One of the most eagerly awaited books of 2016, Daniel Clowes’ Patience is a velvet glove of a time-travel thriller cast in the iron of exquisitely depicted human turmoil.
Daniel Clowes has subtitled Patience, his eagerly awaited new graphic novel, as “A cosmic timewarp deathtrip to the primordial infinite of everlasting love”. That description of the book might be a call-out to the pulpy sci-fi paperbacks of the 60s and 70s, but it’s accurate enough in its own way.
It also seems to be a slightly self-conscious effort on the author’s part to distance himself slightly from the very human concerns at the heart of the book. Long after the sci-fi gubbins that propel the plot have faded away, what will burn in the reader’s mind is Clowes’ profound empathy and the sincerity of his characterisation.
At this point, it’s probably worth mentioning that Patience lands its initial emotional wallop before you even get to the first panel of the story. Prominent on the title page is the name of Alvin Buenaventura, credited here with “production and technical assistance”, but described by Clowes after his tragically premature death as “the most important person in my life outside my immediate family… my dear and beloved friend, a daily, constant, essential presence in my life.”
Five years’ worth of pent-up anticipation (since the publication of Mister Wonderful in 2011) leads the reader to pore keenly over the opening pages, which hum with comics mastery. As we meet our main characters, a couple discussing a pregnancy test, they are initially hidden from us in silhouette, obscuring their expressions and reactions.
The test shows up two lines. Is that “good”? What would be “good” anyway, given the couple’s circumstances – positive or negative? As we see more of the prospective parents – the title character and Jack – sections of panels go missing, indicating their distracted uncertainty about the huge step they’re taking.
The focus then shifts to Jack, and one of the book’s themes starts to reveal itself through his hard-edged, self-loathing thoughts: the idea that even the most sincere relationship can be built upon a foundation of secrets and lies.
However, it doesn’t take long to get to what them Hollywood lads would call “the inciting incident” (with its slightly jarring change of tense in the narration) – an act of violence and loss that straps us in for what ends up as a skilfully engineered Möbius strip of a plot.
By the time we find ourselves in the dayglo futurism of 2029, Jack has become calcified by bitterness into a gaunt, grey-haired misanthrope – an avatar of anger reminiscent of Lee Marvin in Point Blank. But when it seems that there may be a way of going back and righting the wrong that blighted his and Patience’s lives, Jack suddenly feels “born again! A walking hurricane! A deadly motherfucking force of nature!”
However, Jack’s time-travelling shenanigans also allow us to go back and get to know Patience – and, more particularly, to appreciate the events of the past that turned her into the complex young woman he fell in love with.
Time-travel in a literal, genre-friendly way might be the engine that drives the wide-ranging plot, but altogether more natural forms of the experience – via memory and the slow passage of time that moulds us – also weave their way through the book. Even Jack’s journey to Patience’s home town, to shed a little light on her troubled past, represents a form of hopping through the time stream. Characters are revisited and revealed both forwards and backwards.
Strangely, I find it hard to say anything new about Clowes’ visual style at this point. It doesn’t seem to offer many surprises here – either good or bad – although the hallucinatory side-effects of Jack’s jaunts through time provide the opportunity for some startling imagery.
However, his characteristically confident lines provide the perfect balance between the pulpy trappings of the plot and the captivating characterisation of the leads. The older Jack is a mix of tenderness and overprotectiveness for Patience, mixed with a ‘bleak male rage’ generated by years of solitude untempered by a feminine influence.
Meanwhile, Patience constantly wonders what she has done to bring misfortune and abusive relationships down on her head, questioning whether she even deserves to be happy. Without giving too much away, her late realisation that it “was the fucking world that was crazy, not me” is an unexpectedly joyous epiphany.
At the end of the book, Jack’s journey through time comes to a conclusion that’s fittingly reminiscent of The Incredible Shrinking Man, as he reaches cosmic awareness (“A hyper-vivid macro-vision of the secret workings of the universe”) on the cusp of non-existence.
Patience’s extraordinary experiences have also armed her with a more down-to-earth but perhaps no less significant enlightenment: in the entanglement of our relationships, sometimes the truth can set you free.
Dan Clowes (W/A) • Fantagraphics Books, $29.99