City of Glass: The Graphic Novel, by Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli, is a black and white adaptation of American author Paul Auster’s offbeat and surreal detective novella City of Glass.
The story starts when writer Daniel Quinn takes a case meant for a detective called Paul Auster, leading to a noirish descent through madness, identity, language and human nature. It’s a complex metafictional mystery with an ironic, post-modern approach and an intertextual relationship to Cervantes Don Quixote – essential reading for anyone who shares my appreciation for Mazzucchelli’s more experimental work.
Reviewing a graphic novel such as this without ruining it for new readers is a challenge. Happily, page four gives us a perfect encapsulation of the style, themes and techniques City of Glass employs.
It’s a nine-panel grid utilising what at first appear to be sequential ‘moment-to-moment’ panel transitions.The first three panels zoom in on the building opposite as it’s incrementally reduced to a geometric abstraction. The frame of the first panel serves as the window through which we view the city, enclosing us within Quinn’s rented home, a home whose physicality bolsters his rapidly loosening identity. A feeling of being restricted is enhanced, perhaps subliminally, by the rigid gutters between panels mimicking the appearance of prison bars.
Over the next three panels, our perspective zooms out as geometric abstraction becomes a maze: the “labyrinth of endless steps” Quinn wishes to lose his identity within. This highlights the anonymity we feel moving through a city, reducing Quinn to a voyeur: “a seeing eye”. Quinn uses urban walking as a means to escape his own thoughts, to escape his chattering mind and the depression that gripped him following his tragic bereavement. His fate is dictated by his own desires, shaping his decisions throughout the multilayered story.
On the sixth panel of the page, the labyrinth is revealed to exist within a fingerprint. The deliberate simplicity of the rendering evokes both the top down view of the city (a perspective also vital to his ’employer’ Stillman Sr as he attempts to physically map a new prelapsarian language) and the human mind Quinn is losing himself within.
This ‘top-down’ view of the city is what Lindsey Michael Banco calls ‘birds eye view cartography…a” fiction of knowledge” …that claims to be able to, but… cannot apprehend transcendent meaning in a malleable, uncertain, poststructuralist world’.
The final three panels continue to zoom out as the fingerprint is superimposed over buildings on a glass window: a small smudge of humanity against the vastness of the city, a city Quinn sees as both salvation (to “escape thinking”) and prison (“the nowhere he had built around himself…never to leave”).
The reader’s natural reading response is to perform ‘closure’ between these visual and verbal elements, linking panels into a temporal sequence where “space equals time”. But the nine-panel grid is itself a maze, its rigidity mimicking the misleading solidity of the city itself. Like the city its geometric certainty is deceptive, in that this arrangement of panels, text, and images, can be read in a variety of orders and interpreted in different ways.
Even when read in traditional order what seems at first to be a temporal sequence could also be a web of aspect-to-aspect panel transitions: suspending time to give us multiple views of the same moment. Like Quinn and the city, what seems to be one thing has multiple identities, different interpretations which the reader can lose themselves within, just as our protagonists are imprisoned by their Quixotic quests.
This single page subtly conveys a plurality of meaning and instability of concept that echoes poststructuralism’s challenge to the certainties of structuralism: a multifaceted metaphor for shifting identity and the city itself.
It’s a bravura opening which showcases the talent and thought at play here – a graphic novel not to be missed.