City of Glass | icon 022 | April 2005

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words Chris Hall

Graphic novels are on the rise. This is one of the latest, a particularly complex Paul Auster novel. Translating it into drawings helps bring out its mysterious rhythms.

The most successful graphic books have tended to suit semi-autobiographical stories set within a particular milieu. What’s so impressive about this graphic version of Paul Auster’s novel City of Glass – the first volume in his highly acclaimed New York Trilogy, published in 1985 – is that such a rich and coherent adaptation has been created from this particularly complex and abstract literary work.

The timing of the publication in the UK (it was first published in the USA in 1994) reflects the growing respectability of comics and graphic novels. The seminal Maus books by Art Spiegelman, in which the personal and the political combine to devastating effect, paved the way. More recently, Joe Sacco’s award-winning Palestine has been its nearest equal. Last year, there was the mightily impressive McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern No 13, a compendium of all that is good in contemporary comics, and also Spiegelman’s own In the Shadow of No Towers. The second part of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, a memoir about growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution and the Iran-Iraq war, has recently been published to yet more glowing reviews, and the reissue of David B’s Epileptic, an expressionistic story about his brother’s epilepsy, has received far more coverage in the broadsheets than had it been a novel.

The demographic appears to have shifted towards a readership that senses that the form’s superheroes heyday has passed. Graphic novels have moved out of the ghetto.

City of Glass begins: “It was a wrong number that started it,” (coincidentally, Alex Garland’s recent illustrated novella, The Coma, starts with a phone too: “Until the telephone rang.”). Daniel Quinn lives in New York and this wrong number precipitates a breakdown of sorts. Following the death of his wife and son, Peter, he starts to write mystery novels under the pseudonym of William Wilson. He slips in and out of assuming the identity of Wilson’s private eye, Max Work. After receiving a series of calls asking for Paul Auster of the detective agency of that name, Quinn decides to pretend to be Auster.

The case he takes on involves the tale of Peter Stillman who locked up his son, also called Peter, in a room for several years in order to see if there was such a thing as “God’s language” (an actual case is referred to: the wild boy of Aveyron). Every time the young Peter would speak in words from our world, the world after the Fall, he would be beaten. So young Peter’s not in great shape, and his father, who was locked up in a mental hospital for 13 years, is about to be released. Peter’s wife, Victoria, fears that he’ll come after his son.

There are some very clever echoes: the book’s basic three-by-three grid is used metronomically throughout the young Peter Stillman’s memorable monologue to Quinn (both evoking the bars of his prison and his nine years behind them). This being Auster, there are literary clues dotted around (the reader, appropriately, has detective work to do himself), such as an early reference to Don Quixote, whom we notice shares the same initials as Daniel Quinn. And then you notice that the doorbell sign below “P Auster” in one frame reads “Menard” (referring to Borges’ Pierre Menard, in the short story Author of the Quixote). But these wayward details never obscure the gripping, mysterious narrative which, if anything, seems to deepen on re-reading.

It is precisely because Auster’s tale is so abstract and complex that a visual translation was worthwhile. Spiegelman thinks City of Glass a “breakthrough work”. Auster apparently warned that several attempts to turn City of Glass into a film script had failed miserably. But this is not merely an adaptation or an interpretation of the book; instead it’s a wonderful new hybrid that has drawn the inner rhythms from Auster’s Borgesian tale. It is labyrinthine in its structure, shifting around under a varying focus. It seems mainly to be about identity and language but it is also to do with obsession, loneliness, forgetting and the city; part detective story, part metaphysical quest (I’d love to see Karasik and Mazzucchelli have a crack at Other People by Martin Amis). The pen and ink artistry here is as exacting as Auster’s language.

In one page, the focus effortlessly shifts from a fingerprint to a brain to a maze to a padlocked room. The grid floats free as Quinn ponders the unanswerable conundrums of his own existence, and we see that the city of glass is his own shattered identity.

City of Glass by Paul Auster, adaptation by Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli with a foreword by Art Spiegelman, Faber & Faber, £8.99

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