Tuesday, May 15, 2007

"Skunk X": A Tale of Two Lovers

Skunk X, like all tales of fiction, has the disclaimer that all characters and events bear resemblance to reality — or previous fictional accounts — purely by accident. Does anybody take those seriously? Frankly, I can't believe Lindsay K. Shtupp's new novel of unrequited love made it past the publisher's legal department, for the story clearly revolves around Pepé Le Pew and his eternal victim Penelope Pussycat, also known as Fifi, Fabrette, and "the black cat."

The book tracks three parallel views of the relationship between skunk and cat: it alternates between a clinical third-person view, Pepé's first-person view, and Penelope's first-person view of events in their ersatz courtship. The premise seems obvious after the fact, and it proves a wonderful study of perceptions in one of life's most emotional aspects: love.

Typical of Skunk X is the first event, where skunk and cat first meet. The book opens in post-war Morocco, where the skunk is disembarking from a merchant vessel from France by way of Algeria. The clinical view — all clinical views are illustrated by famed Tibetan artist Sangmu Yesche, who had never seen the Warner Bros. creations when she created the art for this book — follows the fez-donned skunk as he wanders blissfully through the streets, taking in the local flavor. Eventually he espies the cat, who just had a white stripe painted down her back in a typical whitewashing accident. This first view of the opening scene is key in establishing the skunk's identity.

Armed with a nasty and effective defense, the skunk finds the city and its denizens to be friendly and generous to the point of being fulsome. He is clearly oblivious to himself qua skunk, and not realizing that he is so threatening, he finds himself in a world where everybody is friendly (if eager to get to some other place) and eager to please; the skunk can do no wrong. Lacking normal social limits, he takes jokes a little too far, stands a little too close, is a little too friendly.

When the skunk first meets the cat, we see he is interested and forward, yet in a way both clumsy and shy. He is endearing to the reader, and he doesn't understand that the cat is repulsed by him: she acts just like everybody else, and he has never met a person he didn't consider to be a friend.

The skunks view of the first meeting is now predictable, but well written and engrossing. He is smitten and a bit confused by the cat's game of playing hard-to-get, but she doesn't express distaste, she just moves on. Her perspective is the mirror image, where he is the aggressive creep who doesn't get the hint.

By showing us these three views of their relationship, Shtupp forces us to reconsider our relationships and the signal we (usually fail to) send and (usually fail to) receive.

I've decided to edit out more than half of this review; you really don't need an in-depth description of the events to get the idea of what the book is about. The gist should be clear, so we needn't explain it any further. What unfolds is a delightful character study, exploring the relationship between two multidimensional characters, with the reality and their perceptions.

Lastly, I must note that Yesche's artwork makes this novel possible: her illustrations are so expressive and so unlike the Pepé Le Pew we came to know so long ago. Absent her brilliant artistic eye, Skunk X would have been a miserable failure. But Yesche was the artist chosen to do the work, and Shtupp's book itself becomes a brilliant work of art as well.

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