Review: Clyde Fans by Seth

Clyde Fans [2019] – ★★★★1/2

Seth (real name Gregory Gallant) is a Canadian cartoonist whose artistic style is said to remind of The New Yorker cartoons of the 1930s-40s. Inspired by a real business that was once in operation in Toronto, his graphic novel Clyde Fans follows a non-linear plot and two very different brothers (extraverted Abe and introverted Simon), whose father left them his business selling electric fans. The pair responds differently to the changing business environment, social demands and times and, in this story, we trace their lives through the life of a company that came to define them and their family, following them through their hopes and dreams, initial successes, bankruptcies, family tragedies and growing desperation fuelled by years of buried pride and reluctance to welcome the future. This reflective picture novel takes a very close look at nostalgia and asks whether there is something precious being lost every time we decide to walk with the changing times, or ahead of them. From the wisdom of the old age to “commercial” loneliness and misunderstandings faced in one’s youth, the novel asks – what is “success”, and what is “failure” in life? What is the nature of time and what it means to finally come to grips with its passage? How time changes us, or does not? Clyde Fans is a deeply-felt work about human memories, making sense of the past and the anguish of passing years and lost hopes, a tribute to one once-commercially successful and ambitious little world that is no more.

The book starts in 1997, but then events also move to 1957, 1966 and to 1975. In 1997, we follow one aging ex-salesman who goes through his daily routine and, while he does so, he talks to us about his past, his career and what it takes to succeed in a highly pressurised environment of sales and deal closures, that kind of an environment where true sincerity, friendship and human warmth are hard to come by. As he talks, we begin to understand that he, Abe Matchcard, inherited his business from his father, who, in turn, opened his shop “Clyde Fans” in 1937. Much “sales” wisdom is imparted to us, while we get to understand the loneliness of the profession and the power of habit: “A good sale is not unlike a military manoeuvre. Researched, studied, yet still spontaneous” [Seth, 2019: 92]; “It’s funny how long a man can simply keep doing what he’s always done – no matter how futile” [Seth, 2019: 63]; “The life of a salesman is a life of waiting between pitches” [Seth, 2019: 82]; and “you’ll get nothing in life if you won’t ask for it”[Seth, 2019: 91]. We learn that persistence counts in business and sales, but it so happens that it was failure to adapt that signalled Clyde Fans’ downfall. When air-conditioning started to appear, Clyde Fans missed the opportunity to stock this new technology too.

There is something of Richard Yates-vibe to this novel, maybe because Seth wanted to portray the world of his parents and to capture some of the consequences of the Age of Anxiety world. One theme here could be the new generation’s feelings of being incapable (or fearful) of keeping up with their parents’ zeal for commerce and hard-work ethic when so much had changed in the world and it was not people’s decency, character or hard-work that began to matter or valued in the world of business anymore, but how fast can one talk, how fast can one sell, and whether future employees have the appearance of being hard-working, productive and respectable people.

The novel’s blue/dark-green images are effective in conveying a range of emotions, ideas and thoughts of the characters. How do we process memories? Why do we make certain decision in life (or, maybe, don’t make them?), and what makes “us” in the business world? Seth’s work does get quite metaphysical by the end.

Clyde Fans means to say that behind every small business there are, or once were, real people with their real stories of hope, dreams of prosperity, and their share of successes and failures. Clyde Fans is a profound work full of philosophical questions about life and the meaning we attach to our daily jobs.

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