The Nobody by Jeff Lemire

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The Nobody
By Jeff Lemire

jefflemirethenobodycoverThere are only five stories in the world—or maybe six or seven. The number varies slightly between tellings, sure, but the adage remains more or less the same. When boiled down to their purest essence, mankind has, in a sense, been reliving the same basic conceits since the dawn of storytelling. The moral, of course, is that the skill ultimately lies not in the story itself so much as the way it’s told. It’s one of the first lessons a low-level instructor will impart on you toward the beginning of nearly any creative writing course.

The concept is embraced to its fullest when artists opt to eschew the illusion of fresh storytelling in favor of an open retelling of some much-loved piece of art. Upon wrapping up his oft-lauded Essex County trilogy for Top Shelf, that’s precisely where Jeff Lemire went, choosing as his jumping off point H.G. Wells’s beloved science fiction allegory, The Invisible Man.

In adapting (or perhaps more appropriately, reimagining) the story, Lemire embraced yet another bit of creative writing 101: write what you know. For a backdrop, the artist provides us with Large Mouth, a small, rural town though ought prove rather familiar to those acquainted with the streets and farms of Essex County.

In spinning his tale of invisibility, Lemire tackles small town living with a certain sense of irony, when Griffen (a name borrowed directly from the Wells story), recently transformed and wrapped in those iconic bandages, holes up in a hotel in Large Mouth in an attempt to embrace a form of invisibility not granted by his experiments. Naturally, the specter of a bandaged man wandering the streets of a tightly-knit small town community awakens in its residents something quite the opposite, with the freakish stranger becoming an almost instantaneous lightning road for its paranoia and prejudices.  The ultimate irony, of course, the ease with which our invisible protagonist could slip by, undetected in any setting, should he simply unravel the bandages around his face.

There’s an awful lot of subtext crammed into these 144 pages, which, like Griffen himself, seesaw between being overly subtle and potentially overbearing, but Lemire does often gracefully skirt the line, when flash-backs to a time before the accident intersect with reality, and his shaky lines take over the story, as when the protagonist leaps into an icy lake to save a drowning love and slowly unravels into nothingness in its rippling depths.

At times, however, Lemire seems almost too pre-occupied with exploring large scale themes, sometimes at the expense of the story itself. As such, the book will likely prove frustrating for those expecting more adventure from a Vertigo book starring the invisible man. More often than not, the book feels like addendum to Essex County, a subtle, if slow moving work that’s more about people than events.

After the epic sweep of Essex County’s combined 500-plus pages, The Nobody also feels a bit slight, a simultaneous palate-cleansing stab at genre work and perhaps an attempt to close the door on a book that has almost certainly consumed a good portion of its author’s life. It’s not a bad book by any means, of course, but it’s certainly one struggling to come to grips with exactly  what it wants to be.

In that sense, The Nobody feels like a transitional piece as Lemire gathers the pieces for his next major work.

–Brian Heater

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2 Comments to “The Nobody by Jeff Lemire”

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