City of Glass goes graphic

Faber is publishing Paul Auster’s novel as a comic book. Does this venture work? asks Andrzej Klimowski

When The New York Trilogy came out almost 20 years ago, I was extremely excited. Paul Auster, a then new American writer, presented us with a mystery novel close in atmosphere to Franz Kafka and Alfred Hitchcock. The formal and thematic structures of the first story resembled a labyrinth, which must have appealed to the artists Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli when they embarked on their comic book adaptation of City of Glass. Their graphic adaptation is composed around a grid that changes when a different rhythm is required. Suggestive background drawings steeped in mystery and angular shadows, together with the design of the grid, mirror the architecture of Manhattan. As the drawings undergo metaphorical transformations, they add momentum to the narrative.

In one scene, the impostor-detective Quinn follows the dishevelled, stooped figure of Peter Stillman around Manhattan. The artists introduce a street vendor who is selling mechanical wind-up toys. A close-up of one of these toys mirrors Stillman’s actions and mindset. The accompanying caption reads: ‘He did not talk to anyone, go into any store, or smile, he seemed neither happy nor sad.’ Interjections such as these are ingenious and playful – they are peculiar to the medium of the comic book and surprise and delight the reader.

I have one problem with the book: the pages are overcrowded with imagery. Auster’s novel is spacious. It speaks of loneliness, isolation and loss. Although an internal monologue runs throughout the story, the silences are affecting. The busy graphics in the comic book version detract from this atmosphere, even though the drawings are stripped down to minimalist black and white. The tightness of the grid is suitable for scenes requiring fast montage, but the story also needs larger and emptier panels, which would allow the reader to slow down and reflect.

Nevertheless, the book is a welcome addition to the genre. It is encouraging to see a literary publisher such as Faber entering into new territory on the back of publishing Alex Garland’s The Coma, beautifully illustrated by his father Nicholas.

Paul Auster’s City of Glass, adapted by David Mazzucchelli and Paul Karasik, with a new introduction by Art Speigelman, is published by Faber and Faber on 3 February

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