What do you want? The question haunts us all — but why? It's not as if the answer doesn't seem clear enough. Naturally, we want money, love, a hundred thousand Instagram followers. And yet for those who do attain these prizes, there's still no exalted state of perfect happiness. Take the Kardashians, a group of people whose only function is to demonstrate what you do when you get everything you ever wanted. The answer, it turns out, is that you freeze: You inter yourself inside a million static selfies.
It's almost as if what we think we want isn't what we want at all — as if our real desires are unknowable, perhaps even necessarily so. That's Nina Bunjevac's contention in Bezimena, her challenging and disturbing new graphic novel. (The title means "nameless" in many Slavic languages.") Bunjevac is no stranger to psychological complexity, having explored her feelings about her violent father in 2014's bestselling Fatherland. Here, she addresses other traumatic chapters out of her past: Not one, but two attempted sexual assaults at the hands of older men. Both constituted betrayals. The first attempt, when Bunjevac was 15, came after a charismatic older girl led her to the attacker. The second attempt, years later, was "at the hands of a man I looked up to and trusted, a man who acted as my legal guardian and was supposed to protect me. It was this incident that marked me for life, plunging me into darkness for many years," she writes in the book's afterword.
"This book is dedicated to all forgotten and nameless victims of sexual violence," she adds. "May you find peace, may you find light, and may you dispel the darkness that envelops you."
Bezimena is clearly Bunjevac's attempt to dispel her own darkness, but her tactics may baffle, even alarm, the reader. In fact, someone who's experienced sexual violence may not want to read this book. Besides containing explicit sexual and violent imagery, it takes on the viewpoint of a predator. The narrative revolves around Benny, a sexual obsessive who seemingly gets the opportunity to engage in fetishy, dubiously consensual encounters with different women. But there's always something off about these interludes. They occur in a house hidden in the woods, but Benny lives in a city. They take place in silence. And they follow specifications laid out in a mysterious notebook that Benny has stolen from "White Becky," the object of his lifelong desire.
Bunjevac's iconic black-and-white images heighten the unreality of Benny's actions while simultaneously making it impossible to stop thinking about them. Here as in Fatherland, Bunjevac's art resembles woodcuts or intaglio. There's an implacability to every dot and line. She deliberately creates stagey tableaux, emulating the drawings in John Willie's 1940s-50s fetish magazine Bizarre. The frozen pictures also suggest carefully posed selfies: They're perfect simulacra of perfection.
But it's not just the art that indicates Benny's story is a metaphor for a damaged soul. Bunjevac constructs her narrative in layers that directly reference Freud's model of the mind, all the way down to the unknowable unconscious. First, in a frame story, a priestess named Bezimena seems to conjure Benny's whole existence as a fable for her followers. But there aren't many fables in which the protagonist has periods of dissociation, indicated by black lacunas. Soon, with pigment dribbling down the pages like tears or blood, it becomes clear that Benny's sexual fairy tale — apparently an expression of his most secret cravings — is actually disguising something even darker.
Bunjevac's radical argument is that we're all like Benny to some extent. We mask our inexpressible obsessions not with happy thoughts, but with dramas of repression and yearning, and she suggests that the things we pine for are just stand-ins for abyssal desires we can't bring ourselves to imagine.
As an assault survivor, Bunjevac has a particularly urgent relationship with this idea. In our self-help and therapy-saturated culture, we tend to imagine that the emotions resulting from trauma are rather straightforward: shame, pain, anger, the desire for revenge. Bunjevac's innermost feelings are far more complicated — as complicated as the points of view in this book. Sometimes she seems to imagine herself as Bezimena, other times to identify with Benny's enigmatic partners. Sometimes the sex seems to be consensual, other times not. Sometimes it seems deliberately sensual, whether or not consent is apparent.
Without ever talking directly about her own feelings, Bunjevac indicates how obscure, contradictory and often unwelcome those feelings are. This uncanny book provides a rather grim map to the ever-shadowy process of recovery. But Bunjevac goes beyond that. She demonstrates why it's so hard for any of us, victims or no, to say just what it is we want.
Etelka Lehoczky has written about books for The Atlantic, The Los Angeles Review of Books and The New York Times. She tweets at @EtelkaL.