Review: Windowpane

A comic book which looks like nothing else on shelves at the moment.

Windowpane is likely to be the best looking book you will hold this year. The comic, from new indie publisher Breakdown Press, is rather unassuming when closed. Stapled spines, soft covers, and a relatively standard size mean that you may expect it to be a standard small-press piece: nice black-and-white art, printed relatively cheaply, and then bound with a smarter cover.

In fact, the book acts as a showcase, of sorts, for a style of printing called risograph which, according to the printers, "sits in the realm somewhere between screen print and offset lithography, but with a unique aesthetic." It's not that rare, and a few other books have been printed with the same technique – Philippa Rice's Soppy, for instance – but Windowpane is the first to feel like it was drawn specifically for it.

The effect really has to be seen to be understood, but it leads to a book which looks like nothing else on shelves at the moment. Each page is more the sort of print which one would pick up from an art fair in East London than a part of a book. Printing a whole book with the technique is almost certainly not an idea which scales up – in other words, even if Joe Kessler's work makes it to the mainstream, don't bet on anything looking quite as good as this.

Windowpane is an anthology, of sorts, with Kessler providing all the art and most of the words (the exception being a 12 page collaboration with Kenyan writer Reuben Mwaura). The stories within largely share a dreamlike quality. A couple walk through an eternally burning landscape, getting closer and closer to the fire itself, where they find a flaming stag; a man, spurned by his lover, flees in his car and and hits a bull; an ambassador's conversation with his queen takes an unexpected turn.

All are illustrated in variants of Kessler's simple style, which uses thick blocks of colours and basic linework to varying effect. Some of the simplicity is apparently the result of the printing process; a "behind-the-curtain" peek is offered in one of the stories, where the alignment crosses have been left on-page. From that, it is easy to see how tricky it would be to do anything too intricate unless it were in monochrome – and doing that would not be playing to the book's strengths.

These aren't thrilling tales; Kessler certainly knows which side of the art/commerce divide he wants to come down on, and isn't afraid of being opaque. Some of the pieces feel like they exist as little more than a frame to hang the artwork from (not that that's necessarily a bad thing; the one-pager "Kawanishi's Greenhouse" is the best-looking single-page in the book), but others succeed in being deeper. The best two, the aforementioned collaboration with Reuben Mwaura and an extremely formalist piece about deaths from a prairie fire, use Kessler's style, colouring and, yes, the risograph printing to tell a story which oughtn't be told any other way.

Windowpane is a difficult book, and almost certainly unsuitable as someone's first – or even tenth – comic. But put a little bit of effort into it, and it gives back a lot more.

Windowpane is published by Breakdown Press, £7.00 plus shipping.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era