In The Story of My Typewriter – a book of paintings by the artist Sam Messer of the Olympia typewriter Paul Auster has written on since 1974 – Auster illuminates his relationship with the machine that has transmitted his work: ‘Letter by letter, I have watched it write these words.’ In part this fragmented notion of authorship reflects the nature of his collaboration with Messer, who compelled Auster to look at the typewriter anew with his muscular pictures – keys as seething teeth in one, the letters dancing between Auster’s hands to reveal the word ‘chance’ in another. The question of who is writing whose story is itself a theme that runs through Auster’s work.
It is present in this graphic-novel version (published in America in 1994 and now in Britain) of City of Glass, the first part of Auster’s New York Trilogy. The story of Daniel Quinn – a writer of mystery novels who, after a call from a man who has the wrong number, takes on a case meant for a private detective called Paul Auster by pretending to be him – is told in spare black-and-white drawings. Although Auster appears as a character, he is not the narrator. In his original novel an anonymous narrator relates Quinn’s story from the notebook he kept. Like Messer, Karasik and Mazzucchelli are drawn to the image of a typewriter as the creative crucible – the narration appears typed on an old-fashioned typewriter by an unseen author.
Auster has described how the author of a work disappears as the book is read, ‘as though no-one has written the words’. Here this ‘no-one’ is complicated as the story is translated by others into another medium. The imagination at play is exhilarating. As Quinn walks across his apartment to the telephone, the opening pages slip between images of a shelf of his books written under a pseudonym, the New York cityscape through a window, brownstones dissolving into a labyrinth which becomes a fingerprint on the glass. Quinn’s disintegrating identity is pictorially fused with the city itself.
The terse script cannot capture every nuance of Auster’s novel. Instead the artists invent a richly symbolic visual universe which amplifies his themes. This is most striking when Quinn meets his client Peter Stillman, who speaks in shattered phrases of how he was imprisoned by his father as a child, to rid him of learned language and compel him to produce ‘God’s language’. Here Auster’s text is reimagined rather than illustrated – abstract concepts are transformed into a journey into Peter’s soul. The action follows his speech balloon down his throat – shards of language emanate from the Stygian boatman, from a human savaged by a beast in a cave painting, and from a broken television.
Stillman’s monologue ends in the transformation of the standard grid of nine panels (described by the celebrated comic artist Art Spiegelman in a new introduction as the ‘Ur-language of Comics’) into the bars of a cell door, then its collapse into a frame showing a broken puppet in a dark space. It is a fearful representation of the nature of language and the consequence of its absence.
In a dramatic change to Auster’s novel, the dark space is revisited at the climax of the story. Originally Quinn disappears in Stillman’s empty apartment, leaving behind the notebook recording his ultimate failure to track Stillman’s father around New York and his continued metaphysical investigation of the city. Here Quinn lies in the darkness, covered by his burning notebook and drawings of his fingerprint and the telephone. Auster has said he intends his prose ultimately to allow the reader to write the book, not the writer. In returning to the dark space, Karasik and Mazzucchelli insist on too specific an interpretation of the story, closing down the resonances in Auster’s writing. It is the only off note in an otherwise restlessly inventive and striking book, albeit one that exists in strange relation to Auster’s text.