I first read Jeff Lemire's Tales From The Farm last August and was wholeheartedly taken with his story telling and artistry. In Tales From the Farm, an imaginative boy named Lester rejects his uncle, his new guardian after his mother's death, in favour of a friendship with Jimmy Lebeuf, an ex-NHL player and head injury victim. It was the first book in Lemire's Essex County trilogy.
Ghost Stories, the second book in the trilogy, doesn't continue on where the first book left off. Instead, it delves a little deeper into the past, exploring the story of Jimmy's grandfather and great uncle, Vince and Lou Lebeuf respectively. Told through the memories of an aged and increasingly senile Lou, the book takes on much more adult themes. There were adult themes in Tales From The Farm, as well, but also plenty that a young teenager might connect with. I'd venture to say that not as many younger readers would be as interested in Ghost Stories. Loneliness, adultery, and decaying health and memory are major focal points this time around.
But for this adult reader, it was as good as the first in the series, if not better in some ways. I'm reading my copy of Ghost Stories in the collected Essex County trilogy and it features a wonderful introduction by Canadian cartoonist Darwyn Cooke. Essex County, he writes, "supercedes the labels 'graphic fiction' and even 'graphic literature'. This is a high watermark in Canadian Literature that can proudly rest beside the Lawrences, Richlers, and Atwoods on the big shelf."
Too much? Actually, if the third installment is anywhere near as good as the first two, I think I'll agree. It's interesting that the Canada Also Reads live discussion kept playing over in my head as I read Ghost Stories. Some of the panelists had accused CanLit of growing stale, offering dreary slow paced dramas, set in bleak landscapes and with humour capped at subtle irony.
I wonder what they'd think of Ghost Stories. Yes it's a dreary, slow paced drama, yes it's set in a bleak landscape, and what little humour it has mostly falls into the subtly ironic category. Sounds like CanLit to me. It's even a hockey story, for Gretzky's sakes! But it's not stale. This isn't another author trying to be the next Margaret Lawrence (who wasn't boring either, back when she blazed the trail). Ghost Stories is an author telling a story, a Canadian story, in a unique way. And I don't just mean it's Margaret Lawrence in comic book form, the artistry here is not run of the mill. It's beautiful and poetic and gives the story a whole new dimension so many others have failed to add. There are scenes, wordless scenes, that can break your heart. A man's life lies in the balance of an ink stroke.
I don't think those people who complained about CanLit necessarily meant they wanted all their books to run at supersonic speed with a joke in every other paragraph (though that could be fun). Tragic stories should still be permitted in Canada, just told in a more interesting way.