Wimbledon Green by Seth

Wimbledon Green
Seth, 2005, 125p.
Full disclosure: I am a hardcore Seth fan. I buy everything he authors1, and while it isn't all equal, I always enjoy it deeply. I bought and read this book when it was released over five years ago, but I hadn't read it since. I am not a big re-reader of novels, and this includes graphic novels, though it really shouldn't. Most of what I read comes from the library, but the works of Seth, Chris Ware and Daniel Clowes I buy, read, then plop on a shelf.

A recent addition to this sleepy collection was Seth's follow-up to Wimbledon Green, titled The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists. I read that with the intent to review it, but then decided that I needed to review Wimbledon Green first, so I re-read it, and then re-read it again. Now I really want to re-read George Sprott, which to date I think is his best work. But all of this takes me further and further away from writing about his work, and perhaps that is more than just laziness. Seth is my favourite, and one is reluctant to reduce a favourite.

Both works are "From the Sketchbook of the Cartoonist 'Seth'", that is, he presents them as informal works. He treats them as a personal creation (though he admits in the introduction that this is a wilful delusion) and is loose and playful, and with Wimbledon Green he is experimental. Seeing a skilled but sometimes austere artist like Seth gambolling off on a loose comic romp is a joy, and there is surprising depth here, interleaved with the foolishness.

Wimbledon Green is "the greatest comic book collector in the world", in a story that imagines collectors as being super heroic. Green in particular is part superhero, with his hazy origin story, his henchmen and so forth. Or perhaps he is a supervillain, with his dubious means and selfish outcomes. As with both hero and villain, those that provide commentary on him oscillate between awe, fear and resentment.

The story is told through a series of vignettes, with talking heads alternating with more adventurous segments. Various collectors and comic book store owners offer their stories and impressions of Green, and we see first hand the moment of his great discovery, and the story of his childhood genesis. Seth explains his experiment in the introduction; He was inspired by artists like Chris Ware and Daniel Clowes, who have told complex stories through a series of loosely connected strips2. As a sketchbook project, though, he just started drawing and he appears to be discovering the story and the characters as he goes along, rather than illuminating a fully formed idea. The pieces don't entirely fit, and I think the key to the vignette-style of story telling is that works best if the author understands what he is unveiling clearly, such that vantages can be selected that are both interesting and fundamental. The defects here are mitigated by the lack of overall seriousness of the work — I can forgive the chunks that don't quite fit because they are light and entertaining3.

In the middle of the work is a 40+ page section that centres on a race between Green and adversaries to capture a comic book MacGuffin. Told in two long narrative sequences with an intermission to profile one of the introduced characters ("Jonah", a villainous and unflattering version of Seth himself) and an explanation of the nature of the MacGuffin in question. All of this section is told in a packed 4x5 grid, with only occasional panel joins, with each panel not much more than an inch square and drawn in a looser, more comic style than his formal work. The race sequences are boisterous and fast moving, and unlike anything by Seth I had read before.

Other sequences, like the final series, are wistful reflection in a classic Seth mode of storytelling: A primary character walks through an evocative space, narrating a personal history full of tender loss. But unlike the similar sequences in Clyde Fans, the character here has the ability to renew and escape. The introduction has altered my reading (particularly of this section), and my suggestion to readers is to skip the introduction on the first pass, then read it and at least selectively re-read.

Seth has a talent and obvious affection for creating history, particularly from the turn of the century to about the mid-1970s. His fictionalized history of comics is often more interesting than his history of collectors, perhaps because it is somewhat more passionate. Throughout the work are pages featuring "Selections from the library of Wimbledon Green", featuring covers and short catalogue descriptions ("Fatsy #7, mint-1965, infamous flatulence issue-most copies destroyed $3000", "Be A Man #1, near mint-1942, strangely homoerotic $2350"). These covers are funny, but credible enough that I have to admit I googled a couple to see if he had inserted a few real titles as a joke.

