A Wilson Notebook
by Jeet Heer
Wednesday, September 15, 2010
As soon as Clowes’s new graphic novel was published I read it one gulp. But I didn’t want to write about it immediately away because it’s a book that deserved careful and slow re-reading. I’ve gone back to it often. Here are a few notes.
Initial impact. It’s hard not to fall into clichéd language of book reviewing: Wilson hit me like a punch in the stomach. Wilson is such a great character. He takes misanthropy to a new height while remaining all too humanly frail. The phrase “painfully funny” gets thrown around but I think Clowes reached a new limit in telling a story that is both hilarious but also sad and harrowing.
Nabokov? This mixture of pain and comedy called to mind Nabokov, so I think Tim picked up the right scent when he called the book Nabokovian (although Tim later retracted the word). At first I even thought that Claire’s move to Alaska with husband and son is an echo of Lolita’s final break with Humbert Humbert, which also involved a move to Alaska. But then it was suggested to me that maybe there is an element of social commentary in Clare’s move: that she’s making a break from Wilson’s tawdry bohemian ways and embracing the values of her adopted parents and Palin’s America.
Orphic hero. Clowes’ works have a great variety but there are a few key themes and storylines he keeps returning to. In Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron, the hero goes in search of his former lover, who seems to be intertwined in a sordid sexual subculture. This basic plot, with variations of course, is reworked in David Boring and Wilson. If one were to apply Northrop Frye’s archetypical criticism to Clowes, we could say that he is constantly retelling the myth of Orpheus: the hero who descends into the underworld in a failed attempt to rescue his love. The creepy guitar-strumming antagonist in Velvet Glove can be seen as a kind of anti-Orpheus. The guitar is the modern counterpart to Orpheus’ lyre.
A crime writer? Clowes first major work was a parody of detective fiction, Lloyd Llewellyn. He’s matured since that earlier work but he’s never abandoned the crime genre, which provides a backdrop to almost all his longer narratives. In almost every Clowes story of any length there is a crime, and often the forces of law and order hover nearby, although never at the center of the narrative. Often enough in Clowes’s stories, the police are not far from being thugs themselves. They have the same appetite for violence as gangsters. Criminality, the breaking of the social convention, is an impulse common in Clowes’s universe.
Big nosed horniness. The stylistic variety of Wilson deserves close scrutiny but for now I’ll simply note that whenever Wilson is horny he’s drawn in a broadly exaggerated big-foot style, although the part of his body that is most prominently large is his nose. In traditional comedy, the big-nosed clown was a symbol of farcical lust.
Rants and low-key fiction. In the fondly remembered early issues of Eightball, Clowes would often do a brief comic rant. These rants usually featured either Clowes himself or a thinly veiled a stand-in character who would make hilarious but socially unacceptable about the world. I’m thinking here of “Art School Confidential”, “I Hate You Deeply”, “The Truth”, “Chicago”, “On Sports”, etc. Later on, Clowes abandoned this form and started to write more low key fictional stories which were based on character and incident, not opinion: Ghost World, Caricature, etc. One way to think about Wilson is to see that Clowes has found a way to combine these two very different modes: Wilson is a ranter who gives voice to rude truths, but he’s also a fictional character caught up in an unfolding story, the outcome of which he doesn’t know. In effect, Clowes has taken the ranting impulse but put it in a context where it gives us much more than a quick laugh, because we start to see the limits of the ranter himself. In many ways, Wilson is Clowes turning inward on his own earlier artistic impulses, subjecting them to analysis.
Permission to narrate. An Israeli author once told me she overcame a major writer block after her father died. She said her analyst explained how it happened: the death of a parent gives us permission to narrate our own life. Now Wilson is never a character who needs permission to talk. But it is true that at the beginning of the story he’s blocked in his life, trapped in a repetitive, dead-end existence. When Wilson’s dad dies, Wilson becomes more active. He has permission to start turning his life into more than a serious of gags, to try and make his existence into a story with meaning. Of course, the story he creates by his actions is far from ideal.