The symbolism is clear in travel memoirs: Journey as metaphor for the way a life unfolds. The growing number of graphic novel additions to this sub-genre have revitalized it in the past few years. Books like Lucy Knisley’s Displacement and Eleanor Davis’s You & A Bike & A Road are wonderful examples of the way that a creator’s art can take stories beyond what they would be as prose. Memoirs so familiar they could feel stale are instead transformed by visuals, and The American Dream? A Journey On Route 66 is no different. The subtitle, Discovering Dinosaur Statues, Muffler Men, And The Perfect Breakfast Burrito gives readers just a hint of what they’re in for.
Shing Yin Khor starts the book by contextualizing their own experiences and what drove them to take this particular road trip. After growing up in Malaysia and experiencing the U.S. mostly through entertainment, Khor’s relationship with the very idea of America changed after a move to California. Following ten years in L.A., Khor drove the most recognizable road in the country, taking Route 66 from their hometown to Chicago and documenting their experiences along the way. It’s the sort of epic trip that most people only dream of and never actually do, but Khor knows what they’re doing; they pack relatively light, stop to see friends, and have a reliable navigator in the form of an adorable dog named Bug.
The narrative of Khor’s journey is woven with the history of Route 66 and the populations that have sprung up and faded around it, brought in by tourism and industry only to disappear again later. It adds a fascinating layer of context to the drive, particularly since Khor is driving the opposite direction most people would go, east instead of west. They draw motel signs, rest stops, and the people who shared the road along the way, some far more gracefully than others. Khor leans into some of the most kitschy tourist traps, visiting giant sculptures and abandoned roadside attractions. It leaves the impression of driving through a series of real-world memes from the pre-internet era.
If not for Khor’s art, the book might have still been a bit of a dry read. But rich with water colors and visible sketch lines under finished shapes, it feels organic and alive. It’s rich with texture and soft shapes, smiling faces that are simple without being overly cartoonish. There are several double-page spreads that capture the incredible vistas and remarkable secrets Route 66 holds for travelers. Khor’s style is expressive without abandoning reality, and they depict themself on the page same as everyone else, which provides ample opportunity to convey how the moment made the artist feel without relying on text. Khor’s awe and frustration and joy as they encounter new things are all palpable. It makes clear how Khor’s own experiences and needs shaped their trip and the book itself, which leads gracefully into exploration of Khor’s complicated relationship with America as an immigrant.
It would be easy to reduce The American Dream? into a simple statement about America as it is in comparison to America as it was and as it could be. There’s an epilogue where Khor contextualizes the trip (which took place in April 2016), and wonders if they or someone like them would be able to make the same trip now. It’s necessary context, but not the totality of the book. Khor is writing about the idea of America, but also the idea of identity and home, and how people declare those things to the rest of the world; sometimes that happens to be with roadside attractions made up of dinosaur statues. It’s a journey made up of the weird and wonderful, as well as the deeply concerning ways that people leave their mark on the world.