Thursday, September 24, 2009

Throat Polyps

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)


  1. Ng Suat Tong busted its chops a bit at The Comics Reporter after making much the same "where's the negative criticism?" statement:

  2. Thanks Sean-missed that, obviously.(finger pointed at skull-"pow"!) An excellent article it is too.

  3. This is pretty much the perfect review of the book, actually. "Ambivalent" is how I felt after reading AP. I love Mazzucchelli's work, and I'm not sorry I have his latest, but it's nothing to shout from the mountain tops about. Which I hoped it would be.

  4. Good Morning Alan!-
    Yeh-I love his work too, and perhaps
    my expectations were unreasonably high. But I've read it several times now-and my ambivalence didn't wane.
    Y'know-in the search for perfection you can work on a thing so much you take the life right out of it. Which-believe it or not--has me reconsidering "Cold Heat"--or at least Santoro's pedal to the metal approach.

  5. waitaminute-did I just say that? somebody hit me-I must be delirious.

    All the excitement about SPX this wkend must be rattling my brain.

  6. I agree that critical discourse on the subject of comics or the graphic novel is flawed, I just don't see this being an example of it. While I've also seen near-unanimous praise for Polyp you have to consider the sources; your War and Peace example only makes sense without the context of who's reviewing the work. There are currently thousands of critics in this country qualified to tackle a book like War and Peace (and if we count the analysis of the book since its initial publication, we're probably looking at hundreds of thousands), but who's critiquing comics? I'm not saying there's no intelligent discourse on the web or in print about comics but you get a lot of people who just give anything a positive review, a lot of shmucks like me who think starting a blog is tantamount to getting a degree in journalism, and somewhere way way way off in the distance there's a handful of people who actually have something intelligent to say about the medium.

    If that same amount of people were the only ones responsible for reviewing War and Peace maybe the reviews would be unanimous. Or maybe War and Peace blows, I don't know it's too long for me and there aren't any superheroes in it. The point is there just aren't enough critics out there about this stuff and the ones who are qualified, liked it. That, to me, seems like the real flaw in the critical process: sample size.

  7. Good point Paul--
    in general I'm pretty impressed at the quality of the writing and the depth of the intelligence among the comics blogging/critical community. It can be pretty intimidating.
    Just a quick look over the article Sean pointed me to is proof of that.
    Nevertheless, there's also alot of the "pack" mentality --and it takes alot of time surfing to find the good stuff. And I spend too much time on the net already.
    I'd make a more intelligent point--but I'm rushing around the house getting ready to hit the road and SPX! So I'll be out of touch this wkend folks-I'll check in on the commentary on Monday. In the meantime, maybe Kevin will jump in.
    Hope to see some of you in Bethesda!

  8. Geoff,

    While I liked the book, I did critique a number of aspects of it in my review:

  9. This was also the case with last year's BOTTOMLESS BELLYBUTTON. I don't recall seeing a single negative review of the book. Even the usually "no holds barred" was 100% positive If I'm remembering correctly.

  10. I would ready Bottomless Belly Button again before Asterios Polyp, I think.

  11. Bottomless Bellybutton and Asterios Polyp are nothing more than examples of craft trumping story. Their core stories are both incredibly benign and have very little heft.

  12. I'll throw in with this group. The formalist stuff was vaguely interesting, the best stuff to me was the character design work, and the story was a bit empty. I liked the themes, and regretted that they were kind of weakly exploited. I think the critical problem is that no one really HATES this. I've read a lot of prose that covers this much thematic territory in a paragraph. I might love Rubber Blankets and his work with Miller (which I will not apologize for thinking is better than AP), but this just didn't set me on fire, so this gives people primed for something formally inventive the advantage in the discourse.

  13. Oh, and there's this too:

  14. Rob-
    Sorry I had missed your review-there's some excellent observations therein-- I particularly appreciate your discussion of color --which we don't talk about nearly enough. As you point out-nothing about AP feels organic--and I think that undermines Asterios' journey.
    Todd; man-you summed it up! It's a hard book to hate-there's so much to admire-but admiration ain't necessarily love.

  15. Well, no, my review of Bottomless Belly Button on Thought Balloonists was not 100 percent positive. Seriously, Ben, check it out! :)

    However, re: Polyp, I don't accept the premise that the book is about craft trumping "content"or that it consists of arch formalist games at the expense of emotional connection. I found it the book moving -- not just clever, but moving. I dug it on every level. The "high formalist" read is the obvious one, but IMO there's considerably more at stake in the book, and its total effect is rather warmer than I think the above comments suggest.

    I don't accept the larger premise that the reception of AP indicates a dearth of hard criticism of comics. The above discussion and citations certainly don't lend support to said premise!

    My forthcoming TCJ review of Polyp will use the word "masterpiece," and I stand by that, because the book shook me like a leaf in a storm. Sorry, Geoff, but were not on the same page this time! :)

  16. Hey Charles-
    No need to be on the same page, right?
    I respect your opinion--and certainly AP is serious enough a work by a master cartoonist to demand a vigorous response. But I had been looking for varied along with vigorous-i.e--I had an ambivalent response and didn't find that echoed out there in blog land.
    "Masterpiece"? --well, it's a cliche but only time will tell.

  17. "Didactic Pretense" would be a better title for it. The play's the thing, folks. At least "Citizen Kane" had a strong story (thanks in large part to co-scripter Joseph Mankiewicz) that Welles' audio-visual pyrotechnics didn't overwhelm the story (can't say the same for David Lean's "Ryan's Daughter"---a classic case-in-point for cinematic technique completely dwarfing the narrative). That ASTERIOS POLYP is the result of TEN years of work only adds to the disappointment.