Thursday, September 24, 2009
Look, I like Asterios Polyp but enough already. Has anybody written an unkind or critical word about this book? Honestly-any cursory examination of reviews across the web reveals unanimous praise-really, seriously, unanimous praise- for David Mazzuchelli's graphic novel about an arrogant architect with relationship issues. Look for reviews about any other book of 2009 and tally positive and negatives. How many receive one hundred percent positives? How 'bout books from any year receiving unanimous praise? The Ghost Writer or Zuckerman Bound or any of the other Philip Roth novels that seem to have inspired "Polyp" haven't received raves on this scale. Nor has War and Peace for that matter.
What 's the deal? There are two possibilities (to argue on Polyp's own terms): either Asterios Polyp is the greatest novel of this -or any year--or-- there is some serious flaw in the critical discourse growing around the graphic novel.
I vote number two.
This is not to say that I don't like Asterios Polyp. I do. I enjoyed reading it. and more than that, I admire it. There is a great deal to admire in Mazzuchelli's work, he is a consummate craftsman. Nevertheless, I don't love Asterios Polyp. and I've tried. I really have. We've gone out several times now, but it just hasn't clicked. I had to cut him loose.
And to my surprise, I'm not alone in this assessment. I saw AP sitting on a colleague's bookshelf at work, the ensuing discussion revealed that she also "liked it", but didn't love it. And I know of at least two similar responses in my immediate circle of friends and colleagues.(Yes, I know everyday people who read graphic novels-amazing!) So-despite my neuroses -it's not just me. But I have to ask, where is that kind of ambivalence among comics critics and reviewers? Where are the critical chops?
A preponderance of the reviews seem to be caught up in illustrating the sheer number of Mazzuchelli's formal devices, literary references and repeating motifs-as though this were an undergraduate course in post-modern lit--and as if the sheer number of such will overwhelm any potential misgivings --about the book, the characters, the story. (imaginary book club meeting: Reader 1:" I didn't really care about Asterios" Reader 2 "But you don't understand! he's like Orpheus! You know-in mythology! And there's duality! and look at how everyone is drawn different! according to the way they perceive the world! get it?! get it??") As if this were a mechanism defending against some imagined threat to the seriousness of the graphic novel. As if a ton formal devices were equivalent to passion for a character and a story.
Among the few caveats expressed by critics, this ( largely ignored)observation in Douglas Wolk's NYTimes review of AP:
"...The result is as overdetermined as any graphic novel has ever been — formalist to its core. And if the core seems to be empty, Mazzucchelli has anticipated that, too: at the precise center of the book is a two-page image of an enormous crater, about which our hero quips: “Now, that’s a hole.”
A point that strikes me as fairly damning, yet Wolk glosses over it as if he were looking past a spot on the carpet, a smudge on a window. There is a hole in the center of the book. Wolk very nearly turns that observation into a complement---suggesting that Mazzuchelli is detached enough to perceive that he is not only constructing an empty shell of a narrative, but that he contrived to do so. And that is somehow a good thing.
A number of reviews note some weakness in the story, but most choose to underplay this in lieu of Mazzuchelli's dazzling array of formal devices. Yet formal techniques, no matter how ingenious, do not necessarily add up to a great narrative, and AP's narrative seems to exist primarily to provide Mazzuchelli the opportunity to explore ideas, concepts and formal tricks-rather than out of any inner necessity. Asterios Polyp is such a modest tale-an intimate tale--told not with the touch of the miniaturist (which would be appropriate for a story of this scale) but with the detached air of the academic-devising characters as allegorical stand-ins, personifications of abstract ideas. Mazzuchelli doesn't convey passion for his characters and his story so much as cool detachment; a little more of the former and he might have created a less ambitious but more heartfelt work.
Despite this rather general complaint, there are some absolutely exquisite passages in Asterios Polyp where one glimpses the poetry in the poet; a sequence of intimate moments featuring Asterios' estranged wife Hana is beautiful, poignant, ultimately heart-breaking-but that kind of direct, emotional engagement doesn't last. The fire sequence at the beginning of the book is as good as anything in contemporary comics, but the sense of urgency that propels it dissipates with the flames. There are others, but too often one feels the artist peering over one's shoulder, pointing out the intricate details and references in every panel.
That Mazzuchelli ultimately cares more about concept than character is revealed in the book's ending-a blunder of massive proportions in which he obliterates his protagonist and displays a complete disregard for the small, but potentially meaningful journey Asterios has travelled--in effect trivializing the entire narrative--all in the hope of making some grand DeLillo-esque statement.
One recent analysis of the ending finds justification for it (not surprisingly) in the formal techniques that Mazzuchelli is so adept at, and in the very structure of the narrative; the ending functioning as bookend with the narrowly avoided disaster that begins the book. The suggestion is that such an end was inevitable-built into the foundation of Asterios' story. And yet the book's conclusion feels so coolly dismissive, so overblown and contrived. An ending seemingly about the intrusion of the unexpected and random in life is nonetheless the most pre-determined and controlled of events.
Again-it indicates that the artist is more in love with the grand gesture than with the small pleasures his story affords. One never gets the sense that the author is carried away with his characters so completely that he's lost in them-that they may be steering the narrative somewhere unexpected, somewhere off the map--not for a moment does he trust enough in his characters to let that happen, to risk losing control—and despite all of my admiration for his craft, technique and inventiveness- I think that's where the book loses me--and thus lands on my bookshelf -to be admired from afar. Not dog-eared and next to the drawing board-when I look to something for inspiration. For that- I'll turn to Rubber Blanket.
Too often the critical reaction simply has echoed the formalist stance and ambition of the author- perhaps demonstrating a collective desire that this book, and thus the graphic novel, be taken seriously as literature, as art, once and for all. I, too, had lined up to buy Asterios Polyp hoping for the graphic novel of the century. (high expectations sure-but it is David Mazzuchelli, after all. ) That I didn't get it is no sweat off my nose, I'm sure he's got another in him- whatever he does next I'll be in line for it, he's that kind of artist's artist. But somehow, I think when the next great graphic novel arrives, whether its by David Mazzuchelli or someone else –it won't be quite so tidy. No, it’s likely to be a far messier affair…like life.
(Despite my premise-there are indeed some reviews of the work that are truly illuminating:
Matthias Wivel at Metabunker
and the afore-mentioned discussion of the ending:
Derik Badman at Madinkbeard
and I'm sure there are others I missed-- but I read enough that I wanted to toss my laptop out of the window)