Asterios Polyp and the Function of Form

Back when I was a hard-working student, I took two very different classes. One was high school biology, and the other was on James Joyce. I got through the former by remembering one of the life sciences’ simplest platitudes: Form equals function. I got through the latter by pretending I understood what that meant when applied to literature.

Ulysses is the ultimate example of form overwhelming plot—of the how of the story transcending the what. Not quite coincidentally, it’s also widely considered the greatest novel of the 20th century.

Enter David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp. The aim of this 344-page graphic novel is in many ways similar to Joyce’s in Ulysses: Mazzucchelli attempts to tell the story of his eccentrically named title character in a manner that reveals more about him that straight words or illustrations ever could. Asterios’ tale isn’t just what he says or how he says it; it’s also how Mazzucchelli portrays Asterios’ words and actions.

Of course, this is a little easier to do in a graphic medium than a strictly textual one. Mazzucchelli takes full advantage of that by giving each of his characters their own individual style. For instance:

Here we can see Asterios portrayed as a type of blueprint, his body constructed in basic shapes and outlines. It’s an especially fitting way to draw Asterios, an architect by trade who has, in fact, never had any of his otherwise well-regarded buildings actually made. Like his designs, Asterios himself is a model that works theoretically but has difficulty translating to the tangible world. Asterios’ words appear in no-nonsense sans serif capitals in a rigid rectangle. He is countered in this expository scene by Hana, the sculptress that is to become his wife. Hana is more artistically illustrated with a kind of red latticed sketching, and her words are depicted in a more relaxed font in more elliptical bubbles.

The action of the scene relies totally on Mazzucchelli’s merging of their styles. After Asterios introduces himself, their conversation is cut off; we can’t see what they’re saying. Yet, we know that a relationship is forming because Asterios’ blue outlines and Hana’s red lattice now overlap within each of them.

The story centers on two main plots: Asterios’ marriage to Hana, told in flashback with the knowledge that it ends in divorce; and Asterios’ current quest to start over as a small-town auto mechanic after his apartment is destroyed by a fire. The story sort of opens and closes with acts of God,* and it makes constant references to Greek mythology. At one point, we learn that Asterios’ odd last name is the result of immigration officials at Ellis Island who cut it in half. It isn’t hard to deduce that his surname used to be Polyphemus, the name of the Cyclops in The Odyssey, because Asterios himself is a Cyclops throughout the novel. He is almost always shown in profile, and with a handful of exceptions, we can only ever see one of his eyes. It’s no secret that, with only one eye, our depth perception is far from optimal, and we’re left seeing things more two-dimensionally than three.* Asterios, thus, is a shallow character who only views things in pairs of two: “I don’t think in terms of three,” he says at one point to Hana. He makes his point more explicitly with an unnamed friend in an earlier scene that showcases the novel’s forays into philosophical discourse and its academic sense of humor:

“Duality is rooted in nature: The brain is divided into right and left hemispheres, electrical current is either positive or negative—our very existence is the result of humans being male and female. It’s yin and yang.”

“I disagree. Duality is an invention that seems to be true, but only because the examples you cite share superficial similarities that appear to be dualistic because we define them in that way.”

“Ah! But it’s one or the other, right?”

“(Sigh) I’ll give you this: There are two kinds of people in the world—those who break things into two kinds and those who don’t.”

For Asterios, everything can be whittled down to either/ors, especially in his chosen field of architecture: interior v. exterior, line v. form, linear v. plastic, etc. Asterios’ obsession with pairs in conflict derives from his own birth: Asterios’ identical twin brother, Ignazio, dies during birth. Asterios is left contemplating the fickleness of his own fate: Is he in some way responsible for his brother’s death? How easily could that have been his own death? And, is he living the life his identical twin would have lived had the reverse occurred?

*If this is a secret, you can either: A. Read the novel and see where it explicitly points this out; or B. Put a hand over one of your eyes!

Ignazio is also the interloping narrator of Asterios Polyp, and he helps both connect the two major plotlines together and point to a deeper meaning. It’s Ignazio who probes both Asterios and us philosophically: “What if reality (as perceived) were simply an extension of the self? Wouldn’t that color the way each individual experiences the world?” he asks 20 pages in. His dissection of memory and how it conflates events undercuts the reliability of the flashbacks; can we be sure what we’ve seen is how it happened, or is it just how Asterios remembers it happening?

And it’s the provocative presence of Ignazio that makes Asterios Polyp more than just a good graphic novel. There’s more than just formal innovation here; there’s a legitimate story behind it as well. Because as great as Joyce is, we still care about what happens between Leopold and Molly Bloom. And as good as Mazzucchelli is here, we still want to know what happens between Asterios and Hana.

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