January 2005

Tom Bernard


City of Glass: The Graphic Novel by Paul Auster

What does it mean for a writer to write a story about the ways language keeps people apart? If you begin with the premise that words are an imperfect medium (and they are; just as anyone who has tried to use take what's in their brain and render it with the same clarity on the page), how can any exploration of that premise be anything but imperfect?

On the other hand, paying no attention to the man behind the curtain doesn't stop him from spinning his dials, sending you after the Wicked Witch or blowing smoke up your ass. That's what storytelling is all about. It's also about a clear line of demarcation: on one side of the line you have the world of the story, on the other, the real world.

So what happens when you pull back the curtain and discover that instead of Professor Marvel, you're faced with yet another curtain, with still more layers of illusion waiting behind that veil? At some point, trying to make your way through the real world with your sanity intact becomes an exercise in futility.

Paul Auster's City of Glass -- here given the graphic novel treatment by Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli in this reissue of their 1994 adaptation -- deals with the possibilities of this impossibility. Trying to explain the story is in some ways an exercise in futility, like guessing what's in a gift-wrapped package, or trying to discern the appearance of the third nesting doll in the set based on the appearance of the first doll. It's the story of a crime novelist named Quinn, and what happens when he is mistaken for a private detective named Paul Auster. Quinn agrees to take on a case intended for Auster, one that leads him down the path of obsession, and one that causes him to cross paths with a novelist named Paul Auster. The result is something akin to a film noir directed by Franz Kafka from a script by William S. Burroughs.

It's a tough trick to pull off, inserting yourself as a character in your own story. Not only is it tough, but it takes tremendous confidence or supreme arrogance to make such a choice in the first place. Fortunately for Auster, he has the skill to justify whichever of these characteristics he chose to embody. He deftly accomplishes the trick of making himself a character, not only in Quinn's life, but in the coda of the book, in the life of the narrator of the story, the unnamed auditor, a friend of Auster's who takes on the task of uncovering what happened to Quinn, and who, we fear, may have a similar fate in store. This sense of unease reminds the reader of the Auster who stands outside the story, the one who set these characters -- including the fictional Auster -- on their respective paths, and raises the question of what outside force pulls his strings.

The story Auster is compelled to tell maps the territory between the Tower of Babel (the biblical tale of how language was first broken and confusion sown among the ranks of humanity) and Cervantes's Don Quixote, the novel many consider the cornerstone of western fiction. In Auster's imagining, the territory in question looks an awful lot like New York City. The artists even go so far as to employ the device of depicting the Tower of Babel sitting atop an enormous I Love NY apple, slowly becoming a model of the city skyline like some manner of tchotchke picked up from the souvenir stand of the damned, or at least the terminally confused.

Auster's New York is a world of fractured realities, multiple, shifting and interwoven identities, and the quest for the solid ground of truth amid the quicksand of illusion. Karasik and Mazzucchelli do justice to this notion by being willing -- and capable -- of slipping the bonds of realism where the story calls for it and using Auster's language as a playground, conjuring up images that rise from the words and serve as a counterpoint to the narration before morphing into something else entirely. In this capacity, the artists employ the almost cinematic trick of creating close-ups and wide shots to focus or expand their field of vision as the dictates of their interpretation of the story dictate.

Mazzucchelli is probably best known among those who refer to their sequential art as "comics" rather than the more highbrow "comix" (which is to say, the geeks and fanboys, as opposed to the Comics Journal crowd) as Frank Miller's collaborator on the Batman: Year One and Daredevil: Born Again storylines. This is relevant in part because both of these stories deal with the ways characters define or redefine themselves when stripped to their essence. These stories are also about obsession, and the dark places it can take you. These themes weave in and out of City of Glass.

What's most impressive about this adaptation is how austere it is. Karasik and Mazzucchelli don't go for splashy, super-heroic layouts, but adopt a spare, heavy-lined style that anchors the story, even as they rush headlong into the surreal tangents implied by Auster's text. The result is something like a waking dream; even though the artists keep showing possible avenues of escape, the reader ends up feeling trapped in the story.

The story, part of Auster's New York Trilogy, is a meditation on New York as entity. It's a city that can chew you up and spit you out. A city where parents do horrible, monstrous things to their children (or maybe they don't; it all depends on what you take to be the truth of the story). A place that holds out ruin in one hand, redemption in the other, and forces you to choose which you want, which you deserve. However, this is not an either/or, blue pill/red pill choice. The path of ruin is not a last chance journey, and redemption still carries the possibility that things can come crashing down.

Ultimately, there's too much grit, and cruelty and madness in the story for it to serve as a romantic picture of the city, but there's also a sense of resignation, of accepting the truth about the thing you love, of seeing all the flaws and loving it all the same. As a result, this collaboration creates a city of glass that is simultaneously reflective and transparent.

City of Glass: The Graphic Novel, story by Paul Auster; adapted by Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli
ISBN 0312423608
144 Pages