A Classic Graphic Take on a Classic Noir Novel
Paul Auster’s City of Glass; An Adaptation by Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli
The hollow feeling of most movies made from exemplary books comes from the imagination’s visual image of beloved characters being supplanted by actors who are nearly always wrong for their parts. True, the occasional Sean Connery or Robert Mitchum successfully becomes a James Bond or Philip Marlowe. But viewers remain beholden to the million other filters that come between a book and its Hollywood remake – the directors, producers, costumers and test audiences. The inevitable result is an experience that simply cannot match the intimacy or spirit of a good book.
And yet, there are some books that so stimulate the imagination it seems a shame to surrender the idea of their visual representation. Paul Karasik and David Mazzuchelli’s graphic adaptation of Paul Auster’s eerie detective novel, City of Glass, marks the volcanic debut of a new line of books called Neon Lit. The project is the brainchild of Bob Callahan and Art Spiegelman, who, together with the authors, boast an impressive high-brow comic résumé. Spiegelman is the author of the acclaimed Maus graphic novels about his father’s holocaust memories and was the editor of the influential adult comic series Raw, to which Karasik also contributed. Mazzuchelli is best known for illustrating Batman: Year One and is also the chief contributor/publisher/editor of Rubber Blanket, an eccentric collection of comic oddities. Callahan is known for his JFK series and for editing 1991’s definitive guide to alternative comics, The New Comics Anthology.
Credentials alone, however, hardly guarantee the artistic success at the pitfall-ridden pursuit of fulfilling the visual potential of a novel. In fact, Auster’s 1985 story of language and the pursuit of meaning is clearer and more powerful in this form than in its original text.
The plot of City of Glass meanders between the not altogether opposite worlds of the philosopher and the hard-boiled detective. Daniel Quinn is the erstwhile poet whose wife and son are dead. Using a nom de plume, Quinn has taken to writing mystery novels about a Central-casting flatfoot. In Quinn’s apartment one evening, the phone rings and a voice asks for Paul Auster of the Auster Detective Agency. Upon the third repetition of this uncanny wrong number, Quinn says that he is indeed Paul Auster. Thus Quinn plummets into a spidery mystery wherein a boy and his stepmother are in terror of the boy’s delusional but brilliant father, Peter Stillman, a former professor awaiting his release from a mental hospital where he was sent after torching his house with his son locked inside.
The basic rectangular-panel format is followed religiously throughout this black-and-white work. The illustrations are cramped, nine to a digest-sized page, in a way that emphasizes the claustrophobia of the story and its Manhattan setting. Characters are drawn with thick outlines that tend to pronounce the emaciated quality of Quinn, in particular, and backgrounds vary from detailed to non-existent. The text is also lettered in heavy ink, at times adding a literal heft and darkness to the weighty and somber story line.
Karasik and Mazzuchelli transform City of Glass from a quirky and cerebral detective novel into a disturbing and soulful mystery. The book’s drawings are so skillfully rendered that they seamlessly replace the chunks of text removed to accommodate their inclusion – a formidable achievement given the conceptual nature of the story. In fact, it is in the more abstract passages of the novel that the illustrations particularly enhance the experience. In one scene, Quinn ruminates on the topic of walking New York’s streets in an effort to lose himself to their complexity. Mazzuchelli depicts an incremental metamorphosis of an apartment building into an intricate maze that dissolves into a fingerprint on Quinn’s window. Later, Quinn’s wandering figure is superimposed atop a photocopied map of Manhattan, once again showcasing Mazzuchelli’s sensitivity to the edgy and fluid tone of the narrative. Always, these series maintain Auster’s central theme – that words and ideas collapse into labyrinths of meaning that cannot be navigated.
Hired to protect the family from the pathological Professor Stillman, Quinn eventually descends into his own obsessive madness. It is in the depiction of this degradation that the particular resonance of the graphic novel resides. Rather than spelling out Quinn’s physical and spiritual decay, this format allows the slow consumption of its protagonist to be witnessed, to show instead of to tell. The reader sees Quinn become gaunt and bleary-eyed as he maintains his useless vigil outside the apartment of his charges. No graphic-ization can rescue a weak story or overcome a thin character. But this version of City of Glass proves that an already smart novel can be greatly enhanced by a sensitive and thoughtful graphic adaptation.
Paul Auster’s City of Glass Adaptation by Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli (Avon, $12.00)