HOW long does it take to make a book? Leo Tolstoy spent six years or thereabouts to write War and Peace. Kerouac allegedly bashed out the manuscript of On the Road in three weeks. (Perhaps not strictly accurate TBH but print the legend!)
It’s a little different if you are a graphic novelist. It’s not just the words that you have to worry about; it’s the pictures too. And so, Art Spiegelman took some 13 years to complete Maus, while Canadian cartoonist Seth has spent some 20 years completing his magnum opus Clyde Fans (in between other projects, to be fair).
All those years and years of effort have now been gathered together into one chunky, beautifully designed volume weighing in at the best part of 500 pages (and accompanying Seth-designed slip case, which comes with approving quotes from Douglas Coupland among others and an index for the book therein which includes such entries as “Desk Circulator” and “TV Dinner”).
The slipcase is itself a mark of its creator’s attention to detail, one that is on display throughout Clyde Fans, from the endpapers to the author’s photograph near the back.
The story of the Matchcard brothers and their attempts to run their father’s business selling fans in the middle of the last century, Clyde Fans is a vision, Seth notes in an afterword, of “a quiet, dimly lit, isolated little world furnished with the leftovers of the drab, post-war era of my parents.”
In other words, it’s a typically Sethian universe that’s conjured up in these pages: a world of big cars, old buildings, salesmen doing cold calls, Bakelite phones and a sense of quiet desperation.
The story. Simon and Abe Matchcard are neither really cut out for running the business their father walked out on (as well as walking out on them), but Abe at least makes an effort. Simon, however, is not cut out for it at all. He tries to make it as a salesman and fails abysmally. He retreats to looking after his mother and collecting postcards. Their relationship is the slow-burning fuel that lights the narrative.
This is a story that plays with nostalgia – the way things once looked and felt – but also investigates the very idea of it. Covering five decades, it is also an interrogation of memory; how we twist it to our own ends, how we can get our own lives so wrong (at one point Abe has a date with a former girlfriend that he’s spectacularly misjudged because of his faulty memory).
As ever with Seth, Clyde Fans is about the remembrance of times past, or rather lost. There’s an ache for yesterday in it, yes, but also a recognition of the impossibility of that ache.
Seth’s desire to find a way, on the page at least, to a slower, quieter world is played out in Clyde Fans in silent panels, in empty streetscapes and lonely countryside vistas. As the cartoonist himself admits in the afterword, over 20 years his drawing style has changed.
Yet thematically and in terms of authorial voice it’s consistent. You may find that authorial voice too insistent; it’s a book of monologues for the most part after all. But that’s a reflection of the strength of Seth’s imagining. This is his world we have entered. Leave your own at home.
And in the end, once you have slowed down to the book’s pace, what is thrilling is the silence, the space, the moments of peace. We can’t live there. That’s the shame of it, for Seth as much as anyone, I imagine. But we can linger.