Author Sam Lipsyte reviews WILSON in the New York Times Book Review

Dyspeptic Living

The New York Times    |    Sam Lipsyte    |    April 7, 2010

Say hello to Wilson, the eponymous hero of Daniel Clowes’s latest novel- in-comics. Perhaps he is a hero of our time. But if that phrase makes all you comp-lit majors think of Lermontov’s Pechorin, think again: this haggard, middle- aged fellow is no dashingly depressive duelist or seducer. Wilson hectors people in coffee shops and hits on his ex-wife with sweet nothings like, “As you know, I certainly never minded a larger woman.”

He is a rich mix of states and traits: lonely, alienated, obsessed with his dog and the mistakes of his past, unjustifiably smug, genuinely funny, nettlesome, under handed, empathetic and always all too human. Does he stand for a generation, like Pechorin? No, he stands for Wilson — a glorious swirl of confusion, hypocrisy and simple yearning. Wilson may seem like an everyman, but he is soaked in idiosyncrasy, and not necessarily the kind that leads to some imagined universal. Instead we get a flawed and conflicted individual, whose laments, even when tainted by ego, or maybe especially when tainted by ego, are deeply affecting.

The Daniel Clowes aesthetic, delivered through his numerous comics, album covers, book illustrations and film work, has made a distinctive impression on the culture. Ever since his “Eightball” comics in the early 1990s and up through “Ghost World” and “David Boring,” he has fashioned a singular style both from the drabness of America’s midsize cities and towns and from the vital tradition of telling stories in panels, with pictures and words. His novels, especially, come charged with a fearless satirical wit, an emotional depth and an often enthralling creepiness — not to mention a faint mad cackle whose source is not easily traceable but whose presence provides extra texture and keeps sentimentality at bay. Though we may all have favorite Clowes creations, from the dim superhero auteur Dan Pussey to the disaffected adolescents Enid and Rebecca of “Ghost World,” the Wilson of “Wilson” vies with his past triumphs and takes a bold leap beyond them.

Assembled in one-page vignettes with titles like “Haircut,” “Fireside Chat” and “ Mother,” “Wilson” builds from clever character sketch to deadpan comedy to surprisingly forceful melodrama. We first meet Wilson walking his current home streets of Oakland, Calif., a city he admires despite his venomous spew about some famous old A’s ballplayers like Sal Bando and Rollie Fingers (“his stupid mustache”). The emotional wellspring of his rants about long-retired athletes, the infantilizing nature of Hollywood films or the obfuscating jargon of modern techies, to name a few of his pet peeves, is never quite clear to him (though it’s increasingly obvious to us), and this is an essential part of the fiction’s logic. Still, like many reasonably smart if not completely self-aware people responding to the world with bile, Wilson is often right. Except maybe about Rollie Fingers.

Reading “Wilson,” Clowes’s first book to be published without prior serialization, you begin to notice something, even as you laugh and wince at each brilliantly wrought expression or exchange. There is no stable Wilson. Visually, he is sometimes rendered with a familiar comic book realism, while at others he’s squashed down like some oblivious figure from the Sunday funnies. Sometimes his nose grows large, possibly when he’s lying to himself. Once, his pants switch colors with the floor in the middle of a conversation.

Verbally, he is also in flux. Part of the book’s humor derives from Wilson’s futile attempts to find a comfortable American voice for his encounters. While he narrates his life to himself in lucid contemporary modes, whenever he reaches out to strangers in coffee shops, alleyways or trains, his idiom seems wonderfully awkward, if not outdated: “Hey brother, mind if I sit here?” “How about you, friend — kids?” “Join the club, sister. My old man’s Stage 4.” The slipperiness, the mutability of Wilson — how he talks, how he looks — creates a dimensionality we can recognize. We all fumble for a common tongue. And some days we do look squashed down.

Meanwhile the narrative sneaks up on you, and when it does, a grim but hilarious momentum carries the day. Wilson is living a life rooted in less-than-Wilsonian ideals when his father dies. That their relationship was cold and distant doesn’t, of course, keep Wilson from grieving hard and questioning his path. He decides to set out in search of Pippi, the ex-wife who deserted him while pregnant. Rumors of her descent into drugs and prostitution spur Wilson’s attempt at a rescue and, perhaps, some kind of reconciliation. Also, he might have a child out there. Suffice it to say he does find Pippi, as well as their daughter, and the consequences are both heartwarming and heart-smashing, not to mention extremely deleterious to Wilson’s dog’s health and Wilson’s physical freedom. The more ludicrous turns in the plot are beautifully underplayed, and when Clowes flashes forward at the end, the chronological telescoping seems to bring with it a fleeting glimpse of real wisdom. Or something.

If Wilson is not, like Pechorin, meant to be a generational symbol, that’s because the more resonant markers of our times reside not in the epiphany of a single character but in the varying lunges at under standing achieved by the multiple Wilsons, the ways they stumble in and out of tragedy and farce. Which is to say there is something about this story that is very much a put-on, and something about it that is absolutely not. Yes, these qualities can coexist. Indeed, they require each other. It’s the put-on, the aforementioned cackle, that clears the space for fragile feeling to thrive. But before anybody raises a cudgel and intones ancient curses against “postmodern trickery” and “irony” one more boring time, it’s good to recall that artistic approaches like this have been around a while. Just ask another literary Wilson, name of Pudd’nhead.

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