Review: The Nobody

Please note: This review is presented in a special typeface visible only to those individuals guilty of some kind of prejudice, bigotry, or partisanship. If you see only a blank screen, you’re good to continue in your march toward sainthood. But if you are following along with this note and the impressions to follow, you, like me, still have a bit to learn about getting along with other people. Maybe not in big ways, but probably in some small ways. Those tend to add up like leaves moldering in the gutter. Not that this review or even the book described herein are going to mend your horrible racist, sexist ways entirely, but it never hurts to be reminded that the world doesn’t simply revolve around you or me. It revolves, ethically, mathematically, truly, around everybody and nobody in particular. 

This has been an astonishing summer for graphic novels. If we were to crown a triumvirate, we’re undoubtedly looking at Mazzaucchelli’s Asterios Polyp, Cooke’s Parker: The Hunter, and Lemire’s The Nobody. They’re all terrific in different ways. The Nobody is terrific because it’s small. It’s a minimalist fable, uncomplicated by tangent or widget. The moral isn’t what lies under wraps. It is the wraps.

It’s a very simple pitch. The iconic Invisible Man escapes the scrutiny of the city to work out the cure to his condition in a small town. The inhabitants are suspicious of the walking, talking mummy and start to whisper. A young girl’s curiosity supersedes her prejudice, leading to a brief connection. Misunderstanding and tragedy inevitably follow. Having read the first of Lemire’s fantastic Essex County books (while, coincidentally, chopping onions), I had a pretty good idea as to how The Nobody would look and operate. I wouldn’t call this book a surprise. I had high expectations, and they were met. It was as simple and as pure as I’d hoped for.

I just realized that I added “pure” on to “simple” because, by and large, the connotation for “simple” isn’t so positive. It can sound dismissive. That’s not how it ought to be.

I’m just as impressed with a complex Russian novel as anybody, but that’s not the whole story of literary mastery. Just as a perfect, unadulterated egg dish is seen as a litmus test for culinary prowess, a simple short story is a true achievement in writing. If Asterios Polyp or Watchmen are the Anna Karenina‘s, The Nobody is maybe that little gem tucked away in a collection of O. Henry or Alice Munro. It’s a little haiku about snow and ugly people and the unexpected tenderness of strangers.

Upon closing this beautifully presented book (no small achievement; excellent work, Vertigo!) I was left wanting just a little more in that second act. More shared experiences between the scientist and the girl. Ultimately, though? I’d hate to complicate the minimalism. As much as I want to know and see more, I really like that there are so many secrets. If every stranger is an impression, a wisp of their whole life story, a book like this ought to be filled with unexplored threads. It’s appropriately ambiguous.  It also adds to the noirish undertones. Griffen is a man with a past, and that past does come to collect. There are disappearances. There are footprints in the snow.

Visually, The Nobody is just as haunting as the creator and the concept demand. Lemire takes advantage of all the things you can do when your main character is invisible and wrapped up in bandages. It’s more than a little ironic that one of the cooler science fiction tropes to convey visually is an invisible man. By definition, he’s negative space in the guise of positive form. Or vice-versa. He can also be in varying states of transition between visible and invisible. It’s stage magic, and Lemire clearly had a lot of fun portraying the character and his condition is so many different ways.  But that’s not even the spookiest stuff. No one does loneliness better than Lemire. Unkempt townies posed in front of stark storefronts. Here’s a contradiction. We’re talking about valuing individuals and looking at them for their souls. Lemire captures emotion just fine. again, that’s not the whole story. Thanks to experience and Scott McCloud, we’re so used to reading the icons of a face that we sort of ignore the fact that a human head is rarely perfect and actually kind of disturbing. I don’t know if this makes sense, but I want to compliment Lemire on his ability to render both the expression of emotions and the misshapen clump of flesh and bone we call the human form. 

