text menu at bottom of page

"Nowheresville"
Alex Shakar

Paul Auster, adapted by Paul Karasik and David Mazzuchelli, graphics by David Mazzucchelli
City of Glass, a graphic mystery
Neon Lit (Avon Books)
138pp, $12.50



It almost sounds like an all-star band: Paul Auster (on words); David Mazzucchelli (on graphics); Art Spiegelman (series design); Paul Karasik (adaptation); Bob Callahan (series editor). This is Neon Lit: Noir Illustrated, the graphic (crime) novel series whose first number was a reworking of Auster's City of Glass. Readers familiar with the work of the graphic artists (Batman, Maus, Raw, Who Shot JFK?, respectively) will recognize a concern with geometries of the mind, married on these pages to Auster's preoccupation with the world making (and breaking) nature of language:

Peter Stillman, who thinks he is being stalked, is represented here as a talking marionette, literalizing Auster's description of his movements: "It was like watching a marionette trying to walk without strings." In the preceding panels, Stillman's voice has emerged from a bird's beak, a sink drain, a cave painting, a pile of dogshit, and, in one of this "graphic mystery's" many self-references, a comic-strip character. Stillman, as his narrative reveals, was a "wild boy", locked in a dark room from ages two to eleven without any human contact, save the beatings his father gave him whenever he spoke a word. The father, a religion and philosophy scholar also named Peter Stillman, was hoping that removed from human language, his child would learn to speak "God's language." The story's protagonist, a mystery writer named Daniel Quinn, has been mistaken for a private detective named Paul Auster and hired to protect the younger Peter Stillman from his father, who has just been released from an insane asylum and has threatened to kill his son.

While the above paragraph may, in the broadest strokes, summarize the premise City of Glass (it might adequately describe a City of Glass, the Major Motion Picture), it does little to convey the actual content of the book, for the real sleuthwork going on here is an investigation into the postlapsarian state of language, the gap between signifier and signified and literature's ongoing attempt to bridge it.

This is a dangerous game, tantamount to trying to rebuild the Tower of Babel (Stillman Sr.'s stated intention). For if words are rejoined with essences, binary opposition breaks down, difference disappears, the chain of signification collapses and we are left in a state of absolute meaning which is equivalent to absolute meaninglessness. City of Glass effectively allegorizes this process, in large part by means of a proliferation of doubles. Daniel Quinn is an author; as is the character Paul Auster, as is Peter Stillman Sr.; and Peter Stillman jr. fancies himself a famous poet; Auster's son is named Daniel; Daniel Quinn's dead son is named Peter, and so on.

By the end all these characters have collapsed into a single identity, at which point the story of Daniel Quinn comes to an end. Starving and naked in an empty, darkening room (in which "night and day were no more than relative terms. At any given moment it was always both."), Daniel Quinn thinks through the Mets' lineup and realizes that Mookie Wilson's real name is William Wilson, his pen name. Cryptically, he concludes that "the two Wilsons canceled each other out." Here, not only do distinctions between characters collapse, but also distinctions between personal and public history, and between literature and "reality" as well. (And to muddy the waters still further, let us not forget W.S. [William] Wilson, a contributor to ebr and an acquaintance of Auster, as well as Poe's William Wilson.) Thus Quinn is able to wonder "why he had the same initials as Don Quixote," and Stillman Sr. reads the world, as all truly religious people should, as a literary text in which every detail has a symbolic significance: George Washington's cherry tree becomes the tree of life, and the pattern of his own steps on the streets of Manhattan spells out the name of his grandest design.

Such an insistently language-oriented text may seem an unlikely candidate for adaptation into the emergent graphic novel form, a fact which makes Karasik's and Mazzucchelli's success all the more commendable. While some of Auster's effects are weakened (much of the prose is lost, and with it, many Austerian subtleties), more often than not they are reinforced, and occasionally even supplemented by complexities unique to the medium.

