"Asterios Polyp" by David Mazzuchelli

What three things would you grab if your house were burning and you had to leave immediately? That's the question posed, both real and theoretically, to Asterios Polyp, the title character of David Mazzuchelli's new graphic novel. This question poses more of a problem for Asterios than for most people because he prefers to use dichotomy to structure his life, dividing everything cleanly into two opposing pieces. He proceeds to chop his world into pieces until he meets a woman named Hana, who is more comfortable with uncertainty and shades of gray. She's the one that asks him the question hypothetically, and it's clearly in his head at the beginning of the book as we watch lightning strike and burn down his New York apartment. But even Occam's razor can't explain why he eventually gives away the three items he's rescued from the burning building. For that answer you have to read the book.

The book is narrated by Asterios' twin Ignatz, who died in childbirth. He tells the story of Asterios, an over-educated architect who has never designed anything actually built, and who teaches college and moves through life with a purpose, but without direction. He constructs rules for dealing with life and quotes them to his students as if they were the bible. As his star is rising he meets a sculptor and artist named Hana, who appreciates and loves his world, but also brings fuzziness to his life, complicating things.

For some reason as I read the story the word 'erudite' kept popping into my head ("characterized by learning"). Asterios is someone who's interesting to be with because he makes you feel smart. At least until he uses his analytical mind on you, at which point the dissection can become uncomfortable, but makes for compelling reading. Mazzuchelli isn't afraid to take side trips while telling the story, and I appreciated that. It reinforces theme: here's an intelligent guy, but he still has a lot to learn. This is reflected in a scene with one character who pontificates that after the 60's the goverment realized that an educated people were too hard to govern, so that why they've cut school funding for the past 30 years. There are also numerous allusions to the question of God vs gods vs free will; what makes a relationship work (the answer is shown with 3 beer coasters); and even a retelling of the Orpheus legend.

To enrich his storytelling efforts Mazzuchelli throws in tons of literal and graphical puns. The character's name, for example: Asterios, meaning a star, perhaps the star of the book and his life. But then adds 'polyp' to the name: an abnormal growth of tissue projecting from a mucous membrane, reflecting Asterios' feelings that he should have died instead of Ignatz.

Another example is that the story is illustrated in monochrome shades of primary colors. The flashbacks are blue when it's Asterios alone, and red when they include Hana, while the present-day story is told in shades of yellow. As the story concludes, and moves into the immediate present it suddenly combines the three colors, bringing both the narrative and the color scheme into harmony. Similarly he draws Asterios with strong, bold outlines, often including his ghostly brother as a dotted line, while Hana and her life is sketched in uncertainty. I especially liked the mysterious spotlight that comes and goes out of frame in synch with Hana's self-esteem.

If I had one complaint about the story, it's that the resolution felt hurried, and the final pages throw in a curveball that feels like a beanball. I would have preferred an ending that stretched out the resolution by another 20 or 30 pages, maybe adding some internal hurdles for Asterios to leap. And while the final page isn't completely out of the blue, it was too contrived for me. Just let me say that they lived happily ever after.

My 12 year-old son read the book as well, and his comment was: "Ok, a bit heavy on the philosophizin' and art theory." I'd put the book down as a PG-13 rating. The graphics and story are great, as well as the printing. This book has been on everyone's top 10 list for 2009 graphic novels, and I'd say it's a good bet it will stay there. Mazzuchelli's previous work City of Glass (with writer Paul Karasik) was chosen as the quintessential New York graphic novel. You can buy this book online at Amazon through the links below, or at Powell's Books.

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