Wilson by Daniel Clowes
I enjoyed Daniel Clowes’ ‘Justin M. Damiano’, his contribution to Zadie Smith’s Book of Other People, and bought his novel David Boring on the strength of it. As usual, I never got around to reading it, and as usual, it ended up being leapfrogged by a new book of his which caught my eye.
It would catch yours too. Wilson is published as a large hardback, A4 size, with a glossy cover, like a children’s annual. Its ‘hero’ peers out at us – uncertainly? beseechingly? – looking faintly ridiculous with his too-large head. This book, we are told, is Clowes’ “first original graphic novel”: his others were serialised before appearing in book form.
This makes Clowes’ structure and format all the more interesting. The book is a series of around 70 single-page vignettes of Wilson’s life, from midlife to old age. What makes it especially interesting is how the strips change according to context. The first strip, for example, in isolation reads like a simple comic ‘reverse’:
But after reading the rest of the book, we recognise it as an indicator of his effortful – and always failed – attempts to conquer his worst sociopathic qualities. He tries – my god, how he tries – but Wilson, sure enough, is not a people person after all. On another page, his attempts to make polite smalltalk with a stranger at a coffee shop are met with increasingly terse responses, until a silent frame passes (the beat; the comic timing that the graphic format enables) and Wilson shouts, “Hey, shithead – I’m talking to you!” It’s a joke, but funny mainly because it’s not funny.
Time and again Wilson screws up by falling back on ‘jokes’, sarcasm and anger. The emotional heft of the story is between the thick pages, not on them. This means that the reader is well advised not to rush through from scene to scene (though it’s awfully tempting to do just that), but pace them and space them, like a collection of stories. We see only the absurd and grotesque moments, and between pages anything from hours to years can pass. Soon we realise just why Wilson keeps striking up conversations with strangers.
Here again the last frame tops the page off: it’s a punchline, just not a funny one. What Clowes does so well is to trick the reader so that sometimes, what appears to be a silly or surreal moment in the last frame – a WTF! moment – turns out to be straight, sincere and a stiletto-like incision into Wilson’s character. The drawing style of the strips varies, reflecting aspects of the man: a comic exaggeration, a monochrome dullard, a suffering noir hero. We learn more about how alone Wilson is, that he doesn’t have a job, that his dog Pepper is his only regular companion, and that he keeps meaning to ring his elderly father, until eventually his father rings him.
Wilson goes to visit his father, leaving Pepper with the dog-sitter (“Nothing serious, I hope.” “Hell yes, it’s serious!”), and the ill-fated conversations with strangers and the anti-punchlines continue. Increasingly (“Oh God, it’s so terrible the way people live!”), they seem to represent more closely Wilson’s comment on his own life than on the lives of others (“I mean, Christ – do you realize how ridiculous you sound?”).
As the story continues in its staccato way, we find that Wilson has more family members than we – or he – realised. The emotional background of the man, and the book, begins to fill up, back to front. However, Clowes never allows his character easy get-outs, or simplistic – cartoonish – moral development. Near the end, when Wilson does have a moment of epiphany (“I am a beautiful creature! I’m a living monument to nature’s genius! I’m alive and breathing and strong! A million-in-one fucking miracle”), it is forced, ironic – and, to top it off, delivered to a stranger (perhaps the same stranger) in a coffee shop.
Wilson is embarrassing, excruciating, funny and satisfying. The artwork is unobtrusive, but essential: the structure of the book would be less effective and the force of the story mostly absent without it. To conclude in a way as conflicted as the man himself, on the one hand the book feels like a piece of standard literary fiction given wings by its graphic novelty. On the other, Wilson seems to me to be a small revelation, not just for its structure and form, but for the quality of its content.
John Self is a prolific literary blogger from the UK. He maintains the blog, Asylum.