Dan Clowes' Wilson & McTeague

"Has anyone read McTeague? If so, could you write an essay or blog post describing in what way, if any, the novel’s story or themes resonate with Wilson? Because I want to read that essay, and I am not going to have time to get to McTeague for a very long time."
Over at the always engaging Comics Comics blog, T. Hodler's opened up discussion on Daniel Clowes' Wilson. Among the many things that Hodler brought up is the connection between Wilson and Frank Norris' McTeague which Wilson is reading. I briefly explained the connection--or my interpretation of the connection--in the comments fray but I thought I would flesh it out a bit...

Before T. Hodler's question/prompt, I hadn't actually thought of Clowes' use of McTeague as anything more than a novelistic detail: A small, seemingly minor thing thrown in the story that succinctly characterizes Wilson. But that is a good place to start--we'll get to the thematic connections in a second.

Think of Wilson reading McTeague the same way John Ellis in Ghost World had a zine called Mayhem and was very much enamored with stuff like snuff films, kiddie porn, serial killers and just generally flaunted an anarcho-conservative point of view. The character is specific but not too specific. Just a "type" that you recognize, maybe you went to school with a guy like, or some chick's boyfriend is that very same kind of "subversive". I always thought of Jim Goad when I read the book--Goad would very much have been in the alt-comics/zine world news of the time--but Clowes' satire isn't so squarely aimed as that; again, it's more about a "type".

Wilson reading McTeague is similar. A detail there for those people that "get it" to chuckle to themselves, but it isn't crucial to understanding the story. For those that do get it however, it's quite rewarding. Even your classic elitist isn’t going to reach for Frank Norris’ social realist classic, but a certain kind of “never wants to fit in but thinks they’re a man of the people” type jerk would totally read McTeague. The novel’s grotesque and literary, but it’s also very raw and immediate--something resembling popular literature. I can imagine Wilson thinking “this is preferable to the hoity-toity works of Proust or Conrad" (who were writing around the same time). A false populism--which Wilson most certainly exhibits.

The detail also clarifies Clowes' pointed satire. It's the author/artist saying to readers, "Look, I know this asshole well, I'm hip to his game". By employing such a clear but still general reference, Clowes enters the world of his satirical targets and proves himself to be ridiculously spot-on about them. Most satire stems from a mix of contempt and distance, but Clowes is right there, beyond superficial characterizations and simplifications. Kinda that same way Hipster Runoff has an uncanny ability to inhabit the minds of the bros it satirizes.

Wilson would read McTeague. John Ellis would have some awful, third-generation shocking zine. The main character of Caricature's "MCMLXVI" would defend his love of 1966 precisely the way Clowes has him do it. It's the opposite of Clowes mocking himself--and establishing a distance between creator and creation--in Ghost World but it has the same effect. It tells the reader that a very self-aware artist is behind the very mean work you're reading.

Thematically, McTeague isn't going to open up the whole book, it isn't the Clowesian key to all mythologies or nothing, but Clowes shares Norris' rather harsh, unforgiving view of man. Norris is writing only forty or so years after Darwin publishes On the Origin of Species and so, all these connections between man and animal are new and just really fucking shocking. Like, seriously, not to dig up all my notes from when I taught 11th-grade English, but think of how much of a shock to pretty much everybody's beliefs it must've been when they couldn't take for granted--at least in quite the same way--all this stuff about God and where we come from and shit.

Norris channeled all these Darwinian ideas into McTeague. Wrapped up in the Social Darwinism survival of the fittest stuff that was hovering around, and caught up in bat-shit crazy ideas like Eugenics and Phrenology, Norris crafted a novel based around this unforgiving view of humans beings. People as animals, looking out for number one, cruel, harsh, and manipulative but ultimately, pathetically unchangeable. That's where Wilson enters. He's like an animal, scrapping around for survival--think of how he looks for his ex-wife once his dad dies, or how the girl that watched his dog ends up moving in with him--while at the same time, pinned to basically the same pathetic life patterns.

Lastly, there are a some weird biographical connections between Clowes and Norris. Both were born in Chicago, both eventually ended up in the Bay Area--Clowes in Oakland, Norris in San Francisco. McTeague's subtitle is "A Story of San Francisco" and you get a sense of the bubbling bay area around the late 1890s. And though environment isn't quite as key to Wilson, you certainly come out of the book with Clowes--or Wilson's at least--subjective view of Oakland--and because American's not quite so regionalized anymore-- the weird sad United States in the early 2000's.

1 comment:

T. Hodler said...

Thanks, Brandon. This is exactly the kind of thing that I was hoping to read.