It’s not the first time the H.G. Wells character or some kernel of that concept has been used in a discussion of prejudice. In his 1953 novel Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison wrote about society’s inability to look past the epidermis to the individual beneath. There are no gamma rays or secret formulas as there is no literal invisibility. In The Nobody, Lemire celebrates the original science fiction take, but also offers some Rod Serling level social commentary. I don’t know that one approach is any more effective than the other. The Nobody is more of general analogy about our fear of the different and the unknown. You could apply this story to any case of baseless hatred or suspicion, not just race identity. With his prose novel, Ellison certainly had more of an opportunity to explore his specific metaphor. It’s said that the best way to write about the universe, about the macrocosmic, is to write with complete authority and confidence about the microcosmic. Maybe it works both ways.

Again, neither Ellison’s novel or Lemire’s graphic novel are going to bring about social harmony. Maybe nothing will. But they’ll make you think about these issues of intolerance (I genuinely hate this word, intolerance, because it suggests that the ideal is that we merely tolerate or compromise about our differences instead of, I dunno, celebrating or embracing them as benefits to community). Thinking isn’t acting, but that doesn’t mean it’s passive. If we’d just put things into consideration, concentrate on why we behave as we do, we’d make better decisions. We might be less suspicious and more empathetic. We’d be less likely to blindly pick up a pitchfork or light a torch.

If we paused for just a moment to think, we’d figure out we don’t have all the information to make a decision. The more you think, the more you realize there’s so much more to learn. Then dialogue. Then understanding. Then solving the problems that are actually problems and not just our sitting around, broiling in ignorance. So, no these books aren’t the complete undoing of hatred and stupidity. But if we can do the unraveling strip by strip, layer by layer, that’s a little less stumbling around in the dark. And that’s not nothing.


Paul Montgomery has been known to dabble in typographic alchemy. Find him on Twitter or contact him at paul@ifanboy.com

Comments

  1. Uhh, I think you forgot to post the article Paul

  2. @gobo shut up! you hate americans!

  3. An absolutly excellent article!

  4. @george I love my neighbours to the south!

  5. @gobo no, you love dairy.

  6. Excellent review Paul

  7. Great book — glad to see it getting a nod here. When I read this, my initial impression was that it felt like (if this makes sense) an indie filmmaker was doing an arthouse version of the Invisible Man.  It’s quiet. It moves at a languid pace, full of mystery and pregnant with meaning and symbolism. Very little is told. Most is shown. All of it is felt.

    I enjoyed this book immensely and I second Paul’s recommendation.

     

  8. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    @Dave – I totally agree. I’d love to see an indie film adaptation of this. I’ve daydreamed about it. David Strathairn and Olivia Thirlby. 

  9. I am delighted to see this review. By some twist of fate, the only other review I’d seen for The Nobody was rather negative and (apparently) half-cocked. You have a gift for illuminating the dark corners like this.

  10. Great review.

    I’ve heard mixed reactions on this particular trade. But if it works for you then that’s enough for me. 🙂

  11. I heard Lemire on WordBalloon talking about this and his other projects.  I totally want to pick this up, along with the Complete Essex County.  Now, I just need to find the money to do so.  Excellent review Paul.

  12. I’m sure this is an excellent review, but I have not yet read it. As fate would have it, I ordered this from Amazon and it will be arriving at my door at some point today. I look forward to reading the review after reading the book. I’m glad you really enjoyed it. Jeff Lemire is the man.

  13. I’m in nearly the same situation as Rustyautoparts. I’m sure the review is excellent, but I can’t read it yet.  I’ll be sure to come back here and disagree with you as soon as I finish it. 

  14. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    Waiting til after is okay by me, but there aren’t really any spoilers.

  15. I’d be hard pressed to find a spoiler in there.  The piece is about ideas.  Read it safely.

  16. Paul, I heard an interview where Lemire describes the book as his lover letter to Twin Peaks. Did you find any Lynchian elements in the book?

