Friday 18 September 2020

Seth's Clyde Fans: My Reading of Giller Prize Long-list Nominees


Although the book is thick, heavy, and encyclopedic in appearance, inside is an intimate depiction of a generation of salesmen and the creep through time of disillusion and decay. Set in Toronto from the 1950s to the late 1990s, Clyde Fans (Drawn & Quarterly, 2019) depicts the postwar ideal of optimism and growth that loomed over the reality of people who knew that they did not fit into this ideal. Abe Matchcard, owner and manager of his father's fan business, at first sees himself as an inheritor of the postwar dynamism and optimism modelled by his self-involved, bullying father. Abe's older brother Simon, by contrast, has cultivated an contemplative inner life at odds with Abe's gung-ho validation of commercial enterprise, consumer acquisitiveness, and search for material comfort at the expense of all else.

 The graphic novel never shows favour for this ideal. Clyde Fans begins with Abe wandering through his family home and soliloquizing about his past. At first he discusses salesmanship as though he has absorbed sincerely the self-help-style mantra of Always Be Closing. Soon, however, he drops the facade, which crumbles as images piles up of his home and its attached offices, scraps of paper littering the floor, stacks of piles, boxes of unsold fans stacked in storage, and cracks in the walls. Abe acknowledges his ill-suitedness to salesmanship and hints at the disorder in his family, beginning with his father and leading to Simon's disengagement from the practicalities of life and his attachment to their aging, disappointed mother and to the writing of a book about the novelty postcards he has collected since the 1950s.

As he states in the afterword, Seth wrote Clyde Fans, inspired by an actual deserted storefront for Clyde Fans, in installments over twenty years. Though his obsession with the subject remained steady, his drawing style changed, becoming blockier and heavier in its outlines. Nevertheless, what remains constant is the insistence on silence and distance as represented by the many wordless panels and the attention to the clean geometries of the city landscape, often presented in a birds-eye view or slightly lower. Throughout the colours are stark black, varieties of grey, and pale blues. When the Matchcards go to smaller towns and the countryside, the panels are less crowded and favour curves rather than straight lines. Wherever and whenever the plot leads, images repeat: birds, shadows falling across facades, three trees on a hill, a lighthouse, drops of liquid, and those scraps of paper lying in hallways, in office floors, on sidewalks.

The Matchcard brothers have the urge to burrow into the comfort of the past as protection not only from the present and the future but also from the most distasteful elements of the past. Abe admits that he came to this awareness late in life, whereas his brother has acknowledged this reality since boyhood. Simon, introverted, dreamy, and dissatisfied, laments the "impenetrable wall of time" that separates him from the past and from the past versions of himself. He learns to cope, at least some of the time, by constructing fantasies that, though not without their painfulness, demonstrate memory's malleability and the imagination's constructive power. Although the characters, and people in general perhaps, have a wall that separates past from present, narrative literature can move around those walls. The chronology skips forward and back. The book ends not with the chronological present but with Simon at his happiest moment. That he disavows this moment later in his life is not important to the texture of Clyde Fans. That moment exists, and the book treasures that moment for Simon by reinvoking the bittersweet vision that inspired it. 

Seth's graphic novel may remind people of the plays Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller and Glengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet and the 1968 documentary Salesman by David and Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin. In other words, Clyde Fans will not stoke the enthusiasm of anyone about to embark on a career in sales.

The book expresses a particular and peculiar personal vision, melancholic and obsessive of the past without sentimentality. Simon's attempts to make sense of life's disappointments arethe strongest part of the book, and I can't forget the sequences of images that form his visions and ratiocinations. I recommend this book.


This is the first of the fourteen 2020 Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist of  nominations that I plan to read this fall. I will devote one post per book. The Giller Prize opened its nominations to graphic novels for the first time this year, so Clyde Fans is competing with Canadian novels and short story collections. 

If I don't finsh reading the longlisted books before the announcement of the short list on October 5, I will skip to the shortlisted texts I have not yet read. The winner will be announced at a televised gala November 9 on CBC television and CBC Gem.

I have never tried to read all the Giller longlists. But I have recently finished reading all the books on my bookshelf, and I am doing this to sink me into contermporary writing after years of catching up with the past. I have a lot of reading to do. Better get at it.

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