Patience, the title of graphic novelist Daniel Clowes’s latest foray into the baleful joys of emotional trauma, operates on multiple layers: as the name of the female lead; as a mantra for her time-traveling husband, who is hunting her murderer; and, ultimately, as a necessary trait for readers tracking a plot that is by turns poignant, startling, funny, and violent.
In 1968, sci-fi novelist Philip K. Dick gave us a conflicted bounty hunter tracking down lifelike robots in the futuristic noir Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Now Clowes has given us a prophetic whodunit for the age of Trump, where class is the overriding determinant of citizens’ fates. We first meet the bobbed-blonde Patience in 2012, just as she discovers that she is pregnant. She and her new husband, Jack, are initially thrilled, and then terrified — she is an ex-waitress and he works handing out strip-club flyers on the street. “Oh God, these are so cute!” Patience exclaims as she peruses polka-dot baby toggery, her delight quashed when she sees the price for apparel that will be worn for only a few weeks — “Rich people are such assholes! Let’s get out of here!”
Early on, the couple is seen in bed watching a TV demagogue who warns that professional politicians are bringing America “precariously toward the abyss.” Patience knows the speaker from her hometown, where he was a snide rich kid who once tried to force her to perform oral sex. Shortly afterward, Jack comes home to find that Patience has been murdered. The cops railroad him, looking to close the case quickly, and then blame the victim: “She married some asshole hothead, she was a total mess — good riddance.” Jack, in his grief and fury, develops a steel backbone that will later serve him well as a time-jumper, angrily asking, “Is there anybody out there actually investigating the murder?”
Jack is eventually cleared but the case goes cold, and we next see him as a graying, rangy fortysomething. It’s 2029, where the buildings in a bustling city tend to pastel exteriors and the hookers have blue skin and employ intoxicating inhalants that allow johns to envision any fantasy lover while doing the nasty. But seventeen years after his young bride’s murder, Jack still can’t touch another woman — “I don’t get anything she doesn’t get, understand?” The only asset he has gained from his loss is the nihilistic fearlessness that drives him to steal a time-warp elixir from a backroom chemist.
Clowes (whose earlier works include Ghost World and Ice Haven) employs a direct, judiciously detailed drawing style that keeps the ricocheting narrative grounded. The overwrought hug that Patience receives from her mother while her own arms remain tight at her sides gives readers, during Jack’s initial foray into the past, a sense of his future bride’s erratic, unhappy youth. Even the typography keeps the plot moving: The book opens with the individual letters of the title set in plunging perspective, hinting at the chronological vortexes to come. When Jack mistakenly lands in 1985, a big red word balloon reading “FUCK!” trails off the page, expressing his exasperation at having to relive that benighted decade from his youth.
Throughout the chutes ‘n’ ladders plot, Clowes (born 1961, in Chicago) stays focused on his ultimate theme: the iron grasp of love. As Jack drifts amid “the everlasting endlessness” — a farrago of warped geometries, wobbly ectoplasm, and distorted figures — he concludes, “It all seemed to matter; every moment, every choice, every cell division as hospitable to scrutiny as the last inning of a tied World Series…. ”
A poetic — and prescient — vision, coming from a tome published in the spring of 2016, when Cubs fans didn’t yet know they were finally going to be rewarded for more than a century of patience.
By Daniel Clowes
180 pp., $29.99