TCJ 300: Asterios Polyp reviewed by Charles Hatfield

Posted by on January 5th, 2010 at 7:53 AM


Asterios Polyp
David Mazzucchelli
Pantheon Books
344 pp., $29.95
Color, Hardcover
ISBN: 9780307377326

The title character from Asterios Polyp, ©2009 David Mazzucchelli.

Great things have been expected from cartoonist David Mazzucchelli. Asterios Polyp is a great thing. In fact it’s one of the rare graphic novels worthy of the tag.

Its ambitions are grand. Whatever the idea of the novel has meant to novel-readers — a microcosmic fictive world, a deep evocation of consciousness, a series of extraordinary encounters with the ordinary, a fluid genre capable of multiple voices and outlooks — Asterios Polyp aims to get there. In the process it pulls off both a dazzling constellation of effects and, more importantly, a beautifully observed and moving story. By dint of its scope, fullness and overarching form, the book confirms that Mazzucchelli took the challenge of the graphic novel just as seriously as he took the challenge of the comics short story the better part of 20 years ago.

Mazzucchelli’s last new book-length work, his collaboration with Paul Karasik on the Paul Auster-based City of Glass, appeared long enough ago (1994) to have slipped out of print, become a cult classic, gotten reprinted 10 years later, and served as Exhibit A in numerous critical and academic analyses. Since then his output has been slender and scattered, anthologized here and there in unpredictable fashion, the only constant about the work being the way each new story, however short, seemed a departure and a considered step forward. Though fairly quiet, Mazzucchelli has not been idle all these years: His track record is one of artistic challenges taken up with deliberateness, skill and an ever-expanding technical palette (a progress spectacularly on view in a current exhibition of his work curated by Dan Nadel for NYC’s Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art). Asterios Polyp represents the harvest of more years — I expect Mazzucchelli is tired of deflecting the question of just how many more — of cultivation and study.

A novel about an intellectual run to ground, Asterios Polyp is at once a piece of realist fiction (with some magical-realist license) and an argument for the futility of realism as a critical standard for comics. Its orbit is that of contemporary literary fiction — to that end, its selective attention to the minutiae of daily life is impressive — but its graphic delivery is extravagant, lush and well nigh fantastical. A character study at heart, the novel takes its aggressively uncommercial title from its protagonist, a highfalutin professor of architecture at an unnamed Cornell-like university who writes books with titles like Modernism with a Human Face. That’s Asterios Polyp, renowned as a “paper architect” (none of his designs has ever been built in reality) but now in retreat from life: disaffected, detached, anomic; divorced, alone, rudderless and lost. This is familiar turf — the territory of that durable genre, the academic novel, which tends to be populated with spoiled and unhappy Laputans — but Mazzucchelli won’t quite go there. Instead he starts by pitching his protagonist head-first out of his malaise: in the novel’s opening pages, Asterios’s apartment is summarily struck by lightning and burned to ash (on his 50th birthday, no less). Asterios escapes with the clothes on his back, a wallet full of money, and a handful of small, but as it turns out, significant, objects rescued from the blaze. He takes a Greyhound at random to the town of Apogee, where he falls in with auto mechanic Stiffly (Stiff) Major and his comical household and friends, including wife Ursula (a zaftig earth-goddess figure), young son Jackson and a loose band of other local types. Apogee becomes the scene of the novel’s unfolding present tense, and these parts of the story have a joyous waywardness that reminds me of Jaime Hernandez. Alternating with these are flashback chapters that recount how Asterios got to where he is now, specifically his marriage to, intellectual competition with, and eventual divorce from the sculptress Hana Sonnenschein (ha), the love of his life. Hana is the character whose complementary presence gives the story its wholeness. We can tell at times that Asterios keenly feels her absence.

Ursula from Asterios Polyp, ©2009 David Mazzucchelli.

In fact, his life seems to be have been structured by another such absence, for, Elvis-like, he had an identical twin who was stillborn, and, seemingly as a result, Asterios is obsessed with twinnings, doublings and dialectical tensions of all kinds. He has a systematic, system-making mind. In a curious conceit, Mazzucchelli has the novel narrated in part by the lost twin — or perhaps (as I ended up thinking) by Asterios himself in the third person, in a kind of distanced and dissociated frame of mind. If the thought of this never-known double haunts Asterios, it is the twinning of Asterios and Hana that gives the novel its shape. In the end, one doubling overtakes the other, and Asterios emerges, as the saying goes, a changed man.

