City of Glass by Paul Auster

22/01/05, The Times

The past ten years has seen an amazing efflorescence in a genre that used to be confined to the shadow areas, mostly reserved for anoraks and nerds, of a bookshop: comic strips or, as they are now called, “graphic novels”.

Freeing itself from its early associations with superheroes, funnies, infantile readers and engineering departments, the genre has now positioned itself as the form of the future, boasting a roll-call of names of genius: Alan Moore, Art Spiegelman, Daniel Clowes, Joe Sacco, Marjane Satrapi, Chris Ware, Igor Tuveri, the contributors to the stunningly lavish McSweeney’s showcase of American graphic artists. From suburban alienation to political commentary, from reportage to existential thriller, the genre seems capable of articulating everything with an eloquence, clarity and originality for which most older genres have to struggle uphill.

City of Glass comes with an added twist: it is Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli’s graphic adaptation of the first novella in Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, and, as Art Spiegelman says in his introduction to this first British publication of the graphic novel, “I couldn’t figure out why on earth anyone should bother to adapt a book into . . . another book!” Given that Auster’s novella is an unnerving, dark and playful meditation on masks and doubles, of the slippages and gaps between persons, personae and personalities, I can’t imagine anything more appropriate than this “strange doppelganger of the original book”: the graphic novel itself and the act of creating it become re-enactments of Auster’s themes.

The story is a big-dipper ride of chances, contretemps and unyielding opacities. Daniel Quinn, a writer of detective stories (featuring a private investigator called Max Work) under the nom de plume William Wilson, gets a wrong call in the middle of the night, asking him if he’s Paul Auster, the detective. Intrigued, he pretends to be Auster and meets the caller, Peter Stillman, and his wife, Virginia. Peter sketches out his astonishing history to Quinn: as a boy, he had been kept locked up in absolute darkness for nine years and abused by his father, also called Peter Stillman, a mad Columbia professor obsessed with discovering the prelapsarian language of man that would unite words to things, thereby restoring God’s language. He had used his son as the guinea pig in his experiment, but when it had failed he had set all his papers and his house on fire. The boy had been saved and sent to a hospital while the father had been judged insane and imprisoned. Now Stillman is about to be released and Virginia and Peter want Auster/Quinn to tail him so that he doesn’t try to harm his son again.

Quinn spots someone whom he thinks is Stillman and follows him around Manhattan, penning down his quarry’s every movement in a notebook, and eventually has three bizarre conversations with him. Then Stillman disappears. Agonised by the thought that he may have failed Peter and Virginia, he sets up vigil just outside their apartment. What happens after that defies belief and resists summarisation: it is nothing short of a comprehensive erosion of the self, a vortex of possibilities, mysteries, questions coming to centre on Quinn himself.

Karasik and Mazzucchelli’s book is a metaphysical thriller as taut as a drawn bowstring. It is also a viscerally moving tragedy of fathers and sons. They have shed the dead wood of Auster’s pseudo-Beckettian excesses, dispelling the slight air of pretentiousness and self-importance that stubbornly hovers around his work, and created a tight, echoing, monochrome symphony of loss and loneliness. For all its delicious allusions to Chandler, film noir, early American cartoon strips, even Dürer and Brueghel, the brooding presence behind the work is that of the Polish artist Andrzej Klimowski.

The economy of the illustrations is astonishing, too: in just one panel, they succeed to devastating effect in conveying the reason behind Quinn’s taking on the search for the mad father. Or in six panels, spread out over two pages, they give us a symmetry of trauma and grief about the death of children that leaves you shaking. And almost a character in all this is Manhattan, a pared-down black-and-white landscape of austere solitude where nothing is what it seems and where Quinn’s loss of self is just a few steps away in the urban labyrinth. A work alight with beauty, compassion, love and scintillating intelligence.