Meet the Biographer of a Man Who Never Lived

Warren Lehrer is touring the country with a multimedia presentation of his meticulously illustrated chronicle of the fictional fiction author Bleu Mobley.
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Lehrer performs a reading of A Life in Books.

A Life in Books: The Rise and Fall of Bleu Mobley, is an illustrated biography of an alternately best-selling and dejected author, currently serving time in prison, told through anecdotes about and excerpts from his 101 published books. There’s one thing that sets it apart from most other literary biographies: The subject, Bleu Mobley, is fictional.

It took Warren Lehrer, a writer, illustrator, designer and pioneer of “visual literature,” more than eight years to invent Bleu Mobley and to flesh out his life story and his books.  I wrote about the book two years ago when it was still a work in progress. It was just published by GOFF Books, and now Lehrer's fabrication is also leaping off the page.

“In my live appearances, I present myself (as I do in the book) as the editor/compiler of this book on the life and work of Bleu Mobley,” Lehrer says. “I explain that I am a longtime admirer of Bleu’s work, am fascinated by life his story, and honored (and surprised) that he agreed to my doing a book on him.”

Lehrer’s performance begins with an audio recording of Bleu whispering into a microcassette recorder from the darkness of his prison cell. Lehrer animated the words through kinetic typography so audiences get a visual feeling of what it’s like inside Bleu’s insomniac mind. The audio quality is poor, but even so, “Some people have remarked on how similar Mobley’s voice is to mine, and that we have other things in common, too,” Lehrer says. “But in a lot of ways we’re very different. He never had a father, for instance. He wrote 101 books. I’ve only written 10. I may be obsessed with my subject, and bursting with all things Bleu Mobley, but I’m not confused about where I end and he begins.”

Lehrer’s job in putting this biography together was to present evidence of Bleu Mobley, the man and his books, side by side: “Now it’s up to each reader to decide whether Mobley is an important man of letters or a sell-out, a champion of the voiceless, or an elitist hypocrite, the conscience of America, or an ungrateful traitor. And if his story is a parable of the rise and fall of a culture, or a swan song for the book itself as a medium?”

A Life in Books is a bit like a Russian Matryoshka doll. Nested within the tale of Mobley's life are 101 book covers and 34 excerpts that read like short stories. “Mobley claims to have never written about himself,” Lehrer says, falling into his voice as third-party biographer. “Yet in this juxtaposition of memoir and monograph we discover him and the people he loves sluicing through all his books, however obliquely.”

Lehrer skillfully follows Bleu’s life as writer and designer. The fake author’s first book—which he composed and printed in the letterpress shop of his junior high school—is about a magical experience he had one day, watching the sunset with his manic-depressive artist mother at a marshland in New Jersey. Lehrer’s real-life wife, the actress and oral historian Judith Sloan, actually performs the whole text of that 14-page book during his live presentations. “It draws people in right away to the idea that Mobley creates books as a way of making sense of the world around him,” Lehrer says.

Since he cannot afford to tour with an entire cast, Lehrer has produced short video vignettes. In the filmed version of Bleu’s 1998 novel No More Mrs. Niceguy: Confessions of a Nice Catholic Girl, actress and performance poet Caridad de la Luz, a.k.a. La Bruja, plays Paula Martinez. A dutiful daughter, wife, mother, and church member, Paula is diagnosed with cancer and soon discovers her own voice through the transformative power of hard-earned rage. The novel grows out of the experience of Bleu’s daughter Frida being diagnosed with a rare and potentially deadly blood disease. After three years—going to scores of doctors, dozens of labs, too many clinics, treatment centers, and hospitals—Frida becomes an expert at waiting her turn, but impatient when it comes to being bullshitted. “Paula isn’t Frida, just like Bleu isn’t me,” Lehrer says, “but La Bruja’s moving performance helps demonstrate Bleu’s use of fiction as way of getting at the truth.”

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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