Wimbledon Green (2005)
Drawn & Quarterly
Once an author decides that the novel will have an unreliable narrator, there are certain obvious advantages at his or her disposal. Since an unreliable narrator strips the narrative of any real “authenticity”, even the most blatantly fictionalised portions of a book can be seen as pertinent to the narrator’s story or his elusive “truth”. Poems can be more significantly autobiographical than diary entries in such a scenario. Take Stephen King’s Carrie, for instance: the narrator is not unreliable in the traditional sense here, but the narrative technique — the court case after the massacre running simultaneously with the genesis of the massacre itself — breaks down the “authenticity” of the teenaged Carrie’s high-school woes. In Canadian cartoonist Seth’s Wimbledon Green, we see the logical extrapolation of such a technique, a narrative amped up to pure legend, a story made entirely out of word-of-mouth stories, of comically exaggerated accounts, of half-truths that don’t claim to be anything else.
The titular character is the self-proclaimed “greatest comic-book collector in the world”; a fat, pompous, vainglorious man who thrives on deceit and underhand tactics to move up in the world. Though the story begins with a documentary-styled series of interviews with comic-book storeowners and Green’s fellow collectors, Seth escalates things in the second half: to further flesh out Green’s back story, he draws a series of madcap adventures drawn in the look and feel of vintage comics from the ’40s and the ’50s; the very comics that Green lusts after, in fact.
It’s not easy to bring out a character’s undesirable traits when so much of your formal pyrotechnics are geared towards building up his glamorous aura. But Seth walks this tightrope in style: for instance, consecutive chapters are narrated by a kid who is in awe of Green’s knowledge and a fellow collector who claims to have been cheated by Green, respectively. The former’s respect is tempered by a grudging acceptance of Green’s loneliness and lack of social skills. The latter’s hatred is softened by a grudging respect for his accomplishments. It’s a smart way of telling a story and it allows readers to make up their own minds.
Coming back to the unreliability part of the mix, it’s important to note that Green’s story is really the story of comic-book collectors as a whole, about the lonely and polarising world that they live in, ruled by ruthlessness, petty politics and an existential dread manifested in their constant obsessing over the “mint condition” of rare comics. Also, there is a lingering suspicion in every collector’s head that what they do is more than a little juvenile: depending upon your mood, you may or may not agree with this evaluation.
Seth takes the story-within-a-story game to a whole different level with the introduction of a character called Jonah, an art thief wearing round glasses and a fedora: he calls himself “just Jonah”, with no surname. The author photograph at the book tells us that this is a fairly accurate physical description of Seth himself (his real name is Gregory Gallant). Every author is a thief, picking up the tricks of the trade from his favourites. Every author is constantly anxious that he or she will be caught out for his “theft” one day. It’s a beautiful metaphor and one that adds to an already formidable book.