Saturday, June 19, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 136 (6/19) -- Wilson by Daniel Clowes

According to the back cover of this book -- and apparently hand-lettered by Clowes, which makes it somewhat more definitive than the usual run of back-cover descriptions -- Wilson, the main character of this new graphic novel, is...
a big-hearted slob
a lonesome bachelor
a devoted father and husband
an idiot
a sociopath
a delusional blowhard
a delicate flower
100% Wilsonesque
Wilson, though, in the actual stories in this book, shows no heart whatsover, is devoted to nothing but his own thoughts and obsessions, and has nothing delicate or flowerlike about him. The others are essentially true -- he is an obnoxious, opinionated, toxic mass of a failed human being. He comes across as the kind of character that might be played by Paul Giamatti in a particularly "real" indy movie, and the reader expects that Wilson will be the story of how he finds love, or peace, or at least accepts the validity of a world outside his own skull.

But that's not what Clowes is doing here; Clowes -- who was lapped by Chris Ware in the Despicable Loser Protagonist Sweepstakes (Comics Division) during the last decade and has clearly been spoiling to show what he can really do if he sets his mind to it -- wants to revel in Wilson's assholishness and nastiness. Things happen to Wilson in the course of the graphic novel, but he never really changes -- he gets older and more tired, but there's no real sense that he's mellowed, or learned anything, or even come to understand that other people actually exist outside of his perceptions of them.

Wilson contains seventy-one discrete single-page strips, each titled separately, which are arranged chronologically to tell the story of a large chunk of Wilson's life. (Clowes rotates through about half a dozen art styles over the course of these strips, moving from deeply cartoony to pseudo-minimalist to relatively realistic and back again -- but the strips themselves are so relentlessly similar in tone and subject that the art changes comes to feel like a gimmick rather than anything more interesting.) Wilson begins as an alienated middle-aged jerk in Oakland, wanders through some things resembling human relationships, and comes out at the other end older but not wiser -- or even any much more interesting to be with.

Wilson is short enough -- and slight enough, with each page being a separate episode -- to keep Wilson himself from grating on the reader too much; we may cringe at what he does, but he's doing something different (though, generally, equally cringeworthy) three panels later. It's difficult to say what the point of Wilson as a story is: that some people are just joyless knots of negativity? that seeking connection and life is a useless pose? that life is a sequence of painful moments, from which death will provide the only escape? There's nothing happy about Wilson (or Wilson), and it comes across as a terribly nihilistic vision -- either Wilson's view of the world is meant to be taken as correct, or Clowes is slyly hinting that we should slaughter Wilsons on sight, just to be safe.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: Titus Andronicus - Waking Up Drunk
via FoxyTunes

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