by Leela Corman
Schocken Books, $24.95, 208 pp.
The eponymous "underthings" in Leela Corman's new graphic novel Unterzakhn (the word is Yiddish) could refer to any number of things. It could be the main characters, twin girls living in New York's Lower East Side in the early 20th century, who seem to get lost underfoot in the rushed, hectic streets of their Jewish neighborhood. It could refer to the Jews themselves, as Corman never uses kid gloves when laying out the difficulties facing them in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, particularly in Russia. Or perhaps most obviously it could refer to literal underthings, the lacy garments draping women's bodies that Corman increasingly depicts as the girls descend, through different paths, into the more seedy tragedies of humanity.
So far New York artist Corman has cobbled together a respectably quirky career from her many and varied talents. Her illustrations have appeared in publications such as The New York Times and The Boston Phoenix; she's published comics in Pulse! magazine, among others; she's illustrated books on cuddling and the history of the skirt; and she's an active belly dance performer and teacher.
Unterzakhn is her second graphic novel. The book employs simple black-and-white drawings to tell the story of Esther and Fanya Feinberg as they navigate their neighborhood with varying levels of success, often exposed to situations and issues far more adult than their 9 years of age.
Corman has illustrated sex before, and she doesn't shy away from it here. When the story starts, Fanya is sent to fetch the "lady-doctor," a woman named Bronia who works as an obstetrician and performs under-the-table abortions for married women. Once Bronia realizes that Fanya doesn't know how to read — their mother deems it unnecessary, as they will simply go into running the family business — she asks if she can teach her. Their mother concedes, but only for Fanya; Esther must continue to work.
But when a stranger asks Esther to drop off a package to a Miss Lucille, Esther is unwittingly introduced to the local whorehouse. Dazzled by the beautiful women and flashy dancing at the brothel, she soon goes to work helping the dancers with laundry, makeup, and other odd jobs.
And so the two girls, once inseparable, begin to embark on different life paths that will carry them ever further from each other. Fanya continues to work for Bronia into adulthood, internalizing her messages that women should remain chaste because of the horrors of childbirth forced upon them by male sexuality, even while carrying on an affair with her married childhood sweetheart. Esther is forced too young into a life as a whore, eventually turning her profession into a lucrative stage career in the heart of the flapper era. But distant as they have become, their lives remain intertwined, continually affecting each other even as they grow ever more apart.
Corman's characters talk in accented English—she learned Yiddish at her grandmother's knee—and their speech bubbles are full of "goyish" and "pritze," their tables full of homemade pierogi. And their world is packed with characters, from the sleazy men at the brothels to the women desperate for Bronia's help to the girls' mother herself, long rumored to be the loose woman in the neighborhood despite her hatred for Esther's profession. It's a bit confusing to keep up with at first, especially because the black-and-white illustrations can make it hard to discern characters, but the language and diverging storylines quickly start to make sense, and the confusion in fact lends a depth to the girls' difficult and muddled lives.
Unterzakhn is ultimately a captivating story, due largely to the depth of both Esther and Fanya. Though outwardly different, their lives are tragic in surprisingly similar ways: Both grew up sooner than they should have, both have warped relationships with men and sex, both have seen far too much of humanity's underbelly. And the crumbling of their once beautiful sisterhood is deeply felt, especially when Fanya, once considered the righteous sister, must come to Esther for help, for while Fanya has slowly fallen into self-destruction, Esther has learned to transform her destructive childhood into a successful and self-expressive career.
The book is a sweetly sad story, illustrating the difficulty of life in the early 20th century as seen through the narrow eye of a specific subculture. Corman exposes many of the difficulties facing Jews at the time—Fanya's lover is Catholic, and the two keep their relationship discreet — and a chapter dedicated to the girls' father is particularly devastating. Growing up in Russia in the late 1800s, he sold onions from his mother's farm and took care of his little sister, until soldiers raided the house while he was at market, destroying the property and raping and killing his mother and sister. Corman never shies away from harshness in either her story or her illustrations, but she handles it with grace, despite the curse words, exposed body parts, and sex scenes that dominate the book. Unterzakhn is a quick read, but a meaningful one, and is yet another tick mark on Corman's long list of successes.