Asterios Polyp: Better in Theory Than in Practice

Throughout my reading of  Asterios Polyp, I was struck by the occasionally overwhelming level of content and stimulus included by Mazzucchelli on each page.  The multitude of characters (all bearing names and nicknames with potential symbolic meaning) go about their lives (often in completely different settings from page to page [including dream-worlds and imaginary depictions of their perspectives]), being occasionally narrated (by another character who arguably doesn’t exist), while expounding on any number of complex philosophies and systems of political ideals and being depicted alongside many hidden visual references to their situations (Asterios’ twinned bedroom, Kalvin’s cluttered apartment).  In addition, the plot frequently progresses out of chronological order, adding to the effort one must take to navigate the novel’s complexities.

When i finished the work, despite working hard to follow and make sense of it, I was left feeling disappointed and unfulfilled.  I worked hard to follow each referential rabbit-hole, grasp the rapid shifts from discussions of the Ancient Greek Pantheon of gods to architectural philosophy to relationship-based melodrama to critiques of Communist/Punk ideals to childhood trauma and so on, but at the end was left with a feeling of dissatisfaction with Mazzucchelli’s abilities to actually tie together his intriguing collage of content.  Despite my deep love and admiration for other Postmodern literature (which similarly features extensive references, digressions, and themes), Asterios Polyp frequently seems to feature dissonance and confusion of its goals in an awkwardly unintentional manner.

Looking exclusively at the primary bookends of the plot, the initial freak lightning strike that shocks Asterios out of the apartment and on to the path that will lead him eventually back to Hana and the asteroid that presumably annihilates them at the end, it seems the novel has some stake in the fickle and uncaring Greek gods as they manipulate the lives of Asterios and his aquaintances (linked visually through the images of the lightning striking and the image of Zeus casting his bolts in the religious discussion halfway through). But for the most part, the rest of the novel seems to have very little interest in this idea of the uncaring and random universe, instead telling a story of star-crossed, fated love between Asterios and Hana. Unless the asteroid is meant to be a kind of punchline meant to pull the rug out from under the reader (a poorly executed move, if that was the intent), then it really did feel random and unjustified in the context of the work.

Going further, even this central coupling of Asterios and Hana feels under-cooked to me. The novel spends very little time actually depicting what they really like about each other, or why they both remained committed to each other despite their trials. Almost every scene between them has Asterios acting like a pompous, rude ass; who never really seemed to have much respect for Hana. It didn’t seem clear to me why Hana, obviously attractive and brilliant, even agreed to date Asterios, the oddly proportioned and unbearably obtuse braggart, in the first place. Until he is actually invited in from the cold by Hana at the end, I was totally expecting Asterios Polyp to be a story of how vanity and pride destroy relationships, not one in which they seem to endear jerks to women who could almost definitely do better.

Ultimately, there are far too many aspects of this book for me to explain my disconnect with here, but understand that there are more.

After thinking more about the work, i keep being drawn back to the scene in Kalvin’s apartment, in which he explains how in his works he layers multiple lines and ideas of his music on top of each other, and leave it to the listener to reassemble them into a coherent and personalized experience. Perhaps this is the way Asterios Polyp is meant to be read. Perhaps we as readers are supposed to follow and emphasize different aspects as we wish, read the story however we are most effected by it. To some it might be a story about fated love, to others about the chaos and unpredictability of life, and to others a story about brotherhood, or childhood, or academia, or even about comics as a medium! But if this is true, then my reaction is similar to Asterios’: it is the author’s job to assemble his work, and mine as a reader to interpret it. When i interpreted Asterios Polyp, I felt it to be aimless, often awkward, and essentially less than the sum of its (un-assembled) parts.