The Screaming Face in the City of Glass graphic novel

Even on the front cover, this strange, and frightening misshapen face, mouth open in a seemingly endless cry, accompanies the other non-descript faces, standing out from the visual style of the comic. It represents some sort of symbol, a diversion from the norm, or maybe even a culmination of events. In this blog post, I will try to decipher what the screaming face means in the graphic novel and how it represents one interpretation of the novel.

The screaming face appears suddenly, shaking the reader from the usual visual language. It is like the font of a book changing mid-sentence or paragraph, or becoming all-caps. It does not fit with the other faces in the work, but what interests me is how the reader still identifies it as a face. Our eyes have the ability to transform meaningless lines into a recognizable shape, such as with butts, or making constellations with stars. Distant objects may appear to blurred for the viewer to know what exactly they are, so one tends to create weird shapes (at least in my experience) that are often completely different from what the real object is. We can recognize a human face by its individual features: two eyes, a nose, a mouth, largely-symmetrical construction, everything mostly positioned around the center. We can see faces in wall plugs, because we see the upper two grooves as eyes, and the lower one as a mouth. Therefore, it is no surprise that this face still looks very much like a face. It may not be perfectly proportioned like the other professionally drawn faces, but it still has many of the core elements.

When looking at the screaming face, one assumes that it is drawn by a child, because, naturally, most children (and even some adults, including me), do not possess the skills to draw a more true-to-life face. This links directly to the child characters in City of Class, Quinn’s deceased son, Auster’s son, and Peter Stillman Jr. And why does the face seem to cry out in terror? Obviously, one can link it to Peter’s confinement in a dark room, the crudeness of it symbolizing both Peter as a young child, and the horrors that his mind is experiencing. But the face is also used alongside mention of Quinn’s son. Does it mean that his son was also locked up? Or could this be an internal, childish expression of his inner fears? The fact that the death of his son caused him to retreat into his own dark room, locking out his social life and attempting to find ‘God’s language’ in the mystery novels he writes. (Maybe the mystery novel, with its search for the truth, can be seen as a search for God’s language, but I’m digressing here).

But what I believe the screaming face largely symbolizes is the act of drawing uninhibited by language, visual language in this case. Each artist may have their own drawing style in which they interpret the shapes, images and colors of reality in their own terms. But Peter Stillman Jr. is and was definitely not an artist, and so his drawings come from humans’ innate desire to draw and express their ideas through images. He knows what a face looks like, but he does not know how to draw a face the ‘right’ way. But he does it anyway, and this could be a more personal, closer expression than what visual artists portray. Like the word standing between the thing and the meaning, the visual language can stand between the thing and the drawing. Maybe alongside developing new languages and straying from ‘God’s language’ they designed new ways of drawing that divided people into those that can draw and those that cannot. Like the different languages we speak that allow us to see the world in different ways according to the words we assign to different objects and the grammatical structures in which we order our sentences using, the different visual languages artists use in conjunction with the crude drawing style that non-artists use can be seen as an imperfection, a deviation from the original state of innocence. So all in all, the screaming face may be Quinn or whoever else communicating to us through the language of God.

Loneliness and Abandonment in Austerlitz

Loneliness and abandonment are two themes that I believe pervades Sebald’s Austerlitz and help convey its striking sense of melancholy. Both of them revolve around a kind of ostracization and alienation, a sense of not belonging, which deftly encapsulates Austerlitz, who really has no idea of where his roots are before his early childhood memories become unlocked. Even then, he can only wonder what could have been if he had been raised in Czechoslovakia instead of in London, but he can never return to it. He is in a halfway space between countries, neither one of them feeling truly like home. There is England, which he grew up in, France, where he studied in, and Czechoslovakia, where he was born in. But they are unable to form a cohesive whole together, and Austerlitz seemed stretched across these three countries, never fully tangible in one exact place.

One important aspect of this book is how little Sebald focuses on the complex dynamics between people, instead choosing to explore their inward natures. He could have constructed a network of acquaintances and close friends that Austerlitz interacts with, considering that it is often a person’s friends that shape a character’s personality, but it is his absence of these that allows him to tell his story in full to the narrator, who acts very much as a window to the audience.   The narrator and Austerlitz connect not only because of their interest in architecture but also their solitary natures, the narrator also being seemingly free to wander about Europe not bound by any obligations to other people. Perhaps Austerlitz sees the narrator as someone that he can finally open up to, so much that he discards any form of greeting or pleasantries, as Sebald notes through the novel and instead delves straight into the story. Maybe the narrator can be seen as a figment of Austerlitz’s imagination, a long-awaited reprieve that never comes and so emerges out of necessity as a hallucination. Sebald’s treatment can be explained as a result of Austerlitz’s position, or perhaps a way to exemplify/exacerbate it; because Austerlitz’s predicament is so uncommon, having not realized who his true parents are even after turning more than 50 years old, he is not truly able to connect with people who have strong ties to their country, their home and their family.

