What does time look like? How do we represent its passage when time is an abstract idea, yet (as the linguist George Lakoff points out) we often discuss it as though it were a physical object? We lose it, we waste it, we maximize it, we travel through it. In Ray Bradbury’s great novel of adolescence, “Dandelion Wine,” 12-year-old Douglas Spaulding experiences time as a kind of unending glorious summer until he meets a very old man who tells stories about his distant youth. These tales plunge Douglas backward nearly 70 years and he discovers time can play tricks on you. It can slow down and speed up and go backward, creating endless loops. Douglas calls this old man a Time Machine.
Seth, the celebrated Canadian writer and artist, isn’t old, but he is just as much a time machine, and his new book, “Clyde Fans,” is a brilliant trip that also plays tricks on you, slowing down, speeding up, going backward, creating endless loops.
The book is fiction, but a business called Clyde Fans once existed. Seth would often walk by the abandoned storefront in Toronto, but one day he stopped and peered through the window. “A tin ceiling, a desk, a couple of rotary phones … two framed portraits on the rear wall. … Too dark to make out the details but clear enough to see the faces of two middle-aged men.” At that moment this book was born.
Seth calls “Clyde Fans” a “picture novel,” not a “graphic novel.” The term has a slightly old-fashioned ring to it. There’s a straightforwardness I rather like. It sounds like what you would call this book if the term “graphic novel” never existed. The pictures themselves begin right away, in a 26-page title sequence that includes catalog advertisements, a mysterious postcard, portraits of two men, then a long, silent tour of an empty home on a moonlit night. Almost all of these images reappear in one form or another, which means the opening is sort of like the overture to a Broadway musical, introducing us to tunes we’ll hear later. In one sense Seth is giving us the gift of familiarity, like the faces of people we know at a party otherwise filled with strangers. These moments help us focus on what’s most important, and engage our own memory as part of the storytelling.
Seth draws time out, both literally and metaphorically. It took him over 20 years to finish this book (he made lots of other books during that time, and published chapters of this one as he went along, the way Dickens did with his novels). His drawing style changed over those years. It’s as if “Clyde Fans” itself is a monument to passing time, and the first direct mention of time in the story is, curiously, a reference to a broken clock. “By the way, pay no attention whatsoever to the clocks. I’d be very surprised if any of them are still wound or working.” This is spoken by the character Abraham Matchcard in 1997, during an extraordinary 69-page sequence that begins the narrative, and it seems like good advice for the whole book.
Abe is an old man, a former salesman, whose father, we learn, was the Clyde of Clyde Fans. Clyde Matchcard founded the business in 1937, and it thrived for many years, until Abe himself took over and eventually drove it into the ground. As Abe wanders from room to room, a Willy Loman without a family, he tells us jokes about salesmen as well as the story of his life. Attention must be paid. We take in the architecture of his home, and we get a hint of the city around him. He talks and talks as rooms lead to other rooms and eventually to the ruined office that was once the center of his family’s electric fan business (imagine Seth looking in that very window).
Alone and filled with regret, he tells us his life story. A brother named Simon is mentioned and we get hints there may have been something wrong with him, though we don’t know what. Their mother is mentioned, and we learn that at some point their father walked out on the family. There is anger and bitterness in Abe’s recollections, but also a sense of resignation. He’s lost everything, including his teeth, which are kept in a jar in the bathroom.
Whom is he talking to? Himself? Us? Whom are these jokes for? Is he like the Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” setting the scene for us and guiding the story, or is he more like the unnamed narrator in Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca,” whose point of view will take us through the entire narrative? We find the answer once this epic introduction ends and we are suddenly plunged back in time to 1957 (coincidentally the same year Bradbury published “Dandelion Wine”). Here we find ourselves with Abe’s mysterious brother Simon. Through Simon we begin to learn the truth behind Abe’s stories. The dynamic of the book shifts now, and we go deep into Simon’s mind. We experience his world, we feel his fears and share his obsessions.
As the story progresses, it slowly opens up from the concrete specifics of the brothers’ intertwined lives to larger metaphysical themes. There are hints of mental illness, thwarted ambitions and untapped desires. Beneath his sweating, terrified exterior, is Simon actually an artist who has no language or context for art? What becomes of a dreamer who doesn’t know he can dream?
At a moment in his life that is somehow both mundane and critical, Simon overhears a conversation between two women in a diner: “The sun was shining, the air was clear. It was just lovely. The kind of spot where time seems to stand still. A sort of enchanted place. … But silly me. That was 20 years ago. At least.” This snippet reverberates for Simon in unexpected ways — a moment of transcendence and beauty lost and then pined for — and it reverberates for us for the rest of the book.
Open “Clyde Fans” and let Seth take you into his time machine. The technology is relatively simple: cardboard, binding, glue, thread, paper and ink, words and pictures. Most of the drawings are in black and blue, as if the entire novel were composed of bruises. Perhaps we’re being reminded that the past can be a painful place to visit. There’s no room for nostalgia in Seth’s vision. The past is as sharp and painful as the present. In fact, the past is the present, conjured in words and pictures, existing in the spaces between what’s said and unsaid, what’s seen and unseen. It’s in these spaces where Seth knows alchemical reactions occur. In the end, as we close the pages on Simon and Abe and step back into our own lives, we might feel — even for just a moment — that we finally know what time looks like.