Rent Girl, by Michelle Tea and Laurenn McCubbin

Please note that this book reaction was written by Sean Carman.

Rent Girl, the collaboration by San Francisco femme writer Michelle Tea and graphic illustrator Laurenn McCubbin, is the hippest thing on your local bookstore shelf.

Rent GirlCleverly bending the meanings of “rent” and “graphic,” it is about one young lesbian’s exploration of the San Francisco prostitution-and-drug subculture. She and her lover dress in leather and scotch-plaid mini skirts. They always have that cartoon-cool look in their eyes. Attempting to win their freedom the hard way, they take up lives of prostitution, drugs, and hardcore partying. Their hair is always perfect.

Laurenn McCubbin’s graphic art is fantastic. It looks like a sophisticated, edgier version of Japanese anime or, perhaps, a grown-up Emily Strange comic. Whatever Emily Strange is, exactly (it sort of seems like Hello Kitty to me — a collection of iconic ephemera not built around any particular narrative).

But I digress. Whereas the alluringly creepy Emily Strange seems intended for the goth lunchbox set, Rent Girl is a graphic novel for adults. Its images are risque hipster / fine-art cartoon graphic — magnificently designed Sharpie-and-colored-marker drawings of our heroines fooling around in punk club bathroom stalls or half-naked in Catholic schoolgirl outfits, for example. And — it must be said — licking the ass of an anonymous customer. Yuck.

McCubbin’s high-low art is perfectly matched by Michelle Tea’s story. Tea’s first-person narrative — one short chapter per page, laid out around a McCubbin drawing — is accessible and compelling. Her writing does not condescend to the glamorized image of down-and-out-hipsterdom, and this is the novel’s strength — that it presents a realistically and touchingly complex account of its heroines’ underground adventures.

Thus Rent Girl smartly juxtaposes the financial freedom advertised by prostitution with the profession’s spiritual corrosivity. McCubbin’s attractive drawings are set against the characters’ grimy (grinding?) actions. The women in the story are beautiful, and strong, but (thankfully) not hot in the Patrick Nagel sense. They are hip, but also desperate. The johns are perfectly-rendered yuppie loners, their faces lined with an innate sadness.

Rent Girl is above all else a literary effort, a sensitive and revealing exploration of character. It does what fiction does best: combine the voyeur’s treat of foreign exploration with a story of the beautiful complexities and compromises of all of our lives.

Details: Rent Girl, by Michelle Tea and Laurenn McCubbin, Last Gasp, 239 pp., $24.95.


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