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The Rough Pearl
By Kevin Mutch
Fantagraphics

If you look at the natural world as structured through a multitude of power struggles, one thing leaps out at you that is different from the human condition — the creatures in those power struggles tend to work with what they have. In other words, predators use their strengths and those being hunted use their skills. Weakness is accepted as part of the structure, but not necessarily as a death sentence. Predators can overtake their intended victims, but those same victims outsmart or outrun or outdid or outsomething the predators. Except when they don’t, of course. And I’m certain that even within the predator class, there are lesser predators and probably predatory failures, which replicates the structures of the nature-wide struggles within one family, genus, or species.

Humans, though, don’t accept the roles they have been handed, either biologically or through culture, and this can create struggles and situations when human exceptionalism clashes against that part of humanity that retains its relations with the natural world.

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the rough pearl

I think about that in terms of privilege and so it was at the forefront of my brain as I was ready Kevin Mutch’s latest graphic novel The Rough Pearl. In strict plot terms, it’s the story of Adam, an adjunct professor who finds himself at the dead of adulthood. A job that offers no real future. A relationship that offers no real joy. A psychological situation that offers no real peace. An ego that offers no real perspective.

Adam is the typical white guy that wakes up to find that things didn’t turn out like he thought they would. It’s not that he thought everything would be handed to him, at least not consciously, but he had come to depend on the structure that foretold a typical white guy like him could at least do the work he needed to do and claim some guarantee that everything would be fine. In some ways, he’s just falling back on the natural world order, where he feels like a predator and so doesn’t even think about getting what predators have always gotten historically. And like so many white guys, when he doesn’t get what he supposed to, he doesn’t look critically at his roll in his own failure.

But things start happening to Adam, things that disrupt what little flow he has. There are nightmares that evolve into hallucinations about zombies. There is a growing paranoia that starts to manifest in people who enter his life and even hallucinations that become more vivid. There are blackouts that find him awakened and displaced and catching up on impossible sounding events that have played out that he has no recollection of. As his grasp of what reality is dissolves, so does his ability to know how to handle relationships and situations that normally wouldn’t be a struggle.

Adam is not a bad guy, in the sense that his failures are not purposeful, that his aggressions are not calculated, that his selfishness is not designed to hurt. A lot of his behavior is defensive and meant to shield him from emotional distress, to stop him from beating himself up. On that level, it’s not hard to identify with him. I think most people mine their least attractive attributes when they are struggling the hardest to keep their heads above water. But in Adam’s situation, you begin to wonder how much of any aspect of the plot is real. What is really going on between him and his wife or him and his student?

Can anything that is being presented in The Rough Pearl be trusted?

the rough pearl

Adam is surrounded by those who historically were predatory victims — people of color, women, people with disabilities, people with sexual orientations that don’t conform that of straight culture — and he encounters them in institutional cultures that typically favor straight, white men like Adam — academic and art. And yet it’s not working for him. When did the predator lose his mojo? When did things change?

In The Rough Pearl, there’s no simple answer, and it would be a lesser work if there were. The point is not in laying out clearly what Adam is going through and what it means, but presenting it perceptually, through his confusion and distress — though, at its clearest, The Rough Pearl examines the ways even a predator can be a victim. A victim of what? Passivity, I suppose. Passivity in accepting the way things have always worked, being a slave to the norm, and being caught unawares when the norms shift and the only possible reaction to believe that fate has abandoned you.

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