The Book of Life as We Know It


In the Shadow of No Towers
By Art Spiegelman
42 pages. Pantheon. $44.90.

September. Time to hear, once again, about the Book of Life, perhaps the most powerful