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September 28, 2009

Reading (and then) Remembering How to Breathe

[Danica Novgorodoff on Refresh, Refresh and other things]

I know I’m supposed to write about my new graphic novel, Refresh, Refresh. But what I really want to talk about is The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel. I’m only on page 58 and I want to ride the subway from Brooklyn to the Bronx to Manhattan to Queens and back (I do most of my reading on the subway). I have to read each story twice in a row and then remember to breathe.

It’s kind of how I felt when I first read James Ponsoldt’s screenplay Refresh, Refresh, and the short story by Benjamin Percy it was based on. That thrill, and also the longing – “I wish I’d written that.”

There’s a story by Hempel called Going, about a teenage boy who is hospitalized after he wrecks his car in the desert. It goes,

 

‘…Anyway, the accident was a learning experience.

You know – pain teaches?

One of the nurses picked it up from there. She was bending over my bed, snatching pebbles of safety glass out of my hair. “What do we learn from this?” she asked.’

 

What does pain teach?

In Refresh, Refresh, the three boys beat the crap out of each other in a homemade boxing ring after school, and pain teaches them to be stronger, to become men, and also to hope.

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I was stuck trying to create a cover image for Refresh, Refresh. I tried something with an American flag – but it’s not really a story about politics or patriotism. I tried something with a computer, something that would explain the title – but a laptop computer just isn’t an aesthetically appealing icon. I tried an image of the three boys fighting – but First Second editor Mark Siegel said it looked like a “Young Rocky” boxing book.

It came to me as I was listening to a song. My best friend was playing the new song she’d written, and I saw the image: fingers crossed, like boys playing guns. Fingers crossed, like making wishes. Because in the act of repeatedly and obsessively hitting the Refresh button, looking for emails from their fathers who are at war, there is some great act of hope, and also some terrible apprehension of loss.

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Hempel continues,

‘It was like that class at school where the teacher talks about Realization, about how you could realize something big in a commonplace thing. The example he gave – and the liar said it really happened – was that once while drinking orange juice, he’d realized he would be dead someday. He wondered if we, his students, had had similar “realizations.”

Is he kidding? I thought.

Once I cashed a paycheck and I realized it wasn’t enough.

Once I had food poisoning and realized I was trapped inside my body.’

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