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City Of Glass

City Of Glass back

Paul Auster, Paul Karasik & David Mazzucchelli


Page 45 Review by Stephen

As a short prose story, this is one of the most frightening things I've read; as a piece of comicbook fiction under ASTERIOS POLYP's Mazzucchelli, it's one of the cleverest. Amongst their shared subjects are identity and fabrication. The horror lies in the blurring then loss of former through the use of the latter, for to lose your sense of identity - of who you are, and how you relate to others - is to lose sight of reality itself, and thereby lies insanity.

You might want to take these sentences slowly!

Daniel Quinn is a writer. He employs words to create fiction. One of the fictions he has created is William Wilson, the supposed author of his books. Moreover, "Quinn had long ago stopped thinking of himself as real. If he lived now in the world at all, it was through the imaginary person of Max Work, the private-eye narrator of William Wilson's novels." So even before the first phone call, his relationship to the real world in which he has no friends is several times removed, and when he does venture out, it is to walk through the New York labyrinth: "Each time he took a walk, he felt he was leaving himself behind..."

That single page is a perfect example of Mazzucchelli's craft, visually tying the main themes together as the bricks of the New York tenements dissolve into a maze from which the reader pulls back to see it first perhaps as an overhead shot of the brain, then as a finger print left on the inside of his window. The mapping of New York will be revisited later on as Quinn, having assumed the role of detective, tracks the movements round the city of a crazy old man called Peter Stillman who drove his son insane in pursuit of the language of God. This he tried through isolation, by locking the boy up in the dark for thirteen years and beating the real words out of him, supposedly in order to prove the theories of Henry Dark... whom Stillman Sr. had invented.

Quinn first hears of this when the telephone rings and a voice floats through the receiver asking for Paul Auster (yes, the same name as the man who wrote the original prose!) of the "Auster Detective Agency". At first he says there is no Paul Auster there, but when the phone rings again (on the anniversary of the night he was conceived - italics mine), the Max Work P.I. in him cannot resist. He pretends to be Paul Auster, and agrees to meet Stillman's son, also called Peter. What he finds is a young man who can barely function any longer.

"I am Peter Stillman. I say this of my own free will. That is not my real name. No.
"Of course, my mind is not all it should be, no. But nothing can be done about that.
"This is called speaking. The words come out for a moment and die. Strange, is it not? I myself have no opinion...
"I am Peter Stillman. That is not my real name. Thank you.
"My real name is Mr. Sad. What is your name, Mr. Auster? Perhaps you are the real Mr. Sad and I am no one."

Sometimes Peter refers to himself in the first person singular, sometimes as "Peter". To accentuate this, rather than employ a regularly positioned word balloon, Mazzucchelli deliberately isolates the words from the speaker. At first they flow out of his throat (which looks stranger than you might imagine), then they're assigned to Charon crossing the Styx, a caveman painting, a city drain, a plug hole, a well, and so on until, behind the bars of a locked jail, they drift from the open mouth of a broken puppet of a boy, abandoned at the bottom of a dark pit.

That's the level of lateral thinking Mazzucchelli's put into the work, when the image must be as telling as the phrase. The book's full of panels with similarly symbolic imagery and expressionistic storytelling. As Quinn - or Wilson or Work or Auster - awaits Stillman Sr. at the station and the train "CLACK BEDRACK LACK YAYAYA"s past him, he's split into multiple Quinns, each with a different facade. Later he will go on to call himself both Peter Stillman and Henry Dark, and if you think this work has layers on top of layers already, Quinn eventually resorts to tracking down the Paul Auster he's been impersonating, only to discover that Paul Auster isn't the detective he was hoping for, but a writer who's currently embarked on an essay about Don Quixote, an attack on make-believe which Cervantes pretended he never wrote but merely translated.

Now, if you're already fully frazzled, I would caution you against reading the entire New York Trilogy back to back because it seriously did my own head in, but I can assure you that as a single graphic novel this is both more lucid than this review might suggest, and a great deal more inventive than almost any other translation from one medium to another. Mazzucchelli's done far more than merely illustrate the words: he's interpreted them, and the ideas behind them, distilling the work without at any point diluting it, then charging it with associated images that go straight to the brain.