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Asterios Polyp

Mazzucchelli's masterwork is by no means an easy read, but it is a transcendent one

Reviewed by Kimberley Jones, Fri., July 17, 2009

Book Review

Asterios Polyp

by David Mazzucchelli
Pantheon, 344 pp., $29.95

Asterios Polyp is a blowhard, a "paper architect" who is renowned for his conceptual genius but has never had a project come to fruition. "I don't like drawing from life," he says with characteristic rigidness. "Things are always in the wrong place." In this graphic novel's opening pages, Mother Nature tests that theory with a well-placed lightning strike that razes his Manhattan apartment and ignites something of a spiritual reckoning for Asterios.

Mazzucchelli originally started in comics, illustrating for Marvel and DC. He collaborated on Frank Miller's Batman: Year One and adapted Paul Auster's City of Glass to graphic novel form in 1994. But Asterios Polyp is a one-man show, 10 years in the making – a dazzling hardback that's heady with ideas and heartrending in its exploration of busted-up love.

In alternating chapters, the narrative skips between Asterios' post-fire present and his still very-near past. When Asterios flees the city for anonymity and quiet in the country, he becomes a self-taught mechanic with a makeshift family of mystics and rednecks. But Asterios is still a haunted man: haunted by his lack of humility; his stillborn twin brother, Ignazio (who narrates); and his onetime wife, artist Hana. Mazzucchelli is initially vague about the nature of their break, be it by death or divorce, but he stylishly telegraphs that trouble is coming: As their marriage deteriorates, Hana is rendered in red, a mass of seething, thatched lines, while Asterios is cold, blue, geometric.

"Every memory is a re-creation, not a playback," Ignazio cautions; indeed, Asterios Polyp is most moving as a meditation on the nature of memory. In one near-wordless chapter, Asterios examines a blister on his foot, which sets off a sense-memory catalog of his marriage, snapshots of the intimacies and embarrassments that bond two people together. These memories of Hana may not be fact – they are, after all, merely his re-creation of what Hana was like swabbing her ear or changing the cat litter – but that doesn't make them any less true a document of one man's reality and one man's devotion.

Asterios Polyp is crammed with big ideas and classical allusions (in fever dreams, Asterios is imagined as both Odysseus and Orpheus), but the book never feels overstuffed. Mazzucchelli's masterwork is by no means an easy read – there is so much to process here, the mind verily reels – but it is a transcendent one.

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