Forsyth Harmon, Justine, Tin House, 2021
Reviewed by Jesse Motte
What disarmed me as I read Forsyth Harmon's illustrated novel, Justine, is the space between the said and unsaid. The narrator, Ali, has a complicated relationship with communication. Things largely happen to her, not because of her. It's this fraught relationship she has with self-expression that winds up texturizing how we translate meaning alongside her.
Yet, the novel isn't purely focused on questions like, "Why is this person this way?" The influence of various forms of cultural media constantly asserts itself onto the story. If it's not symbolically represented in Justine's wall of fashion magazine models, it's in the oversaturated cultural psyches of the characters. Ali's grandmother seems to always be referencing Days of Our Lives, Ally McBeal, or another day-time soap, for instance. It's obvious what Grandma consumes informs her worldview. And, specifically, it seems to inform her opinions on what makes women beautiful ("'What a pretty lady,' Grandma said as Justine got out of the car, 'and not too fat.'" (18)).
On the other hand, Ryan, a friend of Justine's that Ali becomes interested in, has a relentless need to recite various hip-hop facts encyclopedia-style. This doesn't so much create space as erase it completely. But, as Ali sees it, Ryan's habit is much more palatable than her Grandma's. Ali needs Ryan to like her. In the absence of her ability to mobilize her own agency, it's part of her sense of internal equilibrium that she makes herself appealing to others. In fact, it's crucial to it. She reflects later, while giving Ryan a blowjob, that "it was satisfying to satisfy someone" (86). Ultimately, in their attempts to express themselves, characters like Grandma and Ryan, inadvertently or otherwise, capitalize on Ali's lack of agency.
And yet no one undermines Ali's agency like her new flirtatious, kleptomaniac coworker at the Stop & Shop, Justine. Ali's idea of Justine is romantic, idyllic, and both hesitantly and inescapably curious: "Justine was the light shining on me and the dark shadow it cast, and I wanted to stand there forever in the relief of that contrast" (2). But there's something "spooky" about her (1). Justine is mysterious and full of contradictions, but, at the same time, is skinny and pretty and unashamed. It the combination of these characteristics that fosters Ali's obsession with her. And because of this, Ali becomes unreliable. So, what we come to know about and expect of Justine comes from Justine's own actions:
When Justine lowered the red Stop & Shop apron over my head, it felt like an anointment. A nametag had already been affixed to my left breast. It said "Alison,"
"But my name is Ali."
'That's just a nickname." She tugged at my hair.
"It's what my birth certificate says."
"Alison's better" (11).
Justine reached her arm around me and squeezed. "Isn't she cute?" She kissed me on the cheek and I felt it everywhere. "Alison." I just let her call me that. That's who I would be with these people (16).
To Ali, Justine is just being playful. But, as readers, we know Justine isn't just teasing Ali—she's gauging her reactions. Justine knows Ali likes her and uses this to manipulate Ali throughout the novel. "I'm Alison's new boyfriend," Justine tells Ali's grandmother the first time they meet (18).
It doesn't take long for Justine to capitalize on Ali's infatuation with her. At the mall, Ali doesn't flinch when Justine replaces a pair of Prada shoes with Ali's. It's only through reflection that Ali seems to process what was happening during their friendship. Later, when Justine steals Calvin Klein bra in the changing room, Ali remembers catching her eye in the three-way mirror and notes, "I think she liked me watching her like that, maybe even needed me to do it" (27). Through Ali's minimalized narration, we understand that, though she might be cognizant of what Justine is doing, she is willing to excuse it all in order to remain close to Justine.
It's not surprising Ali doesn't engage well with the truth. There's just no incentive for her to do so. Simply put, the pain she feels in her usual state of being either isn't there or is severely lessened when she's with Justine. And it's clear that even before Justine, Ali was a silent sufferer. We see this in part through her emotionally minimal narration, her relationship with food, and her relationship with others. In terms of narration, it seems as though the closer Ali gets to something painful, the more minimal her reflecting. One example is when Ali finds out her cat, Marlena, is dead. Ali's neighbor, Vinny, confesses he ran over Marlena by accident, and the following ensues:
"She was right under my tire." He shook his head. "I didn't see her," he repeated.
I secured the trash can lid, picked up our paper. His sprinkler hissed.
"Her legs, you know. They were—" He twirled his hand at the wrist. "Crushed."
Crushed. I nodded. Those little legs. I felt dizzy. I needed a yogurt. (61)
It's heartbreaking—some of the happiest moments for Ali are with Marlena. But we don't get that reflective interiority. We're shut out. And we're shut out because she's shut out. After this encounter, Ali checks her weight chart, measures her right thigh, looks at herself naked in the mirror, shaves her pubic hair, reweighs herself, does some leg lifts, and says: "Marlena's fur was matted on the fitted sheet next to my pillow. I always had to try to keep her from eating it. She was so small when we got her. I guess I was small then too" (62). This is a hard form of emotional self-management to watch. It's one designed to let in as little pain as possible. This type of self-regulation manifests physically throughout the story as, among other things, eating disorders.
Like Ali, Justine is Bulimic. But the pinnacle of Ali's Bulimia manifests when she learns of Justine's death. Like with Marlena, Ali's first reaction is a non-reaction. She herself questions why she doesn't start crying immediately. Then she realizes the fat-free strawberry yogurt is missing from the fridge at the Stop & Go and the reality of Justine's death finally hits her. She "[throws] up brown with little flecks of rainbow" in the bathroom and starts to cry, pausing only to look at her co-worker's makeup in the mirror. Later, when Ryan tells her he'll see her at Justine's funeral, Ali delivers her last internal lines of the book: "I shrugged. I mean, I didn't even know her." It's an incredible and complex reversal. Ali has grabbed the truth with both hands, giving the illusion that she's somehow released from the situation. But her words have a sharp edge to them. The truth should help the healing process begin, but instead, here, Ali turns it into a faux sense of agency, into a defense mechanism.
For the roles that culture and obsession seem to play within the book, the question the story truly seems to redirect us towards, time and time again, is, "What happens to a character stripped of agency?" In many ways, Justine is the answer to this question. But Ali doesn't realize this. What she sees in Justine is a destination; she wants what Justine has and knows if she follows her, she'll get it. But as we learn more about Justine, it's clear that what she actually has is a destructive, unhealthy relationship with herself and a genuine lack of regard for the people around her. It's understood that, although Ali is a direct victim of Justine's manipulation, Justine is a just as much if not more so a product of the same hyper-commercialized culture that has so shaped Ali. And Justine pays because of it. Whereas Ali is able to walk away, or at least gain a larger awareness of herself and place in the world, Justine doesn't, which is the dual-tragedy of the novel.