Little Nothings: The Prisoner Syndrome
By Lewis Trondheim
He’s taken on a lot over the past decade and a half. There have been aliens and vampires and dungeons and dragons. In 2000 he wrote about the adventures of Santa Claus, and in 2001 it was the story of pint-sized king. It was the following year, however, that Lewis Trondheim took on what was, perhaps, the most difficult subject matter of his storied career—his own life. That year’s four volume Travel Notebooks marked a return to autobiography, after years spent tackling nearly every other subject in the known universe. The trend continued with the sublimely titled Nothing Diaries, which have subsequently been collected in the States as the volumes, Little Nothings.
The title, of course, is a happy little piece of self-deprecation, Trondheim’s not-so-subtle declaration of the banality of his day-to-day existence—and perhaps, by proximity, a swipe at the inevitable self-indulgence of such a project. The artist largely lives up to his title, writing about printer cartridges and saliva production and a weird spherical object ejected from his nasal cavity while blowing his nose. In that sense, the artist has captured the zen-like mundanity of the genre.
But Trondheim’s position as one of the continent’s most celebrated cartoonists affords him a certainly level of geographical freedom not often offered to other diary strip cartoonist—it’s an opportunity that that artist takes advantage of fairly often over the course of the book, traveling to festivals, ceremonies, and conferences. Early on in the proceedings, on a trip to Nantes, in his native France, Trondheim discovers the term that gives this volume its subtitle: ‘the prisoner syndrome.’
“It’s when someone’s locked up and isn’t doing anything,” he explains. “By not doing anything, he gets more and more tired and has less and less desire to do anything. It also happens in ordinary life. To ordinary folk…to artists…” To Trondheim, the solution is simple: more travel—taking advantage of all of those free plane tickets.
But while the changes in scenery afford him the opportunity to lend his stunning watercolors to new and beautiful scenery, a peculiar thing happens. Life’s banality simply adapts to these new surrounding. Trondheim gets mosquito bites on the white sand beaches of Guadeloupe. Two pages later, he is seated on the hotel bed, counting the itchy red dots for his wife. The surroundings and the customs change, but the internalizing and the neuroses of the traveler stay the same, and ultimately it is those aspects that most affect his abilities as a narrator.
As confining as the structure of the diary strip may be, however, the boundaries are ultimately trumped by Trondheim’s skills as a natural born storyteller. He makes games of life, awarding plus or minus “brownie points” for his ability to save energy by taking the stairs or leaving the lights on and the shades drawn. He closes his eyes and allows himself to take flight. It’s ultimately his own flights of fancy, rather than physical methods of travel, which save him from succumbing to the prison syndrome.
Trondheim’s pacing, meanwhile, provides a sense of instant engagement often lacking in diary strips. Where the most obvious American counterpart in the genre, James Kochalka, creates strips that, famously, must be consumed over long stretches of time to be suitably enjoyed, Trondheim’s rhythms are instantly recognizable—a good thing, seeing as how the duration of Little Nothings has, well, nothing on Kochalka’s long running daily strip. There are, certainly, overarching themes and plot points which can only be properly understood when the book is consumed as a whole (such is the nature of autobio), but so too can Trondheim’s strips be enjoyed one at a time, in a manner that many diary strips are unable to replicate.
The relatively long length of each and the lack of daily deadline let Trondheim be more choosey with the material he pulls from, and as such, nearly every page offers a laugh or a friendly piece of insight into the human condition. The frequency also appears to have given Trondheim more time to labor over the artwork. While his inks certainly reflect the casual lines of a sketchbook, the artist’s stunning watercolors seem to tell a different story—one in which the casual nature of a sketchbook is transformed into a work of art.
That, ultimately, is what we’re left with—an brilliant artist attempting to deliver a fairly straightforward diary strip, who can’t help but transcend the genre in the process.