David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp is almost perfect. The title character is a so called ‘paper architect,’ inventive on the page, but his designs are unfailingly unrealized. As a professor at Cornell, he pushes his students hard to avoid the decorative, and makes clear his deeply modernist sensibility: he has built the form of his life to follow what he imagines is its the function. But the function of life is not so easily understood, and his designs are flawed. When his tastefully furnished apartment literally goes up in flames, destroying his Eames lounger, his pair of Wassily chairs, his tapes and books and drafting table, Asterios’ design sensibility is torn up, and he is forced to build his life from scratch at the age of fifty.
He is obsessed with what he perceives as the duality of life, yin and yang, men and women… form and function. The part-time narrator is his still born identical twin, who also visits Asterios in his dreams, and acts as the shadowy other side, the constantly present absence, of Asterios’ life and accomplishments. Mazzucchelli develops this lost twin trope into a moving exploration of loneliness and repetition, in a refreshing and surprising way.
Throughout the book certain postures, words, or even entire frames are repeated, though transformed by their context even as they depict an identical image. Asterious sitting on a bed and examining a blister, for example, is a scene of domestic bliss when his wife Hana is there, in the next panel, rooting through the medicine cabinet for a bandage, and also an unromantic piece of solitude, even loneliness, when years later he sits on a bed as a border in rooming house, his feet in pain from work.
Many of the panels in this graphic novel were completely breathtaking, and the visual techniques that Mazzucchelli used to convey the innate difference of each character–their voices and interior lives so distinct from one another–were so successfully executed that I wish I could just reprint the whole thing here for you. I was dazzled by the way that this work was able to be both subtle and bold, with the varying graphic styles working together so well, sometimes seamless and others with great clashes. Just like the bonds that people form in life.
One scene, where Asterios recalls with a strange longing the cloistered intimacy of his disintegrated marriage, is unbelievably effective: Hana vomiting; Hana’s underwear on the floor, stained with her menstrual blood; Hana’s hand reaching into her cosmetic bag; Hana smiling; Hana’s hand between her legs; Hana waving in a scarf; Hana popping a pimple; Hana’s sweat stained gym clothes; Hana; Hana; Hana. The longing for precisley her, the realness and mutability of her presence, is almost overpowering. The warmly vulgar sensuality of their former intimacy reveals to Asterios the stultifying emptiness of his obsession with formal purity.
Mazzucchelli’s lines on these pages are clean and elegant, but have just enough friction to rub you raw. The story that he tells here is bound up in aesthetics, and his plentiful offerings are pleasurable and moving. While this may be a work of paper architecture, the lives built for Hana and Asterios have a palpable weight, a shape that takes up space in the world that the reader must build and rebuild, every day of her life.