Josh’s Review – “Luna Park” by Kevin Baker and Danijel Zezelj

Luna Park was published in 2009 and tells the story (well, kinda tells the story) of Alik Strelnikov, an American-Russian citizen trying to get his share of the American Dream.  At the start of the story, Alik works as a hitman during the day and spends his nights with Marina, remembering his past experiences in Russia and getting high on heroin.  This is the first-layer of the storytelling of Luna Park; Alik’s continuous dwelling in his memory functions as the multiple underlayers, the bits of story we get along the way that only begin to make complete sense by the end.  In many ways, Luna Park is a phenomenal example of carefully constructed storytelling, and I have to show my appreciation for that before anything else.

On the visual side, Luna Park is beautifully drawn and colored.  It tells the dark, dreary story of the narrative better than the dialogue most of the time.  The shifts in coloring between panels not only indicates the movement from present to memory, they also have a way of showing the circuitous nature of Alik’s life in way that the trajectory of the story tends to do through often heavy handed means.  Although I didn’t love the story of Luna Park, I could look at Danijel Zezelj’s work all day.

My primary problem with this book is difficult to talk about without ruining the story, but I’ll do my best.  Baker’s narrative is deeply concerned with that old idea of history repeating itself, which, at its core, is really a concern about fate.  And in order to explore these ideas, Baker needs to, understandably, work with multiple, intrinsically connected narratives, but this dealing with the multiple ultimately comes across as a bit sloppy and contrived.  I’ll admit, I’m a bit turned off to the “it all ends the same” kind of story ever since reading The Dark Tower, but the way Baker takes us there ends up being an overly disheveled road with a too-easy ending.

In a way, I wish Baker would’ve stayed with that first level of the story, Alik’s current life and struggles.  It has the makings of a powerful and emotionally gripping story, but because he moves away from it so quickly in order to get at the larger stuff he’s trying to do with fate and history, that first story comes off as incomplete and underdeveloped.  Baker’s attempts to solve this problem is by paralleling this first incomplete story with a host of other incomplete stories, and I totally get this on a theoretical level.  But appreciating something on that level and enjoying it aren’t the same thing for me, and at the end of the day, I just didn’t enjoy Baker’s story.  Just like Ulysses, I can totally give it a thoughtful nod and pontificate about narrative construction this and plot structure that, but that doesn’t mean I enjoy the book (and if Joyce is your dude, just know that I’m not trying to bag on you or him.  He’s just not the one I turn to when I want to really enjoy my reading).

I give Luna Park two slices of lasagna out of five.

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3 thoughts on “Josh’s Review – “Luna Park” by Kevin Baker and Danijel Zezelj

  1. Oreo Cheesecake says:

    Josh, this is an interesting review. I think there is a bunch of important stuff you address here, but some of your arguments I find problematic and want to address them in order to better understand your final assessment.

    It seems odd to me that you would compare Luna Park to Ulysses (a work widely regarded to be one of Joyce’s best, even if overly complicated), say that “In many ways, Luna Park is a phenomenal example of carefully constructed storytelling” and “On the visual side, Luna Park is beautifully drawn and colored” . . . and then give it a 2 out of 5.

    Math has never been my strong suit, but 2/5 is a 40% rating which isn’t a “kinda liked it” rating so much as it is a “this is a terrible piece of junk rating.” Your review doesn’t seem to indicate you feel this way.

    What your review does seem to indicate, however, is that your distaste with this piece of writing is on a personal level. You concede “I’ll admit, I’m a bit turned off to the ‘it all ends the same’ kind of story ever since reading The Dark Tower” and “appreciating something on that level and enjoying it aren’t the same thing for me, and at the end of the day, I just didn’t enjoy Baker’s story.” Just as you say, this isn’t something you enjoy, but I’m not sure that means it’s not enjoyable nor that it’s not good or would not greatly entertain its intended audience.

    I’ve read Luna Park and I agree that seeing more of the first story may have been interesting, but I think (again, without giving too much away) that depending on how we interpret what we read, these cycles may be representative of something more imprisoning and tragic than just similar people making similar mistakes. Ultimately, as we see in the ending, the integrity of this cycle leads to one of the greatest American tragedies and conspiracies in recent memory. As you’ve noted, in many ways this is a “phenomenal example of carefully constructed story telling” and functions on some pretty cool theoretical levels too.

