By Matt Dube
If there is a haunting taking place in Jeff Lemire’s Ghost Stories, it is the influence of literary fiction more than it is graphic novels, even those, like Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World, Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, or Nick Abizadis’ Laika, to give only a few prominent examples. The kind of story Lemire is telling here is most shocking in its decision to eschew the elements that tied those books to their genre roots, either the inwardness of their social portraits or (the debunking of) adventure stories. In place of the trappings of genre, Lemire substitutes an interest in more traditionally literary thematic material: the lure of home, the difficulty of accepting change, the need to live with and through your decisions, good or bad, that is in solidly part of tradition of realist short story writers like Alice Munro and William Trevor. In fact, the title Ghost Stories is probably the most pulp genre element of this graphic novel, and if there are ghosts in this story, they are purely metaphorical, as LeBouef struggles in his later years to make sense out of where life has taken him, how he has, as he has occasion to repeat in the course of the graphic novel, experienced both of the ways to be lonely, and perhaps even found a third.
The heart of the novel pivots between what LeBouef would like to tell us, about his relationship with his brother Vince, the lovable member of the family, and Lemire’s own interest, to show us a character who works to understand if it is really a problem to be so alone. It’s hard to suggest the way these two stories interact, but it’s a testament to Lemire’s skill that LeBoeuf’s recollections serve one purpose for the character who is having them and another for the overall arc of the graphic novel. In the story LeBouef tells of his life, there is him, his brother, and hockey: for LeBouef hockey was a way to get away from the farm, and he tries to use it to lure his brother to a different kind of life as well, but the more grounded Vince sees the sport for the distraction it is, plays for a season and then returns to the farm to marry and raise a baby that either of the brothers might have fathered. Lou might try to convince us, and himself, that it was that trauma, of bedding his brother’s wife and possibly fathering a child with her, that keeps him away from the farm, but Lemire shows us this is all rationalization: Lou is not a nice person, he doesn’t like life on the farm and doesn’t really have room for many people in his life. Though he thinks he struggles to make something of his failed relationship with his brother, now deceased, his real story is to come to peace with who he is, regardless of what he has done wrong and what is now beyond repair.
The graphic novel ends as it begins, with Lou on the porch of his house, alone and probably in need of someone to take care of him, but there is an element of “same-but-with-a-difference” which Peter Brooks identifies as the necessary element of change to bind the narrative energies into a successful conclusion: we know why Lou is alone, and it is appropriate, perhaps, to think that we also think that Lou will be okay, that he does not need to kind of sharing and caring relationships that he seems to be lacking from at the beginning of the novel. What sets out as a narrative of rehabilitation instead digs deeper into the character, helping us to understand that there was nothing wrong with Lou in the first place, nothing beyond the physical that even a well-intentioned and long suffering nurse can do for him. Maybe its the role that secret origins play in the history of comics, the transformation of Peter Parker and Bruce Wayne into something other, that makes it feel so unlikely that Lou is unchanged by his experiences in this graphic novel, but it also makes the story feel more serious and substantial, more successful at expanding the boundaries of what kinds of stories graphic novels can tell than I think I can remember seeing so clearly before.
None of this is meant to suggest that this is a book without flaws: if the peers for this kind of work are literary more than pulp, most of them are notable short story writers and not novelists; this is a nice way of saying that Lemire’s book is long for what it takes on, and at times, for all its sumptuous open skies and landscapes, it can kind of drag. Also, for a book that has some strikingly beautiful images, it has some that I find frankly ugly, like this one, which is unfortunately also reproduced on the back cover; maybe someone finds it attractive, but to me, it represents everything that scared me about old people when I was younger.
Yuck! Finally, there is a section of the book that covers the single season when Lou and Vince played hockey together in Toronto that comes close to clichéd film montage of the whirling headlines and torn-off calendar pages. Lemire seems at a loss for how to convey that season with appropriate gravitas, and so far I don’t think he’s found the right way. I don’t think this is a perfect book, but it is one that I think is really very accomplished, and one that asks to be judged against a different set of standards than any other comic that I can readily think of. In the fall, Top Shelf will bring out the third volume in the Essex County trilogy, The Country Nurse, with its frankly Chekhovian title, and then Lemire will publish some work through DC’s Vertigo. Those works will tell us if this volume is an aberration that somehow fell outside the lines of Lemire’s work or if he is blazing a new path in comics-as-literature.