Tuesday night, as an asteroid was coming very close to striking Earth, I was re-reading a graphic novel I was teaching, Asterios Polyp, that concludes with an asteroid hurtling at the main character, who is, yes, on Earth. I thought about the irony of it, partly because it is the kind of irony the book thrives on–mirrored worlds–and through that, I began thinking about the structure of it.
Structure is on my mind a great deal of late. Earlier that evening I took a break to go and walk around in the moonlit city with my friend Merrill Feitell, author of the short story collection Here Beneath Low-Flying Planes. We were getting caught up after not seeing each other since AWP in Denver. Merrill has a long-standing interest in the structure of fiction, and so I ran by her some problems I’ve been solving for in my novel, regarding the inclusion of my character’s past, and how the conventional ways of dealing with backstory (I do not like this word) were not helpful.
Merrill suggested first printing out this troubling past of my character (about 50 pages of it at this point) and using a different color paper from the rest of the manuscript. I laughed, as I had in fact already done this, though by accident, due to a lack of white paper in the house, and the ink was even blue, due to a lack of black ink at the same time.
Next step: Lay it out, she said, and that way you can see with the color change a little better of how the sections interact with each other and where the breaks are.
As I left her, I looked up at the sky to see if I could see the air-craft-carrier-sized asteroid that was supposed to swing by the earth last night, but did not see it. A further irony awaited when I returned to my reading: Asterios Polyp organizes itself in relationship to time with color.
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Asterios Polyp, by David Mazzuchelli, is created out of two stories that eventually become one, or rather, it is one story made out of what I think the main character himself would call a Parallax: we move back and forth in time, though, as if we are viewing the story from a place where all time is visible. A first timeline begins when a lightning bolt strikes the apartment of the main character, an architect named, yes, Asterios Polyp, that sends him running into the subways, into a self-imposed exile from his own life. The second begins with Asterios’ birth, and is narrated by his stillborn twin, Ignazio, and takes us up to the moments just before the lightning strike.
Ignazio appears in the first timeline as a figure in Asterios’ dreams, an uncanny marker for the life that has slipped away from him. He speaks but is invisible in the second timeline.
The present timeline, born out of the lightning, is colored in yellow and purple.
The second, born alongside his birth and narrated by Ignazio (who of course is identical to Asterios) is either blue and red, when Hana, Asterios’ wife, is present, or blue and purple, before she appears.
The story has been described as “interwoven with flashbacks” but it is actually a kind of stereoscopic narrative, but across time, with two narratives, alternating with each other in equal parts and equal importance. In one storyline, we see Ignazio appear in dreams, often as an uncanny changeling, living the life Asterios no longer has–Ignazio the successful architect, and Asterios, the abandoned.
In the other storyline, Ignazio narrates from a knowing, affectionate teasing, bordering on scorn.
The result is a story narrated by a a brother only a brother could tell, but also a story only a ghost could tell. We see stereoscopically, either hearing Ignazio’s thoughts on Asterios, or seeing him, in Asterios’ story, haunting him. Asterios feels guilt at being the survivor, a guilt he doesn’t often describe. Ignazio appears to feel, well, envy, on a low burn. And soon it seems his intentions are not at all benign in telling the story, or being in it, either.
In discussing what makes something literary, I increasingly believe (and teach) that one quality is the protagonist also as antagonist. Ignazio isn’t, for all his anger at the surviving brother, really able to ruin Asterios’ life. He can only make Asterios aware that he himself ruined his own life.
What David Mazzuchelli does is set these up so that the two stories run side by side, each moving toward a climax of their own, and each climax informing the other. First the past story, in red and blue, and then the present time story, in yellow and purple. The climax of the past story is his divorce with Hana, not openly dramatized but witheld instead. The climax of the present is the murder of Ignazio, in a dream, by Asterios. When the third story appears out of the aftermath, with previous unseen colors, and with it, a third climax, we neither see Ignazio nor hear his voice. Asterios seems free in some new way.
In class, when I taught it, we spoke of much of this. We also observed that the two storylines are also reinterpretations of myths–Odysseus, in the story begun with the lightning bolt and Orpheus, in the story with Hana.
This structure, of moving between two stories about the same characters, is something I call a stereoscopic narrative, but conventionally it has been used within a particular present time–it does create a more multidimensional feeling, and I did, for example, use it in my first novel. Here it occurs across time. This has been done in two other novels I’ve read in recent memory–Chris Adrian’s The Children’s Hospital and Lev Grossman’s The Magician King. Margaret Atwood also does this to great effect in her novel Cat’s Eye, but in the first person.
