Paul Auster
City of Glass

By Max Leonard

Not, as one might expect, the original metaphysical detective story of 1985 (which is old news – but good news). Instead, the tale translated, transmuted, wrought in the language of comics by Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli in 1994, and now published for the first time in the UK.

Anyone familiar with Paul Auster's story, the first part of his justly famous New York Trilogy, will immediately recognise the ambition of this project. Within its pages we meet Daniel Quinn, disillusioned poet-turned-thriller writer, shocked out of his solitude by a late-night phone call. Down the line drifts an eerie voice asking for the Paul Auster Detective Agency. Intrigued, he accepts the assignment and is reluctantly drawn into assuming someone else's persona, and into a world of smoke and mirrors from which he will never escape. The voice is that of Peter Stillman, threatened by the imminent release from prison of his father, a Harvard professor whose insanity led him to lock away his son for nine years. Obsessed by God's language, he believed his son might learn it if he suffered no human interaction; now, years later, his damaged son fears for his life, and Daniel Quinn becomes Paul Auster, private detective. But the job is not as easy as he might have hoped. For what can he do when his identity is never certain, his intentions always in doubt, and the setting – New York City – one of fallen innocence and fragmented, shattered space?

To render a book about the discontinuities between language, the world, and human identity (a detective novel written by Kafka via Barthes) into the language of pictures – and specifically the quasi-cinematic form of the graphic novel – might seem like an eternal torture set by Kafka for Barthes in whatever afterlife saloon they nightly share a bottle of absinthe. Luckily, the illustrators spectacularly succeed, mainly because they are unafraid to take on the original at its own game, delving into abstractions and posing the weighty questions in a style all of their own.

Initially, the strokes are broad, clear, chiaroscuro, indebted to film noir. Yet as the complexities of the text become apparent, the illustrations shift register, borrowing from other works of art or creating a narrative through new and startling forms. Nowhere can this be seen better than in Stillman's extraordinary speech revealing the horrors of his childhood: as he recounts his father's attempt to erase his humanity, the speech bubble disappears down a vortex, flowing into an underworld of nothingness, morphing through disturbing shapes until it again issues from his mouth. Elsewhere, a city view dissolves to form a labyrinth, coalesces in a fingerprint, then zooms out to depict the fingerprint on a window in front of that very view. It's a vertiginous technique that is impossible to convey in words. It needs to be seen – but that's exactly the point.

Adaptations too often limit or debase the work they stem from. But here the authors have fashioned a work of art that distils the novel's presence while expanding upon its themes. Some of the more complicated musings upon language are passed over, but the words are well chosen and the illustrators at their most inventive where the challenge is greatest. New York, a tangible presence in both versions, is portrayed in striking wide drawings, all the more remarkable because they break the regular grid of the pages that is only very deliberately interrupted. For these frames also take their place in the investigation of language (here the language of comics), explicitly figured as the prison of the self, the limit and yet also the condition of communication, gradually disappearing as Quinn descends into madness. One of the last straws is his discovery that the 'real' Paul Auster is a novelist, augmenting the identity crises for the reader as for the protagonist. The final frames that draw back from the narrative, and in which Quinn achieves his wish to be nowhere, are breathtaking.

If this all sounds heavy going, theoretically challenging, then let me assure you it's not. I'm not a fan of the needlessly complicated, nor an aficionado of graphic novels – this is the first I've ever managed to start – but I devoured it as avidly as I have any traditional read and was thoroughly rewarded by the experience. In scope, style and every possible way, a revelation.

Adaptation by Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli
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