  17. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    @Kirkerson – Enough that I loved it, but not so much that I hated it.  

    The good of Lynch, I think, is about people floating around, the loneliness, the unaffected gaze at something strange. This book is full of that. Wide shots of people staring directly at the reader. That’s unsettling to me. In a good way. 

  18. I’m not worried about plot spoilers. I’m worried about interpretation spoilers. I want to come at it with as fresh a perspective as possible. It’s my preference to come up with my own ideas first, and then I assimilate other interpretations. I look forward to reading both the book and the review, as my tastes are pretty similar to Paul’s.

  19. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    That’s entirely reasonable. But if you don’t come back and comment after you’ve finished, so help me, I will hunt you! I will hunt you to the very end! Folly, I know. For man, man is The Most Dangerous Game indeed!

  20. I’m excited to check out this book.  Sounds very entertaining.

    Excellent review, senor Montgomery!

  21. @Kirkerson – If Lemire said that, I love the dude even MORE now (my show Wormwood, for which Paul writes, is my own love letter to Twin Peaks).

  22. @Paul – I was raised in Kentucky and live in Georgia.  I am required (by state law) to carry at least 3 guns on me at all times.  Bring you book readin’ Philly ass down here and see what happens.  (I would likely buy you a beverage and give you a gentlemanly tour of campus.)

  23. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    That actually sounds quite pleasant. I do love a tour. 

  24. @Paul – If you ever get a chance to come down for Dragon*Con (or for some other reason), I can promise you a drink and a tour.  A round trip flight from Philly to Atlanta for D*Con weekend is only $210.

  25. Great story here. I agree with the reviewer’s take on the "simple" aspects of it. Lemire does a great job of really slowing things down. I remember thinking while reading it, "it’s so quiet." Which is rediculous when you think of me reading to myself, of course it’s quiet. But I could really feel the stillness of the environment, which for me was great. Such a great use of setting as character, etc.

  26. Hmmm.  I couldn’t get into this.  I’m a fan of Lemire’s other books, and I love me some Vertigo, this just felt really really trite to me.  The idea of becoming invisible in society is pretty played out (I know, I know, every idea seems a bit played out), so you need to do something extraordinary to draw me in, and that didn’t happen here.  It felt really by the numbers.

     

    I much prefer the approaches Brian Wood used to make Megan "invisible" in Local  Instead of the obvious "no one can see me, I’m literally invisible" metaphor, he made this completely visible girl into someone no one actually saw.

     

    That said, Nobody is definitely begging to be made into an indie flick. 

     

    Oh, and The Collected Essex County comes out tomorrow.  That’s not just my favorite Lemire book, but one of my favorite graphic novel series, overall.

  27. Lemire is great, i’ve yet to read anything from him that I didn’t like. The Nobody included. Can’t wait to read Sweet Tooth.

  28. Just finished The Nobody this morning. I really enjoyed it a lot.

    As anticipated, another great review from Señor Montgomery. I came to some of the same conclusions vis a vis social prejudice, although it was more of a background thing for me. I found myself much more focused on the character of Griffen in regards to humanity. While he is forced into seclusion by society, his motivation seems driven more from the horrors that have arisen around his mistakes. His inhuman condition reflects on so much of what it means to be human. Lemire captures the constant struggle towards an unattainable ideal.

    The art works so well for exactly the reasons Paul stated. It expresses the awkward emotiveness of the human form. It evokes the starkness of Large Mouth and the backwards feel of its citizens. Lemire’s storytelling ability is massive. Although his style is far from photorealism, it is still very communicative and, well, real.

    Needless to say, Jeff Lemire has struck a chord with me. I too am looking forward to Sweet Tooth, along with anything else he might be cooking up. Truly a rising talent that should be watched. Good stuff.

  29. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    Excellent points, Rusty. Agreed on all counts.  

     

    Bring on Sweet Tooth!