David Louis Edelman David Louis Edelman

Paul Auster’s “City of Glass” and “Mr. Vertigo”

This book review was originally published in The Baltimore City Paper on November 30, 1994.

City of GlassPaul Auster’s oeuvre stacks up to that of just about any living writer in his generation for pure imaginative hubris. Through the course of eight novels, three works of non-fiction and four collections of poetry, the reclusive Auster has proven himself a first-rate postmodern commentator on the Western logocentric mentality in the mold of Borges, Calvino, and Kafka.

And yet I can’t help thinking that the novel is simply not Auster’s genre. For every sentence of his that sizzles energetically on the page, there are another two or three artless clunkers lagging behind. Despite all his attention to language and the ways in which our speech both reveals and conceals our innermost selves, books like Moon Palace and The Music of Chance are only hampered by Auster’s lack of descriptive power.

So how wonderfully overdue is Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli’s graphic novel adaptation of Auster’s 1985 first work of fiction, City of Glass. The premiere release of Avon’s Neon Lit line of graphic mysteries, City of Glass captures perfectly the analytical despair and moody Kafkan atmosphere that characterizes Auster’s masterful story without stumbling over the author’s narrative shortcomings.

In City of Glass (the opening entry in Auster’s highly regarded New York Trilogy), gumshoe novelist Daniel Quinn is hired by a man named Peter Stillman to tail his father, a former linguistic scholar just being released from prison. The elder Stillman kept Peter locked in a dark room for nine years of his childhood, hoping that in the absence of communication the boy would forget his English and reconstruct “God’s language.”

During the course of the novel, as Quinn becomes absorbed in deciphering the true meaning of an indecipherable set of clues about Stillman’s motives, he himself comes to understand Peter’s horrible predicament.

Karasik and Mazzucchelli’s adaptation (under the direction of series designer Art Spiegelman of Maus fame) hammers the intricacy and paranoia of Quinn’s situation home in a way that Auster frequently cannot. The reader zigzags closely in on seemingly inconsequential objects like a snooping detective with magnifying glass in hand, or Quinn delving into the deeper meanings of things. When Quinn begins to lose his shaky grip on sanity, the rigidly boxed panels of early pages give way to chaotic, skewed shapes that mirror his condition.

Mr. VertigoGiven the brilliance of City of Glass, perhaps Auster should have considered offering his latest novel, Mr. Vertigo, to Spiegelman and Company as well. It certainly doesn’t work in prose.

Mr. Vertigo describes the coming-of-age of a street rat in the Great Depression who is taken in by an aging sorcerer and taught to fly. Imagine a cross between Billy Bathgate and Disney’s Aladdin, but without the political consciousness of the former or the adolescent glee of the latter.

I get the sense that Mr. Vertigo is supposed to be a grand metaphor for the American Dream — Walt as Everyman climbing the ladder of success, Walt as symbol of American perseverance in the face of adversity, even Walt as innocent Forrest Gump in the land of crooks and schemers. But if so, then Auster has come to puzzlingly few conclusions about this country. In Mr. Vertigo, Walt learns to fly, he practices flying, he flies for large crowds, he flies for millions of dollars, he stops flying, he wanders around until the book ends. Walt’s conclusion? The hopelessly clichéd statement “You can’t get something for nothing.”

Auster fans will be frustrated at the sloppiness and lack of poetry to Mr. Vertigo. All the more reason to grab a copy of Avon’s City of Glass instead and savor good Auster writing to keep the faith.

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