Daniel Clowes, Wilson
Publisher: Drawn and Quarterly
2010, 77 pages, hardcover, $22
on the front cover, Wilson is shown standing stiffly on a sidewalk, fists loosely clenched, looking out at us, his prospective readers. His head is disproportionately large compared to the rest of his body. He looks ordinary enough—almost too ordinary to intrigue—and yet, perhaps for this very reason, one grows increasingly curious. Who exactly is this middle-aged fellow? If we turn to the back cover, we are given some clues, some labels. There we are told that Wilson is "a big-hearted slob, a lonesome bachelor, a devoted father and husband, an idiot, a sociopath, a delusional blowhard, a delicate flower." In their very celebration of that which is contradictory, these labels are as good as any. In this graphic novel, appropriately titled after its front-and-center star-protagonist, Daniel Clowes has created an imagined world full of humor and pain, poignancy and surprises. Wilson delights and entertains by offering up real emotional insight and a true sense of how life's illusory dimensions and nonsensical moments are inextricably linked with all that is genuine and enduring.
Clowes' masterful balance between the cruel and the heartfelt, the absurd and the profound, underscores much of the novel's hilarity. In the first panel, Wilson announces himself with cheery assurance. "I love people!" he declares while walking his dog. "How tragic," he goes on, "that we've lost all sense of community with our fellow man!" When he encounters a stranger who begins to complain about her computer crashing, it doesn't take long for Wilson's good will to evaporate. "For the love of Christ, don't you ever shut up?" Wilson says in the final frame. As the novel continues on and Wilson encounters other strangers, family members, "friends," or simply reflects in solitude, we see many such reversals that startle and delight, as they perfectly articulate Wilson's comical impatience and temper. The frequent laughter that Clowes induces is not hollow because it plays so adeptly—and never cheaply—with real sadness. We laugh as we empathize. In fact, the laughter deepens our empathy for Wilson and all his regrets for a past that is lost, all his bitterness and pain over an imperfect, often disappointing present that undercuts his bumbling yet authentic search for lasting solace, for perspective and purpose amidst life's vicissitudes.
As Clowes moves Wilson along from moment to moment, in mini-conversations at a café or on the telephone with his ailing father, the novel's wonderful slice-of-life quality is kept fresh and vital, even as a larger, pleasingly loose narrative gradually emerges. The span of time covered in the seventy-seven pages (each of which constitutes its own contained and titled section) encompasses a number of years. In the early sections, the death of Wilson's father impresses upon him the sheer totality of his isolation; and, as a result, he goes on a search to find his ex-wife, Pippi. Together, they track down their teenage daughter, whom Pippi had put up for adoption after leaving Wilson. In the later sections, after much water under the bridge (including an extended stint in prison), his daughter grows up, and Wilson discovers that he's a grandfather. With time's passage, it is difficult to articulate what exactly has changed in Wilson's behavior. As readers though, we are left with a level of clarity about this man that is positively cleansing.
In this heartbreaking, hysterically funny, and ultimately elevating graphic novel, Wilson's thoughts predominate. He lives in his mind but cannot create a life that matches his highest yearnings; he cannot quite make the leap into an actualized reality of peace and connectivity with others. And yet, though it would be misleading to say that Wilson achieves a radical expansion of wisdom over time, Clowes does grant him an endearing grace note in the story's final frames. As Wilson sits and watches the rain fall outside his window, his thought-bubbles progress from "Finally!" to "It's so obvious in a way, but it never even occurred to me!" and then, lastly, to "Of course that's it! Of course!" We are not told what this "it" is that he realizes. The final image is solely that of Wilson, a man who has blundered his way through so much speech, watching the rain in perfect silence. Emerging out of a hefty accumulation of pain and absurdity, it's a beautiful moment in an altogether sublime work of art.