Throughout the book, Karasik and Mazzucchelli use visual cues to underscore the proliferation of doubles described above. If the character Paul Auster's son Daniel looks familiar, it is because he's the spitting image of the photograph of Daniel Quinn's dead son, replete with yo-yo in hand. If this detail may verge on heavy-handed, other visual tricks employ a sleighter hand. When Quinn confronts Stillman Sr. in Central Park, pretending to be his son, if we look carefully we may notice a boy sitting on a park bench who could be none other than Daniel Quinn as a child; this image helps to link Quinn symbolically with the story's children as well as its fathers.

Other visual linkages abound. While Peter Stillman becomes a marionette before our eyes, Daniel Quinn becomes a ventriloquist's dummy. Quinn imagines himself to be a dummy operated by William Wilson, his pen name. (In this image, the ventriloquist Wilson is depicted as a shadow figure. Stillman Sr.'s pen name, Henry Dark, is also embodied as a shadow, enhancing their doppleganger relation.) While both of these puppet figures are implicit in the original text, the graphic form's literal renderings add weight to the metaphors. Karasik and Mazzucchelli embellish the theme still further by comparing Stillman Sr. to a wind-up toy which walks the streets mechanically, as though compelled by some greater force. And when Quinn himself takes to wandering the streets, he is drawn walking robotically, expressionless - without so much as a mouth - across a map of Manhattan (however this remains a more striking scene in the original, wherein Quinn becomes little more than a puppet of the author, walking an extensively detailed route around Manhattan, seemingly for no other purpose than to trace the author's design).

Indeed, Quinn is often depicted without a mouth, and his eyes are simple dots. This is no accident, for there is a hierarchy of sketchiness at work in the renderings of characters. Quinn's face, for example, is less detailed than that of his own fictional creation, the detective Max Work. "Quinn," it is explained, "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." Work is drawn in the chiseled lines of Dick Tracy, with all the backlit shading effects of film noir. He is visibly generic, but drawn with more care; he is larger, his presence more commanding. If Quinn's self pales before his Work, it pales still further when juxtaposed with the character Paul Auster, who possesses the liveliest face in the book. Auster's appearance ushers in an exterior "reality", one which will ultimately prove illusory, but important as a function of the story's territorial expansion, incorporating ever-greater, ever-realer "realities" into its literary domain.

Quinn's sketchiness, which illustrates the shakiness of his selfhood and foreshadows his textual dissolution, is rivaled by that of Peter Stillman, the ghost in the machine; Peter's sense of self is so dissipated that he often refers to himself in the third person, and disappears, as described above, into a series of random objects while he talks.

But there is one figure which is sketchier still, a character unique to the graphic version. It first appears shortly after Quinn receives the first phone call for the detective Paul Auster:

The sequence suggests that the figure appears in Quinn's dream; it appears to be a child's crude drawing of a child in pain. The notion that a sketchy graphic novel character dreams in sketchier stick figures is a clever conceit, one which is consistent with Peter Stillman's imagining his own voice emerging from a comic strip character. And yet this child figure, crude as it may be, is the most expressive face in the book. Its placement in the midst of the metafictional discussion enacts that discussion. The center of the book has shifted, and this image has become central. It will appear again and again, each time in a surprising new context which will add to its significance and to its visceral impact. Thus it will come to signify his dead child; Peter Stillman; his anger at Stillman Sr. (and suggest, through their doppleganger relationship, the possibility of Quinn's own culpability in the death of his son); Quinn's own childhood; a generalized sense of lost innocence; and the alienation of man from his fellow man and from himself. The crying mouth becomes a black hole into which every character eventually is collapsed. If the center of the book is everywhere, so is this crude image, the repressed unconscious of graphical representation, the most universally understood image and therefore perhaps the closest to the visual language of God.

"You see," explains Stillman Sr., "I am inventing a new language." He does this by giving names to things that don't have names, broken things: tattered umbrellas, severed heads of dolls. "When an umbrella breaks and you get wet, is it still an umbrella"" Stillman muses. "It has changed, but the word is the same. It is imprecise, false. [...] I invent new words that will correspond to the things." He names these things in hopes of reuniting words with their essences. If he can accomplish this feat, he will be able to rebuild the Tower of Babel, originally attempted at a time when "the whole earth was of one language, and one speech." Thus, Stillman is a metafictional detective, trying to crack the toughest linguistic mystery of them all, the case of the arbitrary signifier. And the mystery is the work of God, the destroyer of the Tower of Babel, the original mystifier of mankind.

