In 2014, Anya Ulinich abandons the world of prose with her new graphic novel, “Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel,” in which she deploys her competence as both a writer and an illustrator. This book is based on “Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel,” by Bernard Malamund, which narrates the story of a man who consults a marriage broker in search for a wife. In Anya Ulinich’s version, the magic barrel is a world of online dating, portrayed as a chaotic and intricate world many of us are familiar with. Anya was classically trained in art, but switched to writing upon her arrival in the States, as she stated having “no place to paint.” However, after her first book “Petropolis,” Anya found herself stuck, she felt like she was “impersonating a novelist.” After the rejection of her second book from her publisher, her agent asked her, “What else do you have,” and Anya showed her an assortment of doodles, sketches, diary-like pages; that was all she had. This was the beginning of a great and entirely new project. Even though Ulinich graduated from the University of California with an MFA in painting and had previously written a novel (non-graphic), she maintains having known very little about comic books prior to this project. Nonetheless, this book brings Ulinich’s work to a whole other level of notability, creating a new visual and written language all of her own.
Essentially the book tells the story of a woman, Lena, (also the narrator), who much like Anya herself, is a late 30s divorced mother and novelist from Moscow, teaching and living in Brooklyn with her two daughters. It recounts Lena’s attempts to mend her views of love and sex, through social media platforms such as OKCupid, but there is much more complexity to the plot that Ulinich had in mind. The work appears as a sort of revealing, sequence of journals, which uncover and examine the main characters, and thus indirectly the author’s life and psyche from within. Through subtle details, we come to learn much about the reality of Ulinich’s life and upbringing.
“Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel” successfully and deeply captivates its viewers as we are both told and shown a story simultaneously. Her drawing style is rather ostentatious, thrilling, powerful, and witty, yet it is somehow always dark, or cloudy or night-time. Moreover, Anya’s drawing technique of combining quick sketches and more finalized illustrations into a style which is naturalistic, impressionistic and at times, cartoony, parallel the protagonist’s constant efforts to make sense of the diverse pieces of her life.
In her book, Anya Ulinich does not attempt to hide anything. We follow the protagonists’s most mundane actions and watch her in all her imperfect and tremendous humanity, resulting in a stronger bond and connection between character and reader. Anya Ulinich is both witty and serious, kind and straightforward, ruffled and unapologetic. The pages mostly dominated with words take a bit of getting used to, yet the experience is truly rewarding. I personally believe that books such as this one, gorgeously created, cleverly recounted and fancifully illustrated are such masterpieces and treasures.