Friday, 27 July 2012

The Underwater Welder review

It’s taken me a while to gather my thoughts about this, as I tried to analyse why it didn’t work for me. But first, a bit about the story and premise. The Underwater Welder of the title is Jack, an English graduate on the cusp of parenthood who has returned with his wife to live  and work in the coastal town of his childhood. On his final dive before he takes paternal leave, Jack spies an old pocket-watch on the ocean bed. The pocket watch instigates a strange reaction in him – he is at once sure it is the very watch his father gave him when he was a boy and is convinced it is his father’s voice he can hear emanating thinly from it. Mesmerised and disturbed, he  fails to respond to the calls of his crew-mates over the radio and slips into unconsciousness. After being bought back to the boat, Jack is banned from diving until the cause of his blackout is established.


Jack is in no doubt about the reality of what he experienced- he returns home to his pregnant wife, adamant and determined to dive again as soon as possible. Ostensibly this is to retrieve the pocket-watch, but in fact it is so Jack can connect with his father again. Through a series of flashbacks,  Lemire shows us why Jack is so keen to hear his father’s voice again: he disappeared one Halloween after failing to turn up to take Jack trick and treating and there has been no trace og him since. An alcoholic, the common, unspoken assumption is that inebriated, the sea had eventually taken care of what was an accident waiting to happen. With Halloween and his own impending fatherhood looming, Jack’s mind is a  whirlpool of emotion, a fuse that is lit by the pocket-watch incident, bringing his father’s unresolved disappearance to the fore.

As he becomes increasingly fixated, Jack finds himself transported to a deserted, alternative version of his hometown – what appears to be a combination of another dimension and his childhood past. It’s unclear whether Jack’s plight is physical or merely a representation of his fractured mental state, but what is clear is that he can’t escape. Stuck and unable to return to his everyday reality, he must first work out his issues if he is to make his way home to his wife and unborn son.

I’m a big fan of all the Lemire books I’ve read so far- Essex County, Lost Dogs, Sweet Tooth, his take on Animal Man. This book however,  left me a bit cold. It has a strange kind of disconnect to it, part of which can be labelled as a deliberate choice and effect – it reflects the disconnect of the main character and his tribulations. The big problem I had was struggling to  find a point of entry in terms of empathising or relating to Jack in any way. Some of this may be due to personal apathy, but he’s simply not an engaging enough character – listless and almost intangible. Understandably, his father’s disappearance has defined him to some extent, but there appear to be no other facets to his personality. Jack’s obsession to find out more about his father is explicable, but doesn’t really ring true,-there’s no depth of feeling to it, perhaps because the reader is given so little time to get to know Jack.  His wife, Susie, and his mother, with much less page time, come across as more distinct personalities.

Again this may be me, but this felt very much like a male-centric book. The father/son relationship is not the same as the mother/daughter or father/daughter dynamic, so it feels as if it’s playing to a specific spectrum. The story overall failed to engross or resonate on any level. Too much of it was predictable- going exactly where you think it will, without anything of note occurring. The whole cyclical father-son-baby motif seemed forced – I’m notoriously oblivious to imagery and such, but the first thing I thought on seeing the picture below was figure in diving suit=foetus, cables=umbilical cord, once again reinforcing the idea of Jack’s abandonment and parental anxiety. Lemire’s art is a standout here- he has a very distinctive scrawly, seemingly slapdash style, which reveals its accomplishments the more you look at it. It’s a style I enjoy and it’s showcased here to great effect with splash pages and double page spreads. Sadly, it wasn’t enough for me to connect with the book as I found myself turning the pages just to get to the end.

(review originally published at Forbidden Planet International Blog)

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