David Mazzuchelli, the author, was previously known better for his work on popular superhero comics: Daredevil and Batman, in particular. And Batman is in fact a classic stereoscopic fiction example, the same story told twice from two or more points of view: the stories usually begin with the reader seeing the crimes that draw Batman in, and conclude with the villain giving his or her side of things.
What interested me here was how in most fiction, the story is a movement between the external and internal events of a character or characters, and a typical flashback is of a short duration, triggered by something in a character’s environment. The author describes it to evoke the psychology and mood of the character. Here, with these competing stories, what emerges is a fuller story of Asterios, one he himself could never tell about himself. This is often the case with stereoscopic narratives, but what was also interesting was the way he (and Adrian, and Grossman and Atwood) has used the stereoscope effect to create something that moves you forward across the present time and the past both, your knowledge of the past of the character becoming another story itself, and more than a subplot. The past is liberated from the character’s memories, which are of course limited, and given to the story, and the reader also. Any epiphanies happen for the reader and not the characters.
I have no idea if this applies to what I’m solving for right now, but I admit, I’m fascinated, and still thinking about all of it. For now, I’m diagramming it and seeing if some further insight emerges from that. “Is it playful with structure,” Merrill asked me, of my own novel, when I brought it up. “I don’t know yet,” I said. And I still don’t, not yet. “I want it to have an articulate complexity,” I said, “where the structure is intricate but the reader’s experience is not.” I have often felt this. Whatever I end up taking from this, in that regard, Mazzuchelli’s Asterios Polyp is one ideal.
For more by me on comics and graphic novels, reflections on a past syllabus, and an essay on comics and the racial unconscious.
Interesting to see your novel is $2 more than when I got it for Christmas years ago. Asterios Polyp sounds intriguing, reminding me also of the impact of the memory of someone lost as a continually haunting life lodestone, as in Adrian’s Gob’s Grief, and having recently read Mazzuchelli’s work on Batman Year One, the omg moment of Miller and Mazzuchelli setting the (naturally obvious) reality of Gordon’s ‘selective vision/memory’ on Batman.
Thanks for the thoughtful discussion of ASTERIOS POLYP. I found Mazzucchelli’s use of color to organize the novel quite ingenious if not also indicative of a tendency to exert a bit too much authorial control over the narrative. I discuss that on my blog, in “Control Freak,” my review of the Mazzucchelli’s novel: http://chaszak.wordpress.com/2011/06/16/control-freak/
A couple of notes about the color: the “previous unseen colors” you describe appearing in the last section of the book are the result of the color schemes of the two previous timelines coming together. Asterios finally reconnects with Hana, the blues and pinks of the one timeline commingling with the yellows and purples of the other to create greens and oranges (along with the yellows, blues, pinks, and purples). That the dream is rendered completely in purple speaks to the power of the subconscious images to “both” Asterioses: the one now and the one who had been married to Hana. It is the one color that is in both timelines, coloring those worlds as the shape of the narrative, concluded by a lightning bolt that also precipitated the narrative’s action, is affected by the myth of Orpheus.
One last question: Is Ignazio really narrating the novel? He seemed to me—whether Asterios actually had a twin brother who died at birth or not—a repository of Asterios’s wishes and self-criticism. Instead of Ignazio ghostwriting the book, I wonder if it’s not really Asterios who ghostwrites Ignazio?
Thanks. And yes, except, we really don’t see those colors at any point previous, even if they do emerge out of the crossing–I don’t think you can find their actual literal presence earlier, just their sources, but the point is taken.
I felt it was Ignazio as narrator for two main reasons: Asterios was so often and regularly betrayed by the narration, and not in the self-serving ways, I thought. These betrayals are what all writers have to do to present their characters to the reader.
Also, the narration takes a competitive brother’s relish in what happens to him, even when it is wordless, or perhaps most especially, in the cruel dreams of him as a failure in Ignazio’s presence. It does go on after his apparent death, which is the only thing I can find that would suggest the the reading you speak of, but who can kill a ghost in a dream? I don’t find any support for your reading otherwise, thus far, but I’ll think about it.
Reblogged this on Cowboys Don't Swim and commented:
I had the pleasure of auditing a class taught by the author of this essay. As with everything I’ve seen from Alexander Chee so far, this piece not only covers interesting ground for writers, but also for everyone’s personal journey.