Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Asterios Polyp, Snob

For the first time in my four years at my job, I have coworkers whose taste in books overlaps with mine.  I have not jumped on them too aggressively (what are you reading? you should read this! what do you like???), but deep down I am full of squee and I made Lily read Lexicon, which went well.

Even better, Kelly's into comics!  The other day she handed me a copy of David Mazzucchelli's  Asterios Polyp and said, "this completely blew my mind, you have to read it." This is the kind of statement that cannot be argued with, and it is my experience that someone who shows up with a book recommendation that includes the book in hand is Serious and should be taken Seriously.

Which is why, when I started Asterios Polyp and found the main character to be horrible and off-putting, I didn't give it up.  I might have, otherwise, because snobby academic is not my kind of protagonist--postmodernism and architectural or linguistic deconstruction and the seriously David-Foster-Wallacian notion of an architect who has won awards and is highly regarded in spite of never having had a building built and I'm somewhere between wincing and queasy.

So yes, Asterios Polyp is an architect.  He's an academic.  He's tailored and polished and smokes; he likes to hear himself talk and his nose is perpetually, literally, in the air.  He is enough of a jerk that I hated him, but also enough of a realistic, understandable character that I know I'm not supposed to hate him.  Which means I'm not sure I want to read this book, if it's going to treat this guy like someone I should admire.

Thank you, Kelly, for pushing it into my hands, because I probably wouldn't have kept reading otherwise, and holy crap, this is MIND BLOWINGLY GOOD.  It's about a very smart person who is not a very good person, so there's all kinds of very smart stuff--like, complicated intellectual stuff--that's just lying there casually on the page, not as the point of the book, but as background for how smart this character is as we read a book whose point is that all this brilliance isn't quite enough.

The narrator is Asterios's stillborn twin brother--another version of him, one who didn't live his life, but watched it, and the story's structure is around Asterios walking away from his life when his apartment burns down.  We follow the present, where Asterios travels as far as he can with the money in his pocket and takes up a working man's life, and we follow the past, where he meets his (now absent) wife, and spends his time surrounded by and judging brilliant people.

I don't know how to explain this to you.  It's not about looking down on intellectualism, or even snobbery.  It's about how snobbery is actually vulnerability, but that's impossible to see from the outside, and sometimes even from the inside.  It's about how connections can make us better people, and how the world around us affect us whether we like it or not, and it can be beautiful if we can find it in our hearts to embrace it.

Hana, Asterios's wife, is the lynchpin of the story, of the past and the future.  She's his opposite, and when they meet, they are drawn in different styles.  As they come closer, their styles blend, but in moment of discord they separate again.

This technique is used throughout the book--characters have distinctive colors, illustration styles, and fonts for their speech.  They come together and move apart as they know each other and become aware of the inevitable gaps between them.

As for the ending...I'm not sure what I think.  It's both right and startling, and because of that, maybe inevitable?

Seriously, if you are interested in comics and how they can be literary fiction, you absolutely have to read this book.  It's seriously breathtaking.

1 comment:

Lianna Williamson said...

Adding this to my TBR list right now!