When Ideals Meet Reality: The Contradictions by Sophie Yanow

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You want to hitchhike across Europe like your parents did, but your mother tells you it’s too dangerous. You want to be vegan, but French cooking is full of delicious cheeses and buttery sauces. You make new friends, but you have little in common with them. You travel abroad to experience new things, but everything is expensive. You go to a new city, but you’re so wrapped up in your own thoughts and obsessions that you don’t visit the museums you’ve wanted to see. You “go to school to become critical about the world,” but you worry that when you graduate, you’ll be so debt-laden you won’t be able to afford to be critical. You want to live by your ideals, but it’s hard to make them align with reality.

Or, at least, so go the contradictions of youth as told in Sophie Yanow’s The Contradictions. This new graphic novel, an Eisner-winning story, follows Yanow as a college student studying abroad in Paris, as she makes a new friend and embarks on a spring break adventure. In this engaging work of autofiction, Yanow has scrubbed clean the messiness of memory—the things that one romanticizes, mutates, or hides are laid bare here. A twenty-something college student at a school in California, Sophie decides to leave the country after “the psychedelics, the breakup, the critical theory….” She chooses France, where no language skills are required and where the bulk of the story takes place.

Although we don’t know much about her past, we do understand that she comes to Paris to start crafting her own life as though it were a narrative. As she puts it, “here I was, age of twenty, and so far felt I had few stories worth telling.” This is a familiar quest in American culture—coming of age through travel being a path into adulthood, if one has a choice to do so in their early twenties. Sophie does have this option, and goes to Paris; it is in the depiction of her decisions abroad that make The Contradictions so compelling a read.

We get to know Sophie as she first experiences Paris, where, she notices, “no one smiles.” Through minimal inner dialogue, Sophie acts as our narrator, describing herself as “other,” but not in any (overtly) damaging way. She is a queer art student who bikes, an outsider who is willing to drink from an unfamiliar vessel (a wine glass) and to go for drinks with other American students. After a failed but not miserable attempt at socializing, Sophie sees a young woman riding a fixed-gear bike across the street. Bike geek might mean fellow queer, Yanow tells us, as her character races across the street to the woman in question.

From this instigating moment, the story delves into Sophie’s somewhat complex relationship with the biker, who turns out to be Zena, a young, self-made anarchist. Interestingly, once Zena appears, the narration disappears completely, and the unfolding of Zena and Sophie’s adventures takes place with little interruption or explanation by a narrator. This open, in-the-moment presentation lets the reader interpret the action as they wish, lets us get to know the characters with fewer preconceptions. Reflection is a common staple in autobiographix (or autobiographical comics), in both art and text. Most memoir-style graphic novels, such as Maus, Persepolis, and Fun Home, use narration and exposition to inform and interpret the action for the reader; forgoing this mode makes The Contradictions more reminiscent of adventure comics, such as The Adventures of Tintin. As readers we are largely kept in the present moment of the story, which adds to this “adventure tale” quality.

Of course, the actions themselves speak. As we see Zena’s habitual shoplifting (her anarchist take on being in debt in a capitalist world), her sometimes overbearing righteousness, and the fact that she doesn’t like dancing, we can’t help but smell the stink behind the idealism. Yanow dynamically and quietly depicts the trajectory of a new, thrilling friendship as Sophie and Zena plan and embark on a cross-country hitchhiking trip. Across Europe, the boom and bust of new (platonic) intimacy is told with economy and slyness.

It’s refreshing to read a coming-of-age story that centers so completely on female friendships—especially the friendships that don’t work out. During their friendship, Sophie is presented with several decisions and often chooses a way that she thinks will impress Zena: skipping out on time with her old friends and museum visits, limiting her diet, and relaxing her moral standards. After a series of Zena-led mishaps on their trip through Europe, Sophie takes a stand in a very Sophie-like way—with hesitation and not much confidence. While the ending of the friendship is more of a fizzle than a bang, Sophie returns to her Parisian homestay having learned more about how she wants to be in the world. Zena is her foil, revealing what Sophie wants more clearly through obsession and later, disillusionment.

By the conclusion, Sophie seems ready to take on the next adventure with a stronger voice in decision-making. However, only some of her contradictions are resolved—as many of the contradictions we live with take a lifetime to grapple with. The story turns out to be less about resolving contradictions, and more about learning about the contradictions that adults have to make peace with, such as how hard it is to live by one’s ideals. Or even something as simple as how delicious a McDonald’s hamburger can be after days of eating only gas station nuts.

Drawn in the ligne claire, or clear line style, the artwork in The Contradictions contributes to a sense of clarity in the story—we trust the author’s hand to guide us through a nonjudgmental retelling of friendship. This drawing style, pioneered by Belgian cartoonist Hergé, who created Tintin, features strong lines of uniform thickness and flat black shadows without crosshatching. This uniformity of line makes depth of field in street scenes remain shallow—the buildings and gas stations in the background have equally visual weight as the characters in the foreground; the setting refuses to recede. Even in puffy, warm coats, Yanow’s characters are angular, their bodies made of simplified geometric shapes. Zena folds her arms over a bike’s handlebars and her upper torso becomes a triangle; Sophie leans forward on the couch, resting her elbows on her knees, and her limbs outline a rhombus. Yanow’s use of negative space makes each panel feel equally drawn and designed, particularly some of the scenes of hitchhiking at night. The art remains as neat, minimal, and controlled as the storytelling.

One of the contradictions it’s possible to blow right past while reading is the essential contradiction in the genre Yanow employs, termed “autofiction.” Straddling fiction and creative nonfiction, autofiction lacks both the puzzle quality of a roman à clef and the messiness of a real life revealed in memoir. Rather, autofiction relies on artifice to intrigue the audience, asking the audience to believe that this Sophie is Yanow herself, that the truths we will learn about her are based on facts from Yanow’s life. While every few years there’s a new hot debate in creative nonfiction about the relationship between facts and truth, autofiction, loyal to no one genre, neatly skirts this complication. While The Contradictions looks like autobiography, the reader will never know just what the relationship between Yanow and her alter ego Sophie is.

One can see how The Contradictions has grown out of Yanow’s earlier work, both in artistic style and themes. What Is a Glacier, the entirety of which is available to view on her website for free, is a twenty-eight-page comic essay drawn with a looser line, sketchier style, with shadows and depth rendered in a combination of black fills and halftone. It, too, is about growing up, female friendship, and reconciling contradictions: namely, anxiety and interpersonal connections, and living—and traveling—in the world while contributing to climate change.

Released when so many of us are navigating anxieties and trying to keep friendships alive, couch-bound and lassoed to Zoom, The Contradictions can evoke a sense of nostalgia—not just for younger days in all their complications, but also for travel. Each time the girls pass up an opportunity to visit a museum or join friends dancing, you may want to shake them by the shoulders and tell them to suck the marrow out of every moment. But ultimately, you’ll want to lay on the couch all day and read The Contradictions in one sitting.

Amaris Feland Ketcham and Nora Hickey teach courses on autobiographix and poetry comics. They have co-authored several reviews of graphic narratives and contributed articles to the Women in Media reference handbook. They have presented “Get Inked: Creative Nonfiction Comics as Cultural Critique” at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference and “Toward a Definition of Poetry Comics,” “Casting Narrative Aside: the Poetry Comics of Bianca Stone,” “Comics on the Road: Drawn Records of Women Traveling” at the Southwest Popular American Culture Association Conference. Amaris and Nora co-edit the comics newsletter Autobiographix at autobiographix.substack.com. More from this author →