Thursday, June 15, 2017

Patience by Dan Clowes

Dan Clowes has made occasional forays into SFnal territory over his career -- The Death-Ray being the most obvious example, but there have also been a lot of shorter works with SF elements. But Patience is a full-bore SF work, entirely structured by its fantastic conceit, which is something new for Clowes.

It's not a pulpy SF story, of course -- Clowes has always been more interested in losers and outcasts and grumpy outsiders, never the winners and mightily-thewed he-men of old-fashioned SF. His world is more Phildickian, if you want to reach for a prose SF equivalent: full of people just scraping by, slaves to their obsessions and circumstances, capable of love but often hobbled by it, human in the most basic and humbling ways. Clowes loves people like that, the way Phil Dick did. They're the kind who make the world.

Patience is the title character, and the central character, but not the protagonist -- that falls to her boyfriend Jack, initially in a slightly alternate 2012. They're scraping by on menial jobs, but happy, more or less -- and get much happier when they learn Patience is pregnant. Jack obsesses about the small lies he's told her -- he pretends his job is more serious, and more like a career, than it is -- and vows to do better for the new family. But then Patience is killed, senselessly, during a break-in of their apartment. We know it's not Jack, but the cops focus on him immediately and totally. By the time evidence finally springs him from jail, it's nearly a year later and he's the only one who wants to find out who killed her.

He's obsessed by it, frankly. And that's entirely normal: Clowes characters tend to be obsessive anyway, and this is a huge shock. But the next section of the book jumps to a semi-utopian 2029, where an aging Jack is just as obsessed, just as angry. And then there's a chance to change the past -- a working form of time travel. Jack jumps at it, and finds himself in 2006, trying to untangle the sordid past Patience wouldn't tell him about, to figure out who killed her and stop it from happening.

Time-travel stories never flow smoothly -- if they did, they wouldn't be very good as stories, would they? So 2006 doesn't work out as well for Jack as he hoped, and he's forced to blindly jump out of that time and end up somewhere much worse for his project. But time-travel stories also tend to be circular, so I'm probably not giving much away to say that Jack does get back to 2012, before the murder, eventually.

Clowes ends it all phatasmagorically -- perhaps to simplify his narrative loose ends, perhaps as a nod towards a time-travel theory in which everything has to get cleaned up neatly in the end, perhaps just because it's the way he wanted to end this story. It's a hopeful, positive ending, in a very Clowesian way -- more positive than we usually get from Clowes, certainly.

Along the way, though, it's a very talky Clowes story -- his people, here as in his other stories, have a mania for explaining themselves, for talking through their place in the world, for using dialogue to control and box in others, to force the world to respond or react through sheer force of will and word. Patience also has intermittent narration from Jack, in a laconic semi-private eye style (like Lloyd Llewellyn, perhaps, or as a distant descendant of him). So this is a wordy graphic novel, full of as many words as pictures, a book to be read as much as to be looked at.

I think SF readers will generally enjoy the time-travel plot, if they have the tolerance for Clowesian characters and situations. I think they'll find a lot to enjoy and think about here...if they have the patience for it.

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