Diving into Shallow Waters: Jeff Lemire’s The Underwater Welder

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For years, on days where work, school, and general daily responsibilities got tough, I would ask Generoso what occupation would make sense for the rest of our lives, and he would often fervently respond with, “UNDERWATER WELDER!!!”

Underwater welder (or amateur canine dentist, but that’s a career to be discussed at another time) has been a fake occupation Generoso and I have each claimed as our livelihood. Consequently, when I was perusing through the shelves of Million Year Picnic a couple weeks ago and stumbled upon Jeff Lemire’s The Underwater Welder, I knew I had to read it if only for my own excitement to see a full novel about a job Generoso and I have been speaking about for so long.

Cover of The Underwater Welder

Jack Joseph grew up in Tigg’s Bay, Nova Scotia and has never been able to leave the place. Attached to the ocean and the isolation he gains in his work as an underwater welder for oil rigs, Jack spends more time underwater than on land where he and his wife Suse live and are expecting a baby in the coming month. Jack’s father’s disappearance and supposed drowning haunts him, and from the onset of The Underwater Welder, we get a strong sense that Jack has displaced his dissatisfaction with the ambiguity of his father’s end into his work. Sure Jack’s occupation allows him to dwell in the ocean, a place where he has always found comfort, but it also gives him a very faint chance of hope to one day find any clue of his late father’s disappearance into the ocean.

On Halloween two decades later, the almost too coincidental anniversary day of his father’s disappearance, Jack dives down as he has every year (he always makes sure that he is at work on Halloween) and finds a remnant of his father: a pocket watch Jack’s father had found on a treasure hunting dive. Despite the tangibility of this one buried piece of personal treasure, Jack, upon picking it up, gets sent into what appears to be another dimension and then blacks out.

Fortunately, Jack’s work has various checks in place to protect the welders, and this time, his partner, who by protocol monitors him through the radio, immediately signals for help when he loses communication with Jack, and other welders manage to rescue him. Upon waking up , Jack is disoriented and confused, and something just does not feel right.

After observation by a doctor, Jack returns home to his wife, and despite her need and request for him to remain on land with her during the last minutes of her pregnancy, he feels a relentless urge to return to the ocean to follow the only lead he has to finding his father. After so many years of hoping for his father’s unlikely return, Jack is closer than ever to learning what happened 20 years ago on Halloween, but his current responsibilities to his wife mean he should postpone his desire to answer the question always lingering in the back of his mind.

However, Jack has always had a conflict about where exactly he belongs: in the ocean or on the land, and this sudden discovery of the watch worsens the conflict. Despite his acknowledgement of his absence from most of his wife’s pregnancy and his failure to support her emotionally, Jack returns to the ocean, hypnotized by the memories of his father and the supernatural occurrence he experienced with the watch, pulling him further and further away from his wife and his life with her.

At its heart, The Underwater Welder is an exploration of grief over a flawed relationship and very flawed loved one. Despite the extraordinary circumstance Jack finds himself in, all of his time in the ocean, whether working, looking for the pocket watch, or traveling to an alternate world, leaves him obsessed with his own past, seeking answers for his father’s demise, which will ultimately lead to no change. Jack still has a wife. Jack still has a baby on the way. Jack still has a mother who cares for him. Yet, his fixation on his father has led him to neglect all of them and unable to progress in his own reality.

A release of Jack’s haunting memories set at the bottom of the ocean, The Underwater Welder certainly has an alluring setting and premise, but unfortunately feels all too contrived. Advertised as a never-before-produced episode of The Twilight Zone, it lacks the looseness necessary to make the story an enormous success. Every moment is foreshadowed too heavily; the novel has little spontaneity to build an intriguing and entrancing mystery like an episode of The Twilight Zone. In addition, the climax, Jack’s final realization of why the pocket watch ended up on the floor of the ocean, borders a maudlin and overly sentimental territory, which defies the narrative’s own attempts to capture the nuances of Jack’s grief.

With the potential to triumph as a delicate and poignant novel about the obsession and displacement of loss, The Underwater Welder amounts to a simple, almost facile tale about a man who travels back in time through an underwater portal to try to find answers about his and his father’s past. Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights handles a similar theme of unearthing the ghosts of the past with much more grace and suspense. And in the graphic novel world, Dash Shaw’s Bottomless Belly Button, better and more effortlessly explores how finding answers to one’s own and loved ones’ pasts can allow people to progress in the present. Like the examples above, The Underwater Welder also blends reality with the supernatural but only to create a dull and trite story about getting closure for a loved one’s death, which is something most of us rarely even get. Early in the grieving process, we strive for closure but eventually realize that despite our efforts, closure will never bring our loved one back, and it most definitely will not uplift the pain and trauma of the loss.

The Underwater Welder is at best a framework of a story with some pretty visuals (though nothing groundbreaking) waiting to be further fleshed out and bulked up by someone else. Given that Lemire’s new series Descender already has plans to be adapted for the big screen, it would not be surprising if The Underwater Welder meets the same fate.

Let’s hope that whoever decides to transform The Underwater Welder into a film turns it toward a more experimental, fragmented, and nuanced direction, away from the mushy, sappy, family drama road it’s already driving down.

The Underwater Welder by Jeff Lemire is available via Top Shelf Productions.

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