Guernica Magazine

Forsyth Harmon: Love and Self-Loathing in Long Island

The author of the illustrated novel Justine reflects on queer teenage longing, deprivation, and Diet Coke.

In the food court of the Walt Whitman Mall, lines from “Song of Myself” are engraved on the wall—and covered by the giant “M” of a McDonalds sign. Golden arches interrupting sprawling queer verse: It’s an apt hangout spot for Ali, the teenage girl at the center of Forsyth Harmon’s illustrated debut novel, Justine. On the North Shore of Long Island in 1999, wild desire can only run so free.

That is where, at the checkout of a Stop & Shop, sixteen-year-old Ali beholds her worst and most beautiful nightmare: Justine. Immediately drawn to the tall, “spooky” cashier with a “queenly attitude” and a “chin-length pitch-black bob,” Ali takes a job at the supermarket so she can be as close to Justine as possible. She looks at Justine the way she looks at the models on the magazines she pins to her bedroom wall. Her lust is aspirational. In a quest to become as skinny as Justine, Ali starves herself. She lives exclusively on Dannon Lite fat-free strawberry yogurts while Justine leads her on an endless bender around Long Island. Accompanied by the boys they date to turn away from themselves, they’re never alone, always hiding from their deepest urges. The abandon of Ali and Justine’s reckless summer spree belies a tragic repression.

Throughout the book, black-and-white drawings of soda cans, cats, pepperoni pizza, upside-down Smirnoff bottles, Tamagotchis, and unraveling cassette tapes begin to do, for the reader, what Ali’s and Catherine Lacey’s , juxtaposes images and text to create a book that has the breezy intimacy of a ’90s zine, with narration that is alternately withholding and searing—and altogether haunting. In the tradition of Daniel Clowes’s , Julie Buntin’s , and T Kira Madden’s , Harmon explores what it means to navigate a female body through queer adolescent longing, amid the stifling uniformity of suburbia.

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