NY Comics & Picture-Story Symposium: Anya Ulinich in Conversation with Olga Gershenson

The New York Comics & Picture-Story Symposium is a weekly forum for discussing the tradition and future of text/image work. Open to the public, it meets Monday nights 7-9 p.m. EST in New York City. Presentations vary weekly and include everything from historical topics and technical demonstrations to creators presenting their work. Check out upcoming meetings here.

The 103rd meeting of the NY Comics & Picture-Story Symposium was held on Tuesday, October 14, 2014. Anya Ulinich in tandem with Olga Gershenson presented her graphic novel, Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel.

Who is Lena Finkle? What is she looking for? What does she find? She is a 37 year old Russian immigrant with two teenage daughters and two marriages behind her, who embarks on a series of dates that open her eyes to a world of new experiences. This is only the beginning for Leon Finkle’s Magic Barrel, the first graphic novel by author/ artist Anya Ulinich, which Publishers’ Weekly has called an “affecting portrait of how we become who we are and how we try desperately to be who we want.”

A blocked writer, our heroine Lena has spent her entire adult life guided by duty and circumstance but not her own desires. She reads The Magic Barrel, the 1958 novel by Bernard Malamud for which Ulinich’s graphic novel is named, and looks at dating as an education and a kind of research project. No matter how bad an encounter, it offers a learning experience—or at least a good story. She finds that she enjoys being a spy in other people’s lives. She likes getting close and getting away. She says “I like what happens before and after sex.”

Meanwhile, Leo Finkle, a young rabbinical student, enlists a marriage broker to help him find a wife. He’d spent six years studying and is about to be ordained, and having a wife would make it easier for him to land a congregation. He goes on a date with a woman named Lily, who asks him about his calling. It turns out that the marriage broker has lied to Lily and falsely presented Leo as a far more prodigious religious scholar than he really is, just as the broker “sold” Lily as a much younger woman. He is mad at the broker for lying, and, suddenly, begins to question things. He blurts out his revelation to Lily. “I am not,” he says gravely, “a talented religious person. “I think that I came to God not because I love Him, but because I did not.” Leo abandons his studies and becomes terribly depressed.

Lena, meanwhile, decides to meet men online. Ulinich paints into the book an illustration depicting the different types of men that Lena comes across on OkCupid—one of whom resembles a knight in chain mail, another who calls himself “The Vampire of Bensonhurst,” and another named “The Disaster Man,” all delightfully rendered in Ulinich’s inky illustration style. Lena is pretty selective but still her approach yields uneven results. Ultimately, Lena realizes she wants to do more than compile a list of curious encounters. She is a romantic in the throes of an existential crisis, and she is freaking out. She is attracted to the odd, the mysterious, and the damaged (as long as they have reasonably well-written profiles), and really wants to fall in love, even if she may not openly say so.

Lena Finkle has a smart analytical side, and also an impulsive side that basically always does whatever the hell it wants. She talks to herself through a sort of “mini me,” a pixie-sized version of herself who flies around, claiming to be Lena’s soul and conscience. It is a voice of reason that Lena mostly ignores, and occasionally threatens with bodily harm.

The ending of Malamud’s Magic Barrel puts Lena on alert. “This isn’t a story about true love,” she says to the man who lends her the book. This is a story about a crisis of faith and a rush to self delusion.” “I never thought about it that way,” the man replies. “But you’re a writer.”

Despite her skepticism of Malamud’s Magic Barrel’s ending, Lena does indeed find a relationship in a character who makes her feel connected in ways that she couldn’t have imagined before, helping her to find an emotional range that she’d never been able to access. Or, at any rate, so it seems.

***

Anya Ulinich grew up in Moscow and immigrated to Arizona when she was seventeen. She holds an MFA in visual arts from the University of California at Davis, is the author of the prose novel Petropolis (Viking, 2007), and her short stories and essays have appeared in The New York Times, Zoetrope: All-Story, n+1, and PEN America Journal. She teaches creative writing at the New School and lives in Brooklyn with her two daughters. Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrell is her first graphic novel.

Olga Gershenson, co-host of Anya Ulinich’s presentation, is Professor of Judaic and Near Eastern Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is the author of Gesher: Russian Theatre in Israel (2005) and The Phantom Holocaust: Soviet Cinema and Jewish Catastrophe (2013), as well as an editor of Ladies and Gents: Public Toilets and Gender (2009). She has published widely on Jewish and Israeli cinema, and is now working on her own film.

***

About the author: Mark Lerer holds a bachelor’s degree from Princeton University and an M.F.A. from the New York Academy of Art. His cartoon drawings have been published in the New York Post, and are regularly featured on Facebook. *** All images are taken from Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel (Penguin).


The New York Comics & Picture-Story Symposium is a weekly forum for discussing the tradition and future of text/image work. Open to the public, it meets Tuesday nights 7-9pm EST in New York City. Presentations vary weekly and include everything from historical topics and technical demonstrations to creators presenting their work. Check out upcoming meetings here. More from this author →