As someone who has lost some people this year, the subject of grieving has weighed heavily on my thinking, not only as someone dealing with grief but also as someone trying to understand it from a more distant, academic sense. I’ve sought out works of fiction, new and old, that deal with the myriad ways of grieving, and there are a lot of ways: the misplaced guilt of losing a child in The Truth About Celia, the discovery in loss of both Bag of Bones and Lisey’s Story, the awestruck speculation on death of The Virgin Suicides. In Franny and Zooey, Salinger illustrates the overwhelming surprise of outside emotions in the middle of grief, as narrator Buddy Glass writes of the ‘hilarious pint of pus’ he overhears a woman telling her friend about on an airplane on his way to pick up his brother’s body.
Grief, then, is a fluid and indescribable thing: there is no textbook case of it, no right or wrong way to go through it. In No One Else, R. Kikuo Johnson captures a precise understanding of grieving (or not grieving) by the deflection of negative feelings into selfish sub-plots of hurt.
Following the death of a medically infirm, elderly father, the three primary characters of the graphic novel each find ways of redirecting their emotions as a way of processing through them.
Charlene’s life has so long been structured around juggling her medical career, her role as a mother, and taking care of her ever-worsening father that his death signifies a paradigm shift, and so she changes everything. She quits her job and throws herself into studying for med school, neglecting her son Brandon as she does so. The house sinks into a state of filth, credit cards go unpaid. So singular is her focus — so much does she insist on avoiding the present to rectify the career arrested by her father’s infirmity — that she neglects to inform any of her family of her father’s death.
Brandon, perhaps, has a stronger reason to avoid grief: it was his misplaced quilt that led to his grandfather’s mortal fall, though he is almost certainly too young to grapple with that fact. His tragedy is closer to hand: his dear cat, Batman, has gone missing. It’s a fact that Brandon doesn’t even notice until he hides his grandfather’s ashes away.
The yearning of a kid for their lost pet is likely the closest No One Else gets to directly confronting the emotions of loss: Johnson refuses to show us the actual action of the old man’s death, preferring to silently present us its evidence, skipping over the major traumas; the story of his cremation is presented in one single page, the quiet blues broken up by the book’s one lone highlight color of orange.
Charlene’s brother, who arrives home from tour only to find his father dead for nearly a month, doesn’t get the news until other, small talk-ish details are made more urgent.
Robbie’s diversion of grief comes in the form of attempting to fix things: to take care of neglected Brandon, to insist that his sister grieves “correctly”, to take on the role of news-bearer and event planner. His relationship with his father was the most strained of the book, and it is his grief to reconcile those emotions.
Johnson neglects to explain these things to us, preferring to illustrate the quiet moments that more accurately explain a person their own grief; it’s in unexpected moments when revelation comes to a mourner, the places between conversations and distractions.
No One Else might be one of the most subtle, poignant books about grief I’ve experienced, this year or any other. Every part of the book — from the perfect draftsmanship to the lull of repetition of silent six-grids — feels like a telling, insightful detail, as if the book is willing to give us our own time to come to terms with it. The reader might be hard-pressed to explain the precise architecture of the story after reading it, but the landmark emotional beats stand out clearly. The details of how we come to the end of our grief are never clear, but the reconciliation of it feels immensely beautiful.
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