It should be clear from the above that, efforts at realism notwithstanding, Asterios Polyp is comical in spirit — at times even archly satiric — and also thick with obvious symbolism. A nifty symbolic watchworks, the novel is at once playfully knowing but also mannered and deliberate. It dances a suave and elegant dance with formalism — slick, purposeful, methodical — as if to make of itself a kind of system. Bit by bit, sequence by sequence, Mazzucchelli builds up and then cannily deploys a graphic/symbolic vocabulary unique to the book, a vocabulary that, remarkably, is dense but not hermetic; accessible, eminently readable, but never sledgehammer-obvious. Reading the novel from end to end means learning and internalizing this system — my point being that, like the best comics, Asterios Polyp works up a graphic language local to itself, then invites us to become fluent. Choices in coloring, lettering, hachuring (or its absence), perspectival depth, and layout and design are braided into patterns of recurrence and variation that make of the book a complete, and complexly patterned, graphic world. In short, the novel is its own ecosystem. I’ve never seen a comic, long or short, whose disposition of formal elements is more careful and expressive. Every character speaks in his/her own font (that is, hand), yet the effect is not overwhelming. Every chapter observes and serves to extend the book’s color scheme, yet the consistency of Mazzucchelli’s choices is not suffocating. Formal rigor and lightness of touch have seldom moved so well in step.

For all its meticulousness, then, Asterios Polyp does not feel like a straitening exercise in formal discipline. Mazzucchelli makes generous choices that continually spring the reader from the clutches of formalism, not least of which is his relaxing of the page grid and welcoming of negative space, here deployed to positively poetic ends. The book’s layout is protean, adaptable, endlessly delightful, never stifling. Many of its pages have a loosely jointed, open quality: panels and figures float in white space, as if to breathe more freely. The panels tend to be separated — almost but not quite decoupled — rather than braced against each other, abutting, in traditional gridlike fashion. This approach is in invigorating contrast to that of Mazzucchelli’s best-known previous works: the relentless gridding of City of Glass, the full-to-the-margins graphic intensity of Rubber Blanket, the ink-clotted noir of his Batman and Daredevil. With the exception of a very few short stories since 1996, density has been Mazzucchelli’s ambit; Asterios Polyp, by contrast, is a breeze.

Hana (whose name Asterios mistakes for the palindromic Hannah) and Asterios from Asterios Polyp, ©2009 David Mazzucchelli.

But what really frees this novel from the astringency of high formalism is Mazzucchelli’s teasing, dismantling way with systems and abstractions of all kinds. Above all, Asterios Polyp is a tolerantly human story with a healthy distrust of formal absolutes. Though it’s about a mind — a man — bound up in the pursuit of a pure logic, a man for whom abstractions trump lived-in experience, thankfully the book does not succumb to that sort of hermeticism. In effect, the novel is a supremely well-thought-out satire on a certain kind of thinking: the dialectical, the linear, the polarizing, the systematizing, architectonic, grandly alienated and disembodied. Asterios, we are told, has a yen for abstractions, in particular for balance, “counterpoise,” dialectics, and the linear analysis of space. He also has, we know, a very personal obsession with doubles that shapes his more conscious intellectual pursuits. The book, which is dialectical in design, shares this obsession to some extent yet also spoofs it; even as Mazzucchelli indulges in abstractions of his own, he teases out the limitations of the abstracting mind. He has fun with the limits of his protagonist’s vision, and with his own formal preoccupations. What’s more, Mazzucchelli counters Asterios’ sensibility with those of Hana and the other key players, bringing his overweening protagonist into vitalizing contact with people who take life on very different terms.

Parodic riffs on dialectical reasoning run throughout the book, as if in mocking reinforcement of Asterios’ fixation on twinning. Gradually Mazzucchelli lays out a cluster of dualities that participate in and reinforce each other: Asterios/Hana, male/female, blue/red, abstract/concrete, ideal/real, paper architecture/embodied sculpture, line/form, schematics/solids, empathy/egocentricity, logical abstractions/lived attention to the world. Where Asterios sees two shapes — blocks laid out next to each other, in an poignant echo of the World Trade Center towers — Hana sees three, that is, both the blocks and the negative space that at once separates and joins them. Whereas Asterios, when he draws into himself, become a canted architectural drawing in crisp blueline, Hana becomes a rounded space defined by a nest of organic line-work in red-magenta. Examples like this are legion. Going further, the book alternates between present/past and urban/rural by invoking a contrastive color scheme, with blue and magenta marshaled to tell the story of Asterios and Hana (the past) and yellow designated for everything that happens to Asterios after the fire (the present); thus Mazzucchelli introduces a dialectic tension even on the global level of novelistic structure. In this way the novel becomes a craftily self-reflexive artist’s book about art. That it turns out to be about more is one of its many graces.


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