Imagine confronting past versions of yourself — would you recognize your present self in them or feel completely alienated? Cartoonist Daniel Clowes found himself in this position when he was preparing for his first museum retrospective at the Oakland Museum in 2012. In order to select material for the show, he had to examine his earlier material, facing the style and vision of his younger self. “I started digging through all my old crap in my flat files and kind of facing that person that I was,” Clowes explained to Nicole Rudick of The Paris Review at the Strand a few weeks ago. “I felt like I couldn’t even relate to that person who I was. It felt like such a strange dialogue with this earlier version of myself.” Around the same time, five years ago, Clowes began working on his recently released book, Patience, in which the narrator, Jack, is similarly forced to face his earlier selves. But in this case, it’s not a metaphorical facing of the past, but a literal one involving romance, murder, and time travel across several decades.
The narrative present is 2029, but the story begins in 2012, when Jack Barlow comes home one day to find his wife, Patience, has been murdered. The story jumps ahead to 2029, where Jack is recalling this moment in a futuristic-looking bar, colored in pastel blues, pinks, and creams. In an effort to save his wife and remedy his own life, Jack finds a way to go back in time to try and prevent the murder. Characteristic of Clowes’s stories, the task proves to be more challenging and tragic than expected.
Talking with Rudick, Clowes explained the seeds for the story, planted in 1995 when he was working on the serial comic Eightball. “Anything that popped into my head that had a sort of visceral feel to it, I would try to turn into something,” he remembered. “The only thing that I had was a guy from the future who was sort of a bull in a china shop, sort of marching through the modern world destroying everything in his path.” This certainly describes Jack of 2029, barreling through various levels of his past unable to control his time travel accurately.
While the focus of the story is on whether or not he will successfully save Patience, the more interesting moments are when, as a consequence of Jack’s lack of control, different timelines collide, bringing characters face to face with themselves and their memories of the past. At one point, Jack goes back too far in time, to 1985, when he was just a child. In a comical scene he attempts to pay with a 5 dollar bill from the future, raising alarm and accusations from the store clerk. Alone and discouraged, Jack thinks, “I should be overwhelmed, returning to the world of my childhood, who the hell gets to do that?” But underlying his words is another question: Who would want to do that?
Later, still in the years of his youth, he stumbles upon his childhood home. “It’s crazy how it all comes back, all the little bullshit things you forget about. The shapes made by the electrical wires and the way the air smells,” 2029 Jack thinks as he walks down his street. The vantage point hovers just above his head. At first he’s pictured looking in the distance, but what he looks at is out of frame. Then we see the “stains in the snow,” as he recalls details of his hometown. Finally, Jack stands across the street facing his childhood home. He speaks with his mother: asking where his father is, reminding her to take her diabetes medicine, a disease she has yet to be diagnosed with in 1985. He briefly tosses a football with his kid self. Later, he thinks, “When I was standing on that porch, part of me wanted to stop everything and move back in, be a father to myself, a husband to my mom.” Clowes touches on the dissonance between memories and reality; our desire to change the past and ease our growing pains, while knowing that would never be possible, even if we could travel back in time.
At the Strand, Rudick asked Clowes about his working process, how he builds his stories and knows what to keep and what to let go. “You have to trust you know the world,” Clowes explained. “Once you’ve done a few pages, it’s done. It becomes sort of inevitable. I always want to go back and redraw. And sometimes I do. But then I always regret it. I think the first one was always the right one.” It would be too simple to draw a parallel between Clowes’s own feelings about revising past work and Jack’s struggle to edit the ending of his own life, but there is an interesting connection. Looking back over his past work, and his past self, Clowes explained, “I started to think of all the events in my life that lead from me being that guy to being who I am now. It was all just very random happenstance moments.” He shared the story of how he met his wife at a comic signing — she happened to have seen an ad in a magazine that was likewise only placed as a consequence of another chance event.
Jack also finds his circumstances immensely altered due to small chance occurrences. As he haplessly plummets forward and backward through time, he continuously berates himself for failing to follow his plan, aware that even the slightest changes in the past could alter his future in 2029, to which he worries he will never be able to return. Towards the end of Patience, Jack makes yet another unplanned jump in time and suddenly realizes, “I hadn’t fucked anything up; everything, even the stupidest shit, had happened for a reason.” All of his actions in the past created the situation in the future that allowed him to go back in time. With that switch in time, the narrator also switches to Patience, narrating from 2012, the year in which the book starts.
Patience remains the narrator for the conclusion of the book, as Jack struggles to prevent her death, the date and time of which rapidly approach. The tension becomes less and less about whether or not Patience will survive, but instead what Jack’s motives are. No longer able to return to 2029, does Jack hope to rekindle his happiness with Patience or save her for his 2012 self to grow old with?
Like the impulse to change past work, facing past selves is not just about grappling with our past, but also recognizing how past choices create present and future selves. As Rudnick noted in the conversation, Clowes’s characters seem to constantly struggle with free will. Despite Jack’s ability to travel in time, he has very little control over outcomes. Yet every choice he makes pushes him closer to his inevitable future. The book concludes with 2029 Jack’s final revelation, “the more I saw […] the more it all seemed to matter; every moment, every choice.” The greatest action in Clowes’s time-travel murder mystery isn’t the violence, surprise twists, or trippy visuals, it is whether Jack will choose to give into the lure of his past or accept the future he has created.
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