Meet Asterios Polyp: middle-aged, meagerly successful architect and teacher, aesthete and womanizer, whose life is wholly upended when his New York City apartment goes up in flames. In a tenacious daze, he leaves the city and relocates to a small town in the American heartland. But what is this “escape” really about?
Modernism — the era in which style masqueraded as content — is, by far, my most despised literary movement. Conrad, Woolf, Faulkner, Joyce … there’s no denying their brilliance, but at the same time you can have them. I’d rather spend my days amidst the pleasures of storytelling, thank you. Stylistic explorations and pure expressions of form have their place, don’t get me wrong, they’re usually just not for me. (He says, while reading Martin John.)
Surprisingly, Modernism didn’t hit the world of comics until the late 20th century, and when it did it certainly didn’t have a standout book to act as a clarion call. That is, until 2009, when David Mazzucchelli produced Asterios Polyp. If there’s a better example of style as content in graphic novel form, I haven’t seen it.
In Mazzucchelli’s nearly 350-page opus form isn’t just the physical representation of emotional subtleties, it’s basically the plot.
The book’s titular character is likably unlikable. An egotistic and condescending “paper architect” (someone whose designs are never built), Asterios sees the world in dualities. Everything is black and white. For instance, he tells his class, “Anything that is not functional is merely decorative.” He’s two dimensional in almost every conceivable way. Even his head is a drawn as a two-dimensional figure.
At the start of the book Asterios’ life has basically gone to shit. His wife has left him, his home is struck by lightning and burns to the ground, and he’s bought himself a one-way ticket to nowhere in an admittedly strange attempt to figure out why some forms (i.e. relationships, careers) don’t always have corresponding functions (i.e. happiness, security). He ends up in the town of Apogee and takes a job as an auto mechanic’s apprentice under a man named, I kid you not, Stiff Major. He starts to live in the real world and actually builds things for the first time, and by the end of the story his life becomes, predictably, more three-dimensional.
Except things aren’t quite as predictable as they seem. The story goes off the rails repeatedly (on purpose) in the form of digressive flashbacks to Asterios’ earlier life. The book is narrated by Asterios’ twin brother, who died in the womb. The story is often interrupted by incomplete discussions about religion, politics, and the inner workings of watches. Not to mention, the ending of Asterios Polyp is hands down the craziest ending to any story I’ve ever read, seen, or heard about. It will make you shake your head in confusion, scream “What the fuck?!” at the top of your lungs, laugh hysterically at the lunacy of it, and then re-read the entire book in an effort to understand it. And the crazy thing is that you do.
Asterios Polyp is intelligent on a level I’ll never fully appreciate without the help of a university-level art appreciation class. This is dense. Allusions are made to mythologies, artists, and design movements I don’t even begin to understand. The great thing is that you don’t need to understand them to enjoy the book. If you do understand them? This story will probably become your graphic bible.
Asterios Polyp is extraordinary. Masterfully created, even if it’s a bit confusing and frustrating at times. It demands something from you, something most graphic novels don’t. And what I just said is far from a pejorative. It almost guarantees a re-read. You’re asked to look at this from a few different angles, just like any great piece of art.