Bottomless Belly Button
By Dash Shaw
Paperback, 720 pages
List Price: $29.99
Tolstoy said that all happy families are the same. The corollary is that only screwed-up families are interesting. Bottomless Belly Button, 25-year-old Dash Shaw's groundbreaking debut graphic novel, turns these ideas topsy-turvy.
Trumping standard novelistic formula, Shaw creates a piercing, meditative portrait of middle-class family life as happy and sad, dysfunctional and functional. His nonjudgmental focus on the everyday lives of characters undergoing emotional turmoil is a welcome break from the angsty, post-modern hyperbole so common now in fiction that tries to push the envelope. Although the book, at 720 pages, is almost as long as The Brothers Karamazov, the effect is riveting.
The premise is startlingly simple: on the eve of their elderly parents' divorce, the three adult Loony kids — plus their children and the divorcing couple itself — meet for one last time at their idyllic childhood seaside home. The Loonys are a tacky and neurotic bunch, and the grown siblings appear to be complete failures.
Peter — who Shaw, in a break from Belly Button's stark and simple realism, draws as a hapless-looking frog — is an untalented film-school grad with sexual problems (note: some are explicitly shown). Claire is a hairstylist and single mother divorced from her irresponsible artist-husband. And Dennis, the oldest, is at 34 already in the middle of a dark midlife crisis. (See Dennis' reaction to his parents' divorce.)
The Loonys have the complex, layered relationships of a family out of a John Irving novel, yet in Dash's hands they're unremarkably remarkable — good people with a desperate, bourgeois dignity that is magnificent and who, by the book's end, find happiness, even illumination. (Check out an excerpt of a quiet conversation between grandmother and granddaughter.)
Shaw uses a comic-strip technique (implemented beautifully for decades by Charles M. Schulz in Peanuts) of showing the same or similar scenes over and over, thus allowing his characters and their emotions to grow and deepen without the occurrence of monumental events. The three Loony children are caught in a common adult misconception — that the stability of childhood will go on forever. If this were so, powerfully compelling graphic novels and works of serious fiction like Bottomless Belly Button wouldn't exist.