Alternative universe

<strong>Shortcomings</strong>

Adrian Tomine <em>Faber & Faber, 140pp, £12.99</em>

"For most of my life I had felt distant from my grandfather, perhaps mistaking the language barrier for coldness." It's a scene worthy of the most nauseating day-time telemovie. We watch as a westernised Oriental girl finds reconciliation with her grandfather, who, we are told, is like a "fortune cookie". Cheap, dusty and quite possibly pointless? Reader, it's far worse: he has "a hard, protective shell containing haiku-like wisdom". Out of frame, there's probably a sick orphan child who has regained his sight; maybe even an (ethnic) horse. This is some corny stuff.

Adrian Tomine's Shortcomings opens with a skilfully executed parody of the Asian-American narrative. It's a daring and characteristically ironic start to what is perhaps his most personal work to date. Though Tomine is himself Japanese-American, Shortcomings represents the first time he has addressed issues of his own ethnicity.

Since the early 1990s, Tomine has been the uncontested boy wonder of the "alternative comix" scene. His Optic Nerve series, started when he was still in high school, still holds up as a high-water mark of the confessional mini-comics genre (subsequently populated by the likes of Jeffrey Brown). A kind of illustrated descendant of Dirty Realist writing, the shadow of Raymond Carver looms large over his early work. Both Carver and Tomine shy away from the more typically epic American preoccupations, preferring instead to allow the small curiosities of day-to-day life to take centre stage.

In Shortcomings, we follow Ben Tanaka as he struggles to make sense of his crumbling personal life. His girlfriend, Miko, is slowly leaving him, and his subsequent fumblings with various other women only compound his deep-seated insecurities. Both Ben and Miko are Japanese-Americans, and their shared ethnic background impacts on their lives in significantly different ways. Miko is proactive and politicised - she is the assistant organiser of a film festival showcasing Asian-American talent. Ben, meanwhile, is a depressive manager of a local cinema, seemingly content in his life of slow-burning frustration and - not surprisingly - covert masturbation.

Sexual stereotyping is at the heart of the story. The title itself is a reference to Ben's feeling of inadequacy in the trousers department (underneath the dust jacket, the book cover bears a life-size image of a ruler). At one point, Ben recalls a "stupid joke": "What's the difference between Asian men and Caucasian men?" The punchline - "the cauc" - is both funny and deeply uncomfortable. "I actually heard a girl tell that joke in college! I was standing right there."

When Miko discovers Ben's stash of pornographic DVDs, what could have been played for laughs develops into something far more interesting. It isn't the fact that he needs them at all that offends her, so much as that "all the girls are white". Later, he finds himself in bed with Sasha Lenz, a Caucasian woman. Intimately sketched in close-up images, it's a perceptive, faintly sad scene. Ben feels he is losing a second virginity, drawn along racial lines: "It's just . . . This is the first time I've ever been with . . ."

The many supporting players are equally well developed. The lasting impression is one of real cities, populated by real people. It is to Tomine's credit that he is able to create believable characters out of what, in less subtle hands, could have felt contrived or clichéd. So we have Alice, a South Korean lesbian academic with an irrepressible libido and racist parents; Autumn, an attractive "punk weirdo" in a performance art collective; and Leon, who Ben dismisses as a white "Steven Segal dipshit".

Shortcomings is a novel that restores a sense of humanity to people who are otherwise consistently stereotyped. Tomine has always been interested in figures who occupy society's bitter margins: his 2002 masterpiece, Summer Blonde, devoted itself to stalkers, phone pranksters and other emotionally atomised outsiders. It is no surprise that an early artistic hero of the author was Edward Hopper. A sense of urban isolation and romanticised loneliness permeates the work of both artists.

As in all of Tomine's mature work, each deceptively simple panel tells its own story. Less immediately cinematic in style than many of his contemporaries, Tomine seems to rely upon an uncanny ability to capture the subtlest shade of a facial expression. Consequently, Shortcomings invites multiple readings. It is endlessly rewarding to spot the early traces of guilt in Miko's empty kisses, or in the look of embarrassment that follows one of Ben's many rejections. All in all, a rich and effortlessly touching treasure.