goes for a walk alone on the beach, where she meets -- and, to her own astonishment and consternation, has sex with -- Fortunato.

 

- Ofelia, thanks to the Internet, has reconnected with an old lover from the old country, whom she hasn't seen in decades.  Fortunato appears out of nowhere, as is his way, and they talk about her book.  (Has Fortunato slept with Ofelia?  I'm semi-seriously beginning to wonder if I ought to take lessons from this guy.)  Then Maricela, Doralís and Guadalupe -- the three oldest daughters -- drop in on Ofelia to say hi.

 

(There's something about the rhythm and pace of this short, two-page piece that I really love.  Its numinousness, maybe, its gentle motion between real and dream (or illusion); between story, and self-referentiating deeper-into-the-story.  As an invisible voice off-panel says to Ofelia: "You're the one that told me a little magic realism goes a long way.")

 

- Luba and Khamo have sex.  But then he says something strange...

 

- Fritz and Pipo, at the beach.  What are they talking about?

 

- Sergio can't get in touch with Fritz.  What's going on?

 

But is he, or is he not, in love with Guadalupe?

 

Fritz just told Enrique -- that's her supermodel boyfriend -- that she won't be seeing Sergio anymore!  What's up with that??

 

Petra is infuriated.  "Pipo treats you like dog shit!" she yells at Fritz.  Fritz says, weeping, "Pipo loves me.  You don't know her..."

 

Fritz leaves Sergio.  Pipo leaves Igor.  Guadalupe almost, almost, gives in to Sergio.

 

Fritz and Pipo agree that Fritz will marry Enrique.  "In show biz, he'll be what's known as a 'beard.'"  [Actually Pipo has the terminology slightly wrong, but we get her meaning.]

 

Petra knows how to handle people she doesn't like...

 

Something terrible is happening to Ofelia...

 

Some very strange things are happening.  And then Gato, Sergio, and somebody else get into a car...

 

... Well.  Gilbert Hernandez is still a master storyteller.  For the resolution and denouement, one will just have to wait for the third book in this trilogy (in my case: wait until it arrives at the library.)  But you already know what's happened.  If you've been following along, you know what has happened.

 


[Tags I'd like to add: a: hernandez gilbert, i: hernandez gilbert, california, children [*not* "children's"], magic realism, disability, meta-literature]



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