“It’s about this really unlucky guy who finally hits rock bottom and ends up getting killed in a case of mistaken identity…And here’s the thing. The man writing the story is gay, and he hangs around this other guy and just observes him” (41).
A typical representation of trauma in narrative is where one character reports on another’s horrific or mysterious death. Psychological trauma thus becomes identified with concepts like loss, mourning and memory that demand analysis and interpretation of the relationship’s meaning, as if a relationship can only be properly understood after it has been traumatised. Furthermore, the dead other transforms into something like a saintly cipher. Who was that person? What did he or she mean? Through asking such questions, the character who lives on comes to understand something about him or herself.
Natsume Ono’s manga Not Simple presents such a relationship between two characters, Jim and Ian, where Jim is in a position to interpret Ian’s trauma. Jim writes a novel about the traumatic life of his friend and then disappears. While Not Simple has an omniscient point of view, the relationship it creates between Jim and Ian recalls novels like Moby-Dick and The Great Gatsby in which the narrator acts as a lens through which we see the main character’s story, as if perceiving that story directly would be like staring at the sun. But the relationship between the teller and the told-about creates a feedback that makes us think about what the story means to the teller. In Moby-Dick, Ahab remains after the wreck of the Pequod, the only survivor to report on events. In Not Simple, Jim would appear to be in Ishmael’s position, but ultimately he is not the “voice” of this manga, tempting as it may be to put him in that role. Rather, he is the enigma of the narrative: the mysterious counterpart to the all-too-clear story of his friend.
Jim’s interest in Ian starts when he interviews him for a Melbourne newspaper. Ian is a competitive runner who creates curiosity when he extravagantly celebrates finishing fourth in a race. In the course of this interview, Ian reveals things about himself that Jim can’t use for the paper, but preserves for an idea for a novel. From then on the two are linked. When Ian discovers that his lost sister is in America, he accompanies Jim, who has a new job in New York. Ian drifts away from Jim in his search for his sister, but always returns to haunt him.
At first read of Not Simple, Ian, with his horrible life, is the dominant character; the story is structured around his search for his sister across the United States. Ian’s story is so complex that it would take two pages to account for its twists. Here are the key points:
Ian’s story depicts the worst possible life one could imagine. Consequently, we might dismiss it as implausible, overly melodramatic, or perhaps only distasteful to bourgeois taste (because we know many people live such lives of disaster and ruin). Ian’s narrative is what Greek tragedy looks like when the characters aren’t kings and queens. And with its incest plot and uncanny revelations, Not Simple is something of an Oedipus story.
“Not simple” refers not only to the plot but also to Ian himself. He initially appears to be somewhat simple– “a person unclouded by too much thought” as Jim puts it (181)– in the way he accepts the things that happen to him without much reaction. For example when he tells the story of his experience as a child prostitute, he does so without any affect or moral indignation, as if he doesn’t know that it is strange or wrong. And Ian persists in his belief in the integrity of families, no matter how terrible or ‘not simple’ they are. This lack of reaction, as a form of understatement, sparks our own horrified response.
We expect Jim to respond as well. But he and his friend Rick just tell Ian not to talk about his prostitution experience with anyone else. Jim remains an observer even in the most traumatic moments. For example, the one time that Ian does shaken–when he returns from visiting his sister’s ex-boyfriend, who turns out to be the pimp who gave him gum in exchange for sex–Jim immediately puts on his jacket to go visit the pimp for information for his novel. Jim’s relationship to Ian is not quite prurient, but it has a dimension that makes us question his ethics. He seems to be using Ian as raw material for his novel, with a writer’s objective distance. But this indulgence in someone else’s trauma makes us see that Ian is a mirror for Jim, a way of coming to grips with his own problems.
Whereas Ian’s story is all about shocking revelation, Jim’s is about quiet repression. Ian desperately seeks his family, but Jim carefully avoids his because of their reaction to his sexuality: “Here I am trying to avoid my family…but they keep finding me. Meanwhile, Ian’s still searching for his family…” (208). The image of Jim that stands out is him standing before the phone or a phone booth on the verge of making a call home. Ian’s traumatic life, coupled with his nonchalant response to it, exposes Jim’s inability to deal with his own family issues, the biggest of which is his father’s inability to accept his homosexuality. When Jim does make a call to his family, and his mother tells him that his father has rethought his position and that he can come home, we see that as the sticking point of the story. The plot of mistaken identity involving Ian, murdered by an angry father who believes he is his daughter’s boyfriend, appears as a displacement of Jim’s own fears of paternal retribution. No forgiveness from his family can relieve these fears–the manga repeats the image of characters whose faces have been bandaged after they have been struck by family members. By representing Jim in this way, Not Simple is not so much criticizing him as presenting his position as complex to balance Ian’s apparent simplicity.
Jim’s response to Ian’s death is to narrativize it. He immediately starts thinking about writing his book, figuring out characters and names: “You’ll be in it too…Your name’ll be…Alicia” (34). So doing, he neatly packages up the traumatic experience and pushes it away from himself. Not Simple is not Jim’s novel; rather it is the graphic displacement of that narrative so that it re-frames the focus of interpretation and mystery. We know everything there is to know about Ian, in all its melodramatic horror. Jim, the writer/novelist, becomes the cipher. And with that twist, Natsume Ono turns Not Simple from a narrative that lays out a traumatic story for all to see to one that conceals its traumatic kernel and maintains its secrecy.
Ono, Natsume. Trans. Joe Yamazaki. Not Simple. San Francisco: Viz Media 2010.