My favourite section takes this idea and gives it depth. "Fine and Dandy: A Short Talk by Wimbledon Green" is an 8 page history of a favourite but largely forgotten series by fictional comic legend Lester Moore, featuring odd-couple hobos Fine and Dandy. Green treats us to the outline of the series, with notes on reoccurring characters and running gags, and a selection of highlights from the sadly truncated run of 36 issues. Here his 4x5 grid opens up with a 2x2 cameo on each page, and we toggle back and forth between the narrative view and excerpts from the comic. Were these sorts of comics ever really as good as the fictional ones here? Probably not, but it doesn't matter, we get to enjoy the creation within a creation and Seth couldn't balance his creativity and wistfulness in a more believable and engaging way.

The portrait of an evaporating or lost creation, tangled with the success and failure of the creator, is likely Seth's most persistent story line. In Clyde Fans and George Sprott it is beautiful but the depth of the loss is somewhat oppressive; the touch of lightness here is a lovely change. And that is perhaps how to view the work as a whole. The ideas and personality of the artist remain on full display, but there is a buoyant frothiness here that is refreshing without being entirely silly. Fair warning, it is indeed silly in places. And I have to admit, a lot of the mystery around Green is coy and contrived.

Late in the novel is a four page story called "In the Temple of Newsprint", which details Green's day to day routine. Each day, he picks two works from his collection (one comic, one print) and studies each for an hour, taking notes. A lot of comic work is perhaps deserving this sort of contemplation; while both the text and the artwork is deceivingly sparse, there is so much nuance. The feel of the line work, the abstractions of form, the colouring and composition, the pacing and play of the text. Much more than prose, comics are variable speed reading. You could read this novel in 30 minutes, or spend many hours. Or like me, rocket along then get stuck on a panel here and there. Certainly in a novel you can get snagged by a sentence, but in a comic are a half dozen aspects each with as much nuance as a sentence. In a great comic, these aspects all play and fight with each other.

Perhaps I will follow Green's (and Seth's) cue here, and pull an older Chris Ware volume off my lonely shelf, and spend an hour with it.


  1. I buy all the books he writes, but couldn't possibly keep up with the books he designs. His book design work has become somewhat of a brand-name, I think.
  2. Clowes' Wilson is an extreme example, where the story of the protagonist's life is told entirely from single page strips, one after another. Clowes varies the style and tone significantly between comics, which allows style choices to be an expressive element in the story.
  3. Seth returned to this style of fragmented storytelling in a subsequent polished work: George Sprott, which is much more organized and cohesive, but also much more serious.


Everyman by Philip Roth

Philip Roth, 2006, 192p.
I've wanted to read something by Philip Roth since the excellent Writers & Company interview with Roth in the spring1. It isn't particularly surprising that I never have; I have read astonishingly little. I have had a bit more time and inclination to read over the last few months, and it is hard not to be overwhelmed with great choices. It is easy to feel like you don't even know enough to start making choices. The desire to seek shelter in lists is enormous — "10 Great Novels of the 20th Century"-this and "The Western Canon"-that2. Roth shows up in most of these lists as a key voice, and an astonishingly consistent one. He has won awards, written bestsellers, and regularly makes critic's and reader's lists for this and that, and he has for 50 years. My library provides NoveList to subscribers, which provides "start with" guidance to readers for a given author, and this was the selection for Roth3. As usual, inspiration combined with science and the library to place this novel at the top of my list.

The novel opens with the funeral of the protagonist, in a run down Jewish cemetery with deep family connection. His daughter and brother speak at length, his second ex-wife reflects on the impossibility of the situation, his bitter sons throw dirt on the coffin. His brother casts light on their childhood as sons of a jeweller in Elizabeth, New Jersey in the 1930s and 1940s, and on the bones of his life. While the skeleton materializes quickly (three wives, three children, one sibling, advertising creative who retired to paint) the mysteries materialize too. Why are his sons cold and bitter? What happened to these marriages? Why did he grow cold to his brother in his final year? What isn't mysterious is that the protagonist had medical problems for years.