    I think for readers of many different kinds of writing, it’s sometimes easy to group all writing together and lose a sense of who the intended audience may be for certain kinds of works. Sometimes we believe all kinds of writing should defined by a certain carefully constructed and uniquely complicated beauty that extends beyond what other authors have done or are capable of doing. But even that system of measurement is highly subjective. When we measure works based on a model that emphasizes artistic hierarchy in writing and not by the readers’ enjoyment, we can miss the rhetorical value in the author’s degree of audience awareness. It’s just too easy to start bashing pieces of writing because they don’t measure up to greats like Shakespeare, or using your example, James Joyce; we simply must admit Luna Park does not aim to have the same narrative value as we find in many classical works nor is it written for readers of these kinds of works. There is nothing wrong with this.

    Luna Park is a graphic novel. It is designed to appeal to the readers of graphic novels while offering something more complex than other trades while appealing to a probably more adult comic-reading crowd. Also being a graphic novel reader, I can say I believe Luna Park meets that task fantastically and creates a beautifully written and drawn world (again, as you’ve noted) of intrigue, fantasy, conspiracy, and awe, all without once evoking the superhero motif. Very few other books accomplish this in similar mediums.

    Considering your own praise, the points addressed, and the largely positive reception by the intended audience, I think your score needs revision. It is unfortunate that you didn’t enjoy the book, but the quality of this particular piece of art probably doesn’t deserve to be rated on your personal like or dislike of this kind of story telling alone as your review seems to indicate.

    According to your system, I give Luna Park 4.5 slices out of 5. 😉

    • Thanks for the comment. A few things in response:

      To explain both my comparison to Joyce and my rating, let me just reiterate that I *agree* there are theoretically interesting things going on in both “Luna Park” and “Ulysses.” My mentioning of Joyce wasn’t to suggest that these works are of the same value or operating in the exact same way; I draw that connection only to say that I make a distinction between *enjoying* something and *appreciating* something. I’m not “bashing” Luna park because it doesn’t “measure up to greats like Shakespeare;” I’m suggesting that it is both interesting theoretically and not nearly as engaging emotionally or narratively as it could be. That fragmented method of storytelling is totally conceptually interesting, but I was left completely empty as far as any sort of enjoyment I might have felt outside of that. This is why I can say that this story is a great example of carefully constructed storytelling and give it a two out of five.

      You’re right that my review and score seem to be based quite heavily on my own personal tastes, but I’m not quite sure how else I should be responding to texts. I didn’t enjoy “Luna Park” because I felt that it was contrived, clunky, and too-dependent on partially developed storylines that couldn’t stand on their own or together. My rating of two had to do with these things; my recognition of both the well-worn trope of “history repeats itself” and my own boredom with that method were just added bits of flavor to fill out the review. Does that make sense? Like I said, I really enjoyed the art (hence the two), and I can appreciate what this book could be, but in the end I felt like it was a missed opportunity and a failed endeavor. You also seem to suggest at the end of your fourth paragraph that I’m not the intended audience of this book, and I’m not sure why that is. This certainly isn’t my first time at the graphic novel circus, and I don’t think there’s anything about the generic form that suggests that it’s above or outside of the problems I’ve listed above, which, I agree, are completely based on my opinion. I like that you don’t agree, because someone should like this book. It just isn’t me. Further, I think you’re right in saying, “When we measure works based on a model that emphasizes artistic hierarchy in writing and not by the readers’ enjoyment, we can miss the rhetorical value in the author’s degree of audience awareness,” but you can’t then turn around and ask me not to review this book based on how much I enjoyed it.

      So, I’ll amend my “kinda liked it” to a “didn’t really like it a whole lot” and stick with my score of 2/5.

  2. Oreo Cheesecake says:

    Josh, thanks for the thoughtful response and clarification to your review. I don’t think you and I are going to reach a point where one enjoys Luna Park more and the other less than before we started this conversation, so I’m not going to take a lot of time to defend the book more at this point aside from a few short points and then spend the rest of the time addressing the ideas of an audience.

