Stranger than fiction

La Perdida

As an English major, in class I’m often drawn to something I find just as fascinating as a discussion of a good book: watching other people interact. So when I heard about the most recent Gapers Block GB Book Club meeting, I jumped at the opportunity to go—not for the literature, but for the theatrics.

The selected book was quite good: La Perdida, a graphic novel by former Magazine contributor Jessica Abel, AB’91. It tells the story of Carla, a young American who travels to Mexico City in search of her Mexican roots and a fresh start. She crashes with a former boyfriend, Harry, who claims to be pursuing his literary dreams but instead drinks heavily and isolates himself from local culture. Carla soaks in as much of the city as she can—including meeting a few friends who lead her past the tourist traps and into a more complicated, dangerous relationship with the city.

But none of that mattered to me last week at the North Side bookstore The Book Cellar, as I cautiously sat down among the book-club members. Without a class grade hanging over me, I was more focused on the characters sitting next to me than Abel’s characters.

Two things distinguished the meeting from the rigorous UChicago classroom. First, a few people were cradling wine glasses. Plus, people provided refreshingly personal responses to the story, weaving their own lives into the fabric of the discussion. One woman used Carla’s bold decision to leave America as a way to express regret over not traveling more when she was younger. Another reminisced on the awkwardness of progressing from a foreign-language textbook to conversing with a native. Another attacked Carla’s dubious decision-making from the perspective of a concerned mother.

Despite the differences between the book club and the classroom, one annoying (and amusing) similarity remained—a “that kid.” Every U of C student can give a hall-of-fame story about the one person in class who, whether justified or not, irritatingly dominates the discussion while also providing suppressed chuckles and hidden smiles for everyone else. Although, in this case, the “that kid” was “that woman.”

She couldn’t let more than two other comments pass without adding her own. She answered questions with a bit too much self-assurance and talked just long enough for your mind to slip into its post-workday haze. But most fun to watch was her discomfort whenever someone else’s remarks provoked a hearty nodding of heads. You could see her desire to dominate, and she fought to never be upstaged—not that anyone else was keeping score.

In all, the discussion—and the people watching—was definitely worth the ride up to the North Side. Besides, you can’t bring wine to a U of C English class.

Luke Fiedler, ’10

August 17, 2009