“I was ill at ease among artists and intellectuals as in bourgeois life, and it was a very long time since I had felt able to make personal friendships. No sooner did I become acquainted with someone that I feared I had come too close…” (125-126)

Also worthy of mentioning is the different layers of relationships and interactions present within the book. The relationship between the narrator and Austerlitz is the ground level, the one taken for granted as a means to enable the story to be told. The second level, according to my understanding, involves Austerlitz’s relationships with other characters, which vary tremendously but also share a lot in common. Austerlitz’s solitary nature lends power to these relationships, as they exist only in relation to Austerlitz. We as the author never see these other characters through their own eyes, so the illusion is created that they exist to rescue Austerlitz from his isolation and loneliness; we are grateful for that but heartbroken when they leave, which they often do in some way or another. His friend Gerald dies in a plane crash, his history teacher Hilary does see him regularly during his college studies but is not mentioned afterward, so one assumes that he has died or drifted apart, Elias and Gwendolyn, despite not being that well-liked by Austerlitz do keep him company, and both of them are disposed of in quick succession, Gwendolyn succumbs to sickness and Elias grows depressed and is sent to an asylum. Further on, Gerald’s family also disappear, Evelyn and Alphonso also end up dying and Adela ends up moving to America; Austerlitz remembering her “unchanged, as beautiful as she was then” (111). Finally, Marie eventually leaves Austerlitz and breaks off their relationship. Each of the characters that keep Austerlitz company end up disappearing, causing him to revert back to his solitary disposition, his liminal state causing his relationships to eventually fade. Maybe the reason why he continues to search is because the narrator, as a kindred spirit, will not leave him, will eventually return after thirty years or so and be there to accompany him. But perhaps there is also a beauty in remembering someone as they were before; they become trapped in time just as photographs are, never growing old or digressing from what you remember them as, that uncertainty being what keeps you company. Austerlitz’s pleasant memories of being with Adela and Marie retain their power because they can never be replicated or degraded. If his relationship with Marie had ended in a more protracted manner, the bitter taste would have overwhelmed his vision of her as a kind individual who despite her family name selflessly cares for him after he suffers a nervous breakdown, and leave him uninterested to search for her whereabouts in the end. All in all, having only two people in a scene projects a sense of vulnerability; if one of them leaves, both of them will be left alone, and it is through this fear that the beauty of togetherness can be achieved and not taken for granted.

Another point I would like to make is Austerlitz’s overall view on the world and what is happening around hm. People tend to impress their current state of mind on their surroundings,  so that if they are happy, the day seems to shine more brightly, and if they are sad, darkness seems to butt their senses. This holds through for Austerlitz in his view of other people. When he arrives in Prague, he senses that the people appear to be “ill and gray[,] as if they were all chronic smokers not far from death” (143), and when walking the streets, he observes their “pale, sad faces” (201), and in other scenes, the people around him are often as morose and desolate as he is. For example, he describes two characters as being “pale [women] of almost transparent appearance” (146); his own state of mind perhaps discoloring their faces more than an ordinary person might see.  He is likely compensating for his own alienation by imagining and keying in on others as being equally alone. His description of other people rarely seem to be endowed with optimism or curiosity, he does not ponder about their background or what else they do outside of their current activity; it is simply plain and factual. Also complementing that is Sebald’s utilization of weather. “Dark, oppressive” (219) days predominate in many scenes within Austerlitz’s story, so that we appreciate the beauty of the sun as it finally emerges such as when he enters Germany for the first term, the train suddenly moving faster as the dark butts of his repressed memories lift, and Austerlitz’s recollection of his childhood in Bala involves the noticeable use of a winter setting, engaging in a kind of pathetic fallacy where the snowy, desolate landscape mirrors the coldness of these memories and the slow, lingering loss of life that Gwendolyn succumbs to.

Finally, both the narrator and Austerlitz explore abandoned places, such as the fortress of Breendonk and Terezin. In these places, shadows and gloominess prevail, and Sebald notes that there are rarely any other people in sight. When he first takes the train from Prague, he cannot see any other vehicles or people in the countryside except for the stationmasters. Also, when the author and the narrator visit the Greenwich observatory, they do not “remember meeting anyone” (98). Maybe their wandering way of life slots in between the normal routines of most people, so that they manage to procure historical attractions for themselves only. And it seems that what Austerlitz explores are often just as lonely and alienated as he is, languishing in time and space and waiting for someone to finally uncover them and allow them to tell their story.

Some of the many ways that Riding the Trail of Tears confuses me

I think it is safe to say that Blake Hausman’s Riding the Trail of Tears is not just any ordinary novel you might pick up of the shelves. There are many aspects of this book that confound me, likely intentionally so, that I can barely describe the plot before trying to make sense of its many diversions, quirks and fascinations. So without further ado, here are some of my thoughts on some elements I found particularly intriguing/aggravating:

1. What’s up with the narrator?

The first two chapters establish a narrator that apparently lives inside Tallulah’s head and later crawls into her hair. He (I assume, but I could be wrong) claims to know all about the inner workings of the TREPP, the Misfits, the Little People, the Little Little People and urges us with great warning to turn the page at our own risk, breaking the fourth wall.

