Alex and Michael are insufferable.
A wallpaper-like illustration of ukulele-strumming jackalopes — a portmanteau of “jackrabbit” and “antelope,” a mythical animal of North American folklore — lines the inner covers of their cross-country adventure, an early indicator that the couple’s journey in Amongst the Liberal Elite: The Road Trip Exploring Societal Inequities Solidified by Trump (RESIST) is laced with playful absurdism. The fresh-off-the-press illustrated work from Greensboro born-and-raised writer Elly Lonon and illustrator Joan Reilly follows Alex and Michael on a cross-country road trip as they attempt to comprehend President Trump’s election and get “woke.”
It’s an extension of her McSweeney’s column, Amongst the Liberal Elite, expanding the ethos and adding illustration to make it a graphic novel of sorts, though this is a true story.
The couple uses their tax refund to explore the sites of the world’s (several) largest frying pans; they also explore the tension between their own moral superiority, their relationship to consumerism and a tendency toward self-flagellation rooted in white guilt, all in the neat grids of black-and-white illustration. Lonon is undeniably clever — her writing has been featured in the New York Times, McSweeney’s, Scary Mommy and O Magazine — with a penchant for searing cultural commentary and political satire. She knows her characters are inadequate and frustrating, that it’s important to consider how else this tormented hipster couple have spent their tax return. But she also begs us to consider what it means for relatively privileged Gen X-ers to enjoy enough wealth to donate to cherished causes from time to time but not feel prepared to financially survive a health emergency. Not three panels pass before another topical reference appears, rendering the novel unreadable to a vast proportion of Americans over the age of 50. That’s okay, though; so much discourse already revolves around their perspective. So, who is Amongst the Liberal Elite for?
As of Nov. 7, the graphic novel’s Amazon.com page features 25 five-star reviews (and none below that rating) most of which were written by white women expressing appreciation. It’s significant for women to see themselves represented and for all of us to find solace in fiction. Humor is a powerful medicine and the onslaught of distressing news cycles serves the purpose of exhausting us. There is a reason why fascist regimes intimidate and eliminate the literati, artists and other cultural leaders early. What is concerning — and what Lonon appears to allude to through her self-involved anti-heroes — is that so many whose social positions offer relative power — yet who feel disempowered themselves — are ill-equipped to recognize the limits of their understanding and of their empathy no matter striving and good intent. Amongst the Liberal Elite is at times as exhausting as the news cycle itself, a distressing satirical mirror to the ongoing identity crisis white Americans are grappling with, the frustration of waiting, hoping for male romantic partners to unlearn misogyny rather than memorize what is and isn’t “okay” to say.
Though Alex and Michael’s road trip through America’s “heartland” is no heroes’ journey, it’s not intended to be one. They are more invested in projecting moralistic narratives onto others with whom they’re never shown interacting rather than examine themselves soberly enough to make meaningful change. Most readers will catch that we are not meant to empathize with Alex and Michael in a straightforward sense, and their recognizability is key for the buy-in. The danger lays then in the opportunity to distance oneself from these characters who, though capable of sensing their semi-fraudulent commitments to equity, persist less in the dogged pursuit of justice than into the comfort of their highly curated universe rife with exceptionalism and cheap hashtags.
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