Please be warned; this second Valentine’s Day piece contains very significant spoilers!
It’s hard to tell which season Mister Wonderful is set in until the book’s final scene, where the meeting of the might-be-lovers Marshall and Natalie on an oceanside bench is marked by drifting autumnal leaves. It’s not as if the two of them have swapped the characterless cafes and threateningly crowded house-parties, the empty city-centre streets and car-less highways, for some unmarked wilderness. They’ve not crashed through the lonely, excluding haunts of their everyday lives for some new-found land of impossible romantic promise. In fact, the last we see of them, the sense is that they’ve temporarily swapped a sterile urban purgatory for an agoraphobic moment in a well-tendered and almost entirely tamed strip of parkland .But then, these are characters who could safely be shown crooning along with September Song without the listener thinking that they lacked the years and experience to carry the lyric. The Fall clearly is their season, and there are even bare patches in the covering of leaves upon the nearby trees which seem to evoke Marshall’s bald spot. This, it seems, is where they belong, or at least, it is for a moment or two more. As they stare out together at the sea, it’s not hard to imagine what mix of bleak inevitability and purposefully muzzled hope the waters might suggest to them, and they seem a couple who are as awkwardly isolated here as they’ve previously been so obviously hemmed in by both architecture and circumstance before. Yet the very fact that they’re actually sitting together and talking does mark a modest triumph of faith over despair, and for all that it’s impossible to conceive of any unconditional happy-ever-afters for these two, there is the possibility that tomorrow might just be a little kinder for them. In that, Mister Wonderful is a romance that’s concerned with the overwhelming importance of small mercies in a cruel world.
Romantic comedies concerned with the affairs of the no-longer-youthful tend to follow a particular logic. Each potential partner will eventually learn to see through the more pernicious of the romantic delusions which stand in the way of their recognising a late-arriving mate. Pushing aside an obsession with youth, most typically on the male side, and security, most typically on the female, the two lovers will learn to disconnect from their previous dalliances and recognise in each other virtues which their younger selves might well have ignored; stability and open-mindedness, loyalty and compassion, smarts won through experience rather than beauty and charm gifted by chance. But there’s no such pat and facile myth-making going on here. Indeed, one of the key things which ensures that Mister Wonderful works as a story in its own terms rather than as a predictable playing out of genre conventions is the fact that there’s a limit to how much reality and self-awareness its characters can manage to process. It isn’t that they’ve both escaped being humbled by their horrors of their love-lives, or that they lack a sense of how desperately they need to change in order to make themselves more palatable as partners. They clearly both want to change, and they have some sense of why it might be a very good idea to do so. Natalie is deeply afraid that she’ll be considered a “total mess”, and even her best friends tend not to mention the “restraining order” which followed the collapse of her relationship with the odious Noah. Marshall is similarly fundamentally wounded by his wife’s serial infidelity with his friends and the twelve year dry spell which followed. The comfort he takes from a brief and subsequently expensive weekend’s tryst with “an unstable, crank-snorting sociopath” indicates how incredibly unrewarding and isolated his life has been for a decade and more. Yet for all that their self-esteem has been battered and their hopes whittled away by circumstance, neither can escape the peculiar delusions which they can’t help but use to make sense of the world.
Marshall simply can’t escape seeing events in terms of an entirely unreconstructed chivalry. He simply cannot stop himself judging his potential worth to women in terms not of his own character and gifts, but according to his ability to be “a man of true and noble intent”. On her part, Natalie refuses to pay the attention that a more prudent personality would to Marshall’s impulsiveness, his uncomfortably fearsome rages, and the damning fact that he manages to end up in two entirely unconnected punch-ups within an hour or two of knowing her. Yet within less than a day of their first meeting, she’s already naively confiding in him her dream of getting married and adopting a baby who might be “from Korea”. It’s a tentative sharing of a desperate ambition which might be best saved for a far later date. Yet it’s the fact that the conclusion of Mr Wonderful doesn’t mark any substantial shift in the characters personalities and convictions which serves to make the tale’s ambiguous ending feel all the more convincing. These are people who aren’t functioning as a comforting symbol of some highly abstracted and hope-peddling definition of middle-aged maturity. Instead, they’re vividly drawn and fundamentally flawed individuals, and if they have anything to teach us, it’s got nothing to do with any spurious if comforting conviction that love and wisdom are associated qualities which experience might bring to us.
It might be thought that the refusal on the part of Clowes to cast his characters as ultimately adorable and redeemed lovers would cause their more uncomfortably needy characteristics to grate on the reader’s patience. But here the artist’s skill in creating a series of subtly alienating backdrops allows the audience to grasp what a miserable world it can be for those who find themselves excluded from fulfilling and intimate relationships. This is what the world can do to people, Clowes seems to be suggesting, and he does so with such precision and effect that we can empathise with personalities who we might otherwise find ineffectual and irritating. The city through which Marshall and Natalie move is one devoid of welcome for those who find themselves luckless and unloved. In the café in which we first see Marshall, for example, everyone sits silently and separate, and the only conversation comes at first from a loudmouth using a hands-free phone and his disapproving girlfriend bemoaning his late arrival. Shops are shut, roads and pavements largely if not entirely deserted, and, in the book’s single most arresting image, an atomised Marshall moves through an almost entirely darkened city where the only light comes from the insides of buildings to which he could never gain access.
That Marshall is himself complicit in the business of unfriendliness and exclusion only helps us grasp how cruel this world can be. As he treats the elderly woman in the café and the panhandling tramp just as he fears Natalie’s rich friends would like to treat him, we can see how hopeless a society this is, where even those who exist on the periphery work to a fiercely policed pecking order. (“If I had a blade, I’d slice your throat and leave you dead!” declares Randy the tramp after Marshall seeks him out as a fellow loser.) It’s an apparently all-encompassing process of dissatisfaction and disappointment, cruelty and callousness, and Clowes even shows aspects of these qualities at work in those few lasting relationships he allows us to glimpse. Noah’s portrayed bullying his pregnant girlfriend, accusing her of acting “like a whore … all the time”, while Tim and Yuki sit at home at opposite ends of a dining table without ever smiling or showing anything of intimacy beyond a common concern for their mutual friends. “Hey, isn’t tonight ‘sex night’?” asks the slumped Tim, but his wife’s in the kitchen and she doesn’t reply, and it’s hard to believe that either of them are too physically concerned by the suggestion. Everywhere in Mister Wonderful, there’s folks who are to a lesser or greater degree estranged from each other. The dismissive laughter which Noel so wounds Natalie with, and which echoes and grows until “there was nothing else left” in their apartment but it, seems audible in the background of each of the book’s panels leading up to the tale’s final scene. It’s no wonder, and certainly no mark of shame, that Marshall and Natalie are desperate to find some convincing trace of love and affection in their lives, and it’s similarly no wonder that we’re inevitably pleased with even the conditional prospect of such arriving for them.
There could be a suspicion of sentimentality lurking in the wordless illustration which closes Mister Wonderful. In it, two leaves are shown being blown on the wind. It’s easy to imagine that the larger represents Marshall, while its smaller and less angular partner would, of course, be Natalie. A hint of future happiness, you might think, of shared journeys and a common fate. Yet these leaves have, of course, already fallen from the tree, are already shrivelling away, and the breeze which brought them together by chance could in the very next moment separate them both. Comfort from the potentially brief shared journey, or despair at the inevitable parting? Small mercies.
The original version of Mister Wonderful can be read at the New York Times.