In Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein, Victor’s creature seeks to help a destitute family by clearing snow from around their cottage and discretely collecting firewood. Why discretely? Because the Creature had the misfortune of catching its reflection in a pool. He looks different to other people. More than different; he’s hideous. Fearing rejection, he nevertheless grows fond of the family.
The patriarch is a blind man, and when the family leave him alone one day, the Creature approaches the cottage. The blind father welcomes him inside and the two converse amicably. Due to the man’s disability, the Creature is liberated of his tragic appearance and prejudice—but the moment is short-lived. Upon discovering Victor’s creation in their home, the rest of the family attack him. They see only a monster.
The Creature wished to benefit society, but society shunned him for being “other”.
Horror is an exemplar of how genre can reveal or explore prejudices—our fear of the uncanny, foreign, or outcast. Pop Art by Joe Hill is one such story pointing to society’s fickle view of nonconformity.
What I like
Pop Art doesn’t feature Lovecraftian monstrosities. The shadow stalking the protagonists’ lives is their marginalisation, their backstory, their inability to fit in with other children. There is no better introduction to Pop Art’s central character than Hill’s tremendous opening hook:
“My best friend when I was twelve was inflatable. His name was Arthur Roth, which also made him an inflatable Hebrew…”
In many ways, Pop Art feels like a thematic continuation of Albert Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon—although Arthur Roth is more sentient than The Red Balloon’s titular character—and touches on topics such loneliness and innocence. This is heightened by the story’s magical realism shining through the narrator’s gritty backstory.
The narrator is Billy, who was abandoned by his conspiracy theorist mother to a father who suffers from migraines and wants little to do with him. Billy isn’t used to people caring about him, and he takes a switchblade to school and hides behind a bad reputation. The façade is intended to keep others away, but when he witnesses Arthur being bullied, he is moved to intervene. The duo form an unlikely friendship, overshadowed by Art’s delicate mortality.
What follows is an exquisitely written coming-of-age story that can be appreciated by all, because marginalised or not, everyone has at some stage of their life felt misunderstood. Some people are fortunate enough to find companionship, as is the case with Arthur and Billy.
Reading the relationship unfold is a pleasure, but it is tinged by the feeling that the universe is conspiring against them. Joe Hill writes plenty of horror, but strictly speaking, Pop Art isn’t one of them. Its horror lies in its metaphor. The “other” has been found wanting for compassion, and we, society, have failed them.
Pop Art is a Kafkaesque, coming-of-age tale of friendship and ostracization. It features in Joe Hill’s multi-award-winning collection 20th Century Ghosts. Hill will hold your hand and break your heart, but you will be the better for it.(5 / 5)
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