With the external view of him in retrospect settled, the body of the novel addresses his life from within, and is structured primarily by his medical history. The book moves through his childhood hernia operation (his first night sleeping in a strange place away from family) to his final heart problems with seven operations in seven years, the last fatal. While we learn the story of the life and the struggles of his body, many of the mysteries from the funeral are revealed. How two of his marriages ended, and how two of them started. We learn about his relationships with his children, we learn about his final years. While we skip back and forth, the medical history mostly progresses serially. So many at the end of their lives tell their stories as a sequence of surgeries and illness, here is a whole life told this way.

Most readers will not find him wholly sympathetic, particularly his choices and impulses that lead to of the end of his second marriage. Nor will many enjoy his bleak but lucid outlook on his situation. But he is largely honest and aware of his mistakes and embarrassed by his troubling desires. He might unconvincingly justify his actions at times, but with a hint of resignation rather than anger. Genuine anger seems to bloom in him only with regards to his sons, who find any forgiveness impossible, and harbour sneering rage for decades. And perhaps there is some unfocused anger about his health, which bleeds into his relationship with his brother.

The title "Everyman" comes from the name of the unnamed protagonist's father's jewellery store; he picked the name to suggest that the jewellery was accessible to all, but also to avoid the challenges of a Jewish name. Roth invites the reader to determine in what way our nameless protagonist is "everyman"4, but it is clear that he isn't a typical "everyman" character. The structure of his childhood and adult life are not universal, and the reader isn't particularly welcome to identify with him. He is an everyman only in that he lived, he ages and he dies, and there is some universality in all of these.

If this sounds bleak, in places it is. But in my reading, at least, it was bleak with a profound tenderness. There are a series of vignettes around death and aging that I think dance between something universal and something genuinely embodied. The protagonist teaches a painting class for a time in his retirement community, and he has an encounter there with a woman coping with persistent, horrible back pain, but without her husband who was (or she feels was) the key to her vigour. Her predicament is both immediate and unreachable, and Roth's tenderness towards her is cutting but never pitying, and always matter of fact.

Roth's work here is tremendously skilled, circling around ideas, peeking at them from a couple of angles before the reader finds themselves submerged in them. The method allows him to work mostly in an accessible and undramatic way. The patterns and approaches become clear after you are finished; the reader's repeated visits to the same rundown ceremony build things up carefully, then leave the reader alone with the results. This sort of careful, human work tends to shatter me in the most rewarding way, and I have to admit I felt overwhelmed when I finished.

In reading this novel (and currently reading his American Pastoral) I am developing sympathy with Roth's desire that literature be left to the readers and the reading. Trying to discuss or review or explain this sort of work feels like a disservice or worse. I should just say I revelled in the skill, was engaged by the narrative and moved by whatever there is here that goes beyond the narrative.


  1. Elinor Wachtel's interview with Roth is worthwhile. They discuss Everyman, but because he gives interviews so rarely, she discussed his whole career with her usual depth. I've occasionally joked that I could never be an author because I don't remember my childhood well enough to answer Wachtel's questions.
  2. Particularly overwhelming is Harold Bloom's list from The Western Canon with about a hundred key books before you reach Dante.
  3. The NoveList recommendation here seems very sound; this work is short, accessible and full of what I understand are key themes and settings for Roth. I think that the "start with" advice is somewhat uneven; I am not sure I would start Pynchon with Gravity's Rainbow, as it suggests.
  4. The NPR Fresh Air interview with Roth about Everyman explains his reasoning for leaving the character nameless. I love listening to Roth, but I don't think that this is a particularly good interview. My alternate theory about the lack of a name is that it is due to Roth's clear antipathy towards critics and writers about literature — they, like me above, are force to write "the protagonist" and "the unnamed narrator" and other similarly clumsy chore phrases.