One of the principal functions of literary fiction, the story of City of Glass suggests, is to demystify existence. It is no accident that Daniel Quinn and the character Paul Auster discuss how the ur-novel Don Quixote was written to debunk the false representations of life in the courtly romance genre. In a similar fashion, City of Glass debunks the detective genre (as Bob Callahan succinctly summarizes in his introduction to the graphic version: "In Dashiell Hammett's world, decent, tough-minded individuals called private detectives still succeed in restoring the social order, by redressing the crime of sin. In Auster's era - our own era - crime is inherent: it can't be reversed. And the social order will not be restored, for it never existed in the first place.") The idealistic, courtly-romance-besotted Don Quixote is an object of ridicule in a scurrilous, materialistic world; and the harder Daniel Quinn tries to tie up the loose ends of his mystery, the more he is himself unraveled. One could also argue that the graphic novel's mission is at least in part to debunk the similarly dangerous oversimplifications of superhero comics - again, the individual hero restoring a clearly defined social order - in which case the illustrated City of Glass can be viewed as a double success.

Yet in order for any literary novel to demystify, it must necessarily engage in an even greater mystification. It must present a more "real", more convincing, totalizing and engrossing version of reality than the one it critiques; the world is shown to contain not only knights and damsels, but also rogues and windmills, not only passionate, noble aristocrats, but also careless, selfish aristocrats, as well as small-minded, bourgeois townspeople. In the case of City of Glass, the world contains not only hard-boiled palaver but also discourses ranging from Biblical exegeses to the endless gripes about the New York Mets. The graphic version aptly utilizes an equivalent visual eclecticism, in which Renaissance paintings mix with street sign symbology and German expressionism.

Of course, the one item which City of Glass stocks even more plentifully than discourses is authors - it is a world filled with authors: hack authors, insane authors, irresponsible authors, deliberately misleading authors. None of these authors can be trusted, for they speak a false, fallen tongue:

Looking at the above illustration, we are easily convinced that our words are very different from the things they represent; after all, the word "shadow" does not look like a shadow. The suggestion then, is that if our words looked more like what they represented, they would be closer to the essences of things. Of course, according to this logic, a drawing of a shadow is more "essential" than the word. This privileging of visual representation over verbal representation threatens to undermine one of the central effects of the original City of Glass - namely, that it puts the protagonist, and with him the reader, in a house of words, and then collapses the house, so that nothing remains but the significationless sound and fury of the words. If at the end of the graphic version we could still cling with some assurance to visual representations, this would defeat a major purpose of the book.

But Karasik and Mazzucchelli seem aware of the danger. Indeed, from the very first frames they challenge the reliability of visual representation. The opening image is a telephone, which in subsequent frames is shown to be only a picture of a phone on a phonebook, on which rests an "actual" phone; the "actual" phone is represented in slightly more detail, but we can easily envision this phone being yet another in a series, a hierarchy of representations, each one slightly more realistic than the last; it prepares us for the ensuing hierarchy of character sketchiness, as well as for its inevitable collapse: in the end no representation can be trusted. The phones are all the same phone, the characters are all the same character; even the places are all the same, as Quinn discovers in the course of his walks:

The street gives way to lines, becoming a maze, becoming a fingerprint on a window overlooking the street: the cycle of representation swings full circle. Representation gives way to cubism, the Modernist crisis of meaning out of which emerges the detective genre, with its glib assurance that order can be restored. And yet by the end of the walk, the street is not precisely the same, for never again will we see it with our former innocence. "In New York," Stillman Sr. insists, "brokenness is everywhere. Broken people. Broken things. Broken thoughts." All that remains, for us, is to learn the language of brokenness.

 

 

 

>--thREADs     reVIEWs--<  ebr6--<