    I think my enjoyment and appreciation of this book stems from comparing it to other similar books within the genre. Knowing that you are a graphic novel reader, I think you’ll appreciate my notion that this book deals with fate and death on an intensely more mature and theoretical level than other books or comic issues. For me, an example of the most intense failure of this kind is “Spider-Man One More Day” where the author’s paint Peter Parker in a pathetic, bizarrely naive, and Oedipal-esque frame that leaves the reader not only unsatisfied, but pretty upset too. Obviously we can find better examples of death and fate in comics, but Baker does a pretty good job, especially considering this is his first ever graphic novel so stepping into the genre might have otherwise been significantly more awkward for him.

    Okay, but enough of that. Now this matter of rating something based on your enjoyment and on a broader audience reception. Before I say more, I want to note that the thing I really like about your and Ben’s reviews is that they’re genuine and based on strongly on your personal reactions to what you’ve read. It shouldn’t be particularly challenging for any given reader to empathize with your stances. I get that and I think it works.

    In reviews like this, though, I think sometimes it may be helpful to imagine other readers of Baker’s book (and no, I don’t just mean me) and think how they might react and then give the overall star/lasagna rating on this theoretical reaction. I think good movie critics can express this quality, especially Colin Covert of the Star Tribune who was able to give positive reviews to movies that were clearly not made for his demographic (including one of the Twilight movies) because he saw how the target audience would eat it up.

    So, putting aside whether or not Luna Park is a good piece of writing, l think I can still offer a decent example of being able to praise the quality of writing without necessarily finding personal enjoyment. In this case, I usually think of Dickens–no this isn’t a personal dig and no I’m not comparing Baker to Dickens 😉 I’ve always found reading Dickens to be punishment and no matter how hard I’ve tried, I’ve been unable to conjure any personal enjoyment in his prose. But nobody is saying Dickens is bad; he’s just not for me. That said, I think if I were asked to critique Dickens I would have to take into account both the audience he was writing for during his time and what audience still exists for him today. When I imagine the poor souls who still enjoy this particular kind of torture (okay, that one may have been a tad of a jab) I believe that they would take great enjoyment in emerging themselves in both Dickens’ sense of his own time and his prose (including his fantastic characters and moral dilemmas) and I think it would be possible on that account to rate any given work based on this probable reaction more than my own.

    Maybe a more modern example might help: Recently a few critics from the New York Times and the New Yorker came under heavy fire for saying the Avengers was a bad movie. I tend to agree that they’re incorrect, largely because, well, they are (!) and because I just think they’re missing the point which I think is this: The Avengers is a wonderfully written movie that almost perfectly meets the expectations of a broad audience even if it is unappealing to a choice few.

    Okay, so I know what you’re thinking: “this jerk is comparing Joss Whedon’s masterpiece to Luna Park! What an idiot!” Well, okay, maybe I am, but only in the sense that both Whedon and Baker have created, at least on some level, a piece of work that rises above the majority of other works in their genre and thrills by delivering something different, unexpected, and new. And yes, people are going to dislike Luna Park or find it’s story telling wonky, but I still think it deserves significant merit.

    In this regard though, you’ve identified that you probably are the target market for this movie and this book, so your opinion should matter more than someone who never reads comics or graphic novels. I agree, though I think maybe Luna Park represents some sort of subset of an audience within graphic novels that you may or may not identify with, which again, may perhaps better explain your overall reaction to the text.

    One more point I want to cover: I think where this logic can go particularly awry is when those of us who like something start accusing those who don’t like that same something of being inept or unintelligent, a response I can only think should be labeled as fanaticism and doesn’t belong as healthy conversations like these. Fans of these works sometime accuse others of “not getting it” instead of acknowledging opposition or dislike of the work which forms this strange sort of elitism that essentially says you either like it, or you’re wrong. Despite my insistence that Luna Park is still of high value, I hope that’s not what I’m doing here.

    Josh, thank you for reading this obnoxiously long response to your review. I greatly enjoy these conversations and look forward to hearing your thoughts on this. Hopefully I’ve helped clarify at least a little of how I think it’s possible to have a reaction that tells us something isn’t enjoyable, but may still hit the mark with others and therefore be overall good.

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