I Believe You, Mr. Wilson, I Believe You Anyway

Posted by on May 20th, 2010 at 1:15 PM

I was considering the Dennis the Menace reference, but I decided to go with the John Cale instead.  The Wilson of Daniel Clowes’ new book Wilson is an emotionally autistic individual whose goal in life is to inflict his anguish on others so that he’s not the only one who feels lousy.  We may infer that in his younger days he had some skill at emotional manipulation, but as we find him everyone who has ever been intimate with him has learned to stay a long way away.  He is relegated to inflicting himself on others through chance encounters, initiated solely by himself, and in these he can scarcely wait a moment after establishing a (self-defined) position of strength before sticking the knife in.  For example, Wilson has struck up a conversation with his seat-mate on an airplane, a perfect Wilson victim as he’s a captive audience:

Wilson:  “What do you do for a living?”

Seatmate:  “I work for Qualcom.  I.T. stuff.”

Wilson:  “No shit!  I’m with Data-Tech!  I do tons of B.O., and some X.J., too!  And I’m very involved in Z.Q.J. and I.P.K. . . . I mean, Christ – do you know how ridiculous you sound?”

He’s a bore who wants to maneuver the other fellow into the position of being the bore.  It should be noted that the moment of anguish pictured above is not for himself but for everybody else.  If he read Wilson himself he would start giving it to acquaintances to inspire them to amend their lives.

Wilson is composed of a series of 77 one page gag strips which develop a narrative of his self-defeating attempts to reestablish human contact.  He gets so far as to connect romantically with his ex-wife and his pet sitters.  These women are not so much deceived as in the grip of quiet desperations and limited options of their own.  Like a booby trap rigged to a teddy bear lying in the middle of a road, Wilson is readily accessible and might give the appearance of a source of comfort, but those who pick him up will come to regret it.

There’s a technical problem with building a book around a character like Wilson.  Simply because of the way we’ve learned to relate to fiction, it doesn’t take more than three or four pages to write Wilson off as a dead loss.  We are no more likely to make an emotional investment in him than are the people in his hypothetical life, because like them we know it won’t pay off.  Unlike Marshall in Clowes’ New York Times Magazine strip Mr. Wonderful, his are not a pair of shoes we’d put ourselves in even if they fit.  Unlike an entertainment character like Basil Fawlty his antics are not comically and outrageously awful but awful on a naturalistic human scale.  If the punchlines of each individual strip were as funny as for instance an Ivan Brunetti panel gag it would carry us along, but the punchlines in Wilson are the character’s self-designed trap slamming shut on him.  (But then, Brunetti’s cartoons are distancing us from actual suffering and not bringing us closer to it.)  However, Clowes has created such an appetite for his work that this technical problem will not keep readers from swallowing Wilson whole.  The demand exceeds the supply by a considerable amount.  What Wilson has to tell us in the end is, to paraphrase the Corgis, everybody’s got to learn sometime, but sometimes sometime is after it’s too late.

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7 Responses to “I Believe You, Mr. Wilson, I Believe You Anyway”

  1. Scyzoryk says:

    Yes, a John Cale shoutout! Thank you! This was definitely one of the better Wilson reviews I’ve seen, too — I wish I could say something beside “yeah, I agree,” but sometimes that’s how it goes. Nice.

  2. jingard says:

    I hate to split hairs after a fine review, but I’m about to split hairs. It doesn’t seem accurate to describe someone as emotionally autistic, then say that they may have been more skilled at emotional manipulation when they were younger. Autism is a developmental disorder that affects you for life. Some people learn to compensate for certain aspects of it and are able to ‘pass’ as neurotypicals as they get older. I will admit to being more than averagely touchy on this subject, but I feel that whenever writers use terms such as autistic or schizophrenic outside their strict medical sense, and then blur the original menaing by using the term in a metaphorical sense, it can lead to confusion when people are faced with autistic or schizophrenic people in the flesh. I am not saying that this applies to Mr Fiore himself, but I feel discomfort whenever it happens (e.g. when a French politician recently said that that Europhobe British politicians had a ‘bizarre form of autism’ that had ‘castrated the UK in Europe’!)

  3. R. Fiore says:

    Welcome to the folk process. People who can’t tell the difference between colloquial uses of psychiatric terms and their clinical definitions are what is clinically known as “stupid.” Wilson is indifferent to the feelings of others and blind to social cues, hence “emotionally autistic.” I assumed the use of the qualifier was enough to indicate to any normally intelligent person that I was not referring to the developmental disorder.

    • jingard says:

      Apologies if I did not make myself clear enough – as someone who is actually rather than colloquially autistic, I do sometimes cause offense where none is intended. What I was trying to get at was that if you use the medical term metaphorically, you can make yourself look – in your words – ‘stupid’ if you are then not very consistent. It is similar to an author of a mills & boon writing, ‘Blinded by passion, he saw stars.’ You are part-way to a mixed metaphor, just as the French minister went all the way there with his talk of autism and castration. And while I fully acknowledge the folk process (and did indicate in my initial post that I understand the difference between the medical and colloquial usage) the folk process too can make us all look stupid, causing us to lose sight of the original meaning. Nowadays, people often think that schizophrenics are just people with split personalities, and this must be due to the way the psychiatric phrase enter common usage without people really understanding what it actually meant. Similarly, many people now think that they understand how courts operater because they have watched a few crime dramas on TV. To reiterate, I mean no offence, and I hope none is taken.

    • jingard says:

      And just to demonstrate both that I am not a lone lunatic and that I appreciate that there is more than one side to this discussion, here is a similar debate at the Guardian website.
      Interestingly, the Guardian style guide says that ‘autistic’ is best reserved for people who are indeed autistic, rather than just people who have personalities that you don’t like. Some of the commenters agree with this approach; other’s don’t.

      • R. Fiore says:

        Since you obviously understood that I was using the word colloquially I wasn’t including you in the category of stupid. You have a valid argument which I disagree with. I think it’s far easier to teach people to distinguish between a colloquial and an informal use than it is to convince people not use these words in a colloquial way, which I think is an exercise in futility. (Note the way you use the word “lunatic.”) The only way anyone has ever found to prevent the folk adoption of clinical terms is to make the clinical term too cumbersome to be appropriated, as when they changed “sociopath” to “person with antisocial personality disorder.”

  4. jingard says:

    I’m guilty as charged on my use of ‘lunatic’, which I spotted after I had pressed the submit button! Thanks for your courteous reply – there are too few such discussions that end with a polite ‘agree to disagree’. I will continue to read your fine columns with interest, while trying to choose my words more carefully.