And then he (apparently) disappears. While its true that we learn a lot, perhaps too much, about what Tallulah is thinking, almost in a Lieutenant Gustl-esque morality and righteousness only exists outside us way, he does not interject with comments about his own reaction to the events. He seems to fade into the background as a more typical omniscient third-person impartial/invisible narrator takes shape. Perhaps he could have made a witty remark when tour group 5709’s simulation goes off the deep end, or slyly comment on where Irma really is. Off the top of my head, I can offer a couple explanations. One is that Hausman simply decided that this dual-layered narrative/meta-narrative made an already fairly lengthy book too burdensome and only left the first two chapters intact. Or maybe he just forgot to continue it. Second is that the narrator somehow disappears from the narration after the first two chapters, he is only there to serve as an inserted frame, maybe just to explain some of the weird things that happen in the story.

And what about when Tallulah cuts her hair off? Does she know the narrator is there? How much does she know about what is truly happening? The story still continues after she does so, so does the narrator still hang on, or has he long disappeared from the narration?

2. What is the purpose and meaning of using both present and past tense narration?

One thing I noticed is that the chapters where Irma is the POV character are written using past tense and that the chapters where Tallulah is the person of interest use present tense. Considering the importance of time, both linear or circular, within the book, one could assume that this means something.

Chapter 19 ends in past tense. In chapter 20, the prose switches between past and present; it is mostly in past tense, but slips into present briefly on pg 327 and the end of pg 332-333.

It could be two separate narrators, one narrating using the past tense and the other using the present tense. It could also indicate that the scenes using past tense happen in the past and that scenes using present tense happen in the present.

Or the use of present tense could indicate the forward or intended flow of time, simple, at the moment experiences, while past tense, being able to convey feelings and events from the entirety of human history, could evoke a more expansive look at time, considering the eclectic mixture of past and present that embodies the Misfits. Tallulah’s dream is fixed in the past, and when she is jolted back into reality, the prose also jolts back into present tense.

3. The role of the Old Medicine Man and the Chef

In the beginning of the novel, the Old Medicine Man gets a lot of attention as this end-game consolation prize, a wise elder which supplies platitudes of inner strength and finding your calling. Despite talking about him, we never see him. The tourists are seemingly rejuvenated from their traumatic experience inside the Trail by seeing Old Medicine Man, and they act normally as they leave the attraction, even though they have experienced murder, rape and all other crimes that actual American Indians faced during the Removal. There must be something there that releases , that prevents the tourists from being “holed-up” as a couple of the characters end up doing, perhaps as a result of the realistic trauma within the trail. In this way, he can be seen as this connective tissue, absorbing the impact of the muscles on either side, a mediator between reality and virtual reality. The tourists know they are no longer in the game, but are still in virtual space, a kind of liminal, in-between world.

What we do see a lot of however is the Chef. He’s not advertised at all, but he becomes an integral presence. When Irma first disappears, she ends up in the Misfit Stockade and encounters him. In some ways, the Chef could also play an in-between role, breaking the intended structure of the game, slowing it down, creating something that is neither history nor present events, breaking the immersion in a way so that it accesses a new “glitch-space”. He addresses the tourists directly and knows about them, and he operates in a space initially separate (off-the-road, more precisely) from the Trail, just like the space I presume Old Medicine Man is situated within. Maybe he is the demented alter-ego of the Medicine Man, an apparently scrapped or discarded character that once served a similar role.

4. What’s the deal with all the passages about food?

I noticed that Hausman spends an abnormally large amount of time talking about food and its preparation. I think almost half of the scenes involving the Chef involve him preparing food for the other Misfits. It almost serves as the way in which he leads the Misfits. When the Misfits leave the stockade, nearly singular emphasis is focused on providing enough ‘travel rations’ for all of them, and the Chef demonstrates superhuman ability to prepare food for 1000 people within a short amount of time.

One thing to note is that Nell Johnson, one of the tourists, is holed up after being shot while running towards some peach trees. The other characters die without any relation to food, and they all make it out okay. Strange.

Also interesting is that the chicken marsala that the Misfits are serving in chapter 19 basically sparks a chain of memories from Tallulah. It is common to have an object or a concept that triggers certain memories from one’s past, both in narratives and in real life, but here it comes specifically in the form of food.

Something particularly noteworthy is that as a virtual reality platform, the sense of taste, which food revolves around, would be hardest to recreate. Surely the “Realskyn” and the visor, as described in the book would be able to recreate the sense of touch, sight and hearing and perhaps also smell, but the sense of taste . Maybe it is the character’s quite visceral response to food, and the fact that the characters eat the Chef’s food and enjoy it that truly blurs the lines between reality and virtual space.

Even outside of the simulation, the narrator clearly mentions the ‘single kitchen’ reality that connects all the various restaurants in the TREPP, and at the end, Tallulah cuts off her hair in a walk in freezer, using a scissor borrowed from one of the people working in the kitchen. I can’t quite piece together the connection, but I think Hausman definitely intended there to be one.