Arbitrary Stupid Goal

Photo: Courtesy of MCD

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Arbitrary Stupid Goal
336 pages; MCD
Tamara Shopsin's words pack a serious punch—or, not serious at all, actually. She’s very funny.

In Arbitrary Stupid Goal (MCD/FSG), the illustrator and writer looks back on her childhood in 1980s Greenwich Village, where her parents owned a grocery, “The Store,” that they later turned into a coffee shop. John Belushi was a regular—he even had a key; Shopsin’s dad might open the doors in the morning to find Belushi asleep in a rocking chair. John Kennedy Jr. was another frequent visitor—he “would glide in on Rollerblades,” Shopsin writes.

The person who most dazzles, though, is her idiosyncratic, quick-tempered father. To keep the place out of the spotlight, he listed it in guidebooks as a shoe store. When customers called, he’d say they were out of business. Or, Shopsin recollects, if they asked “‘Where are you located?’ he would answer, ‘Next to the phone,’ and hang up."

The book is narrated in staccato sentences arranged like shopping lists of observations and memories. Shopsin uses line breaks the way a poet might, to sharpen jokes or more fully render her nostalgia for days past. One page is blank save for the confession, “I regret not asking where his photos went.”

Alongside the fragmented story, Shopsin includes her own doodles; one shows how to fold a napkin to resemble male genitalia. There are also snapshots and artifacts, like a note from her mother to her dad: “I promise never to put gum in your armpit again.”

The effect is kaleidoscopic and mesmerizing—this is a dreamy world, a lost New York. In the acknowledgments, Shopsin pleads for the survival of the city’s “young, scrappy pilgrims”—its “fringe”—concluding, “There is no jockstrap big enough to cover what New York is endowed with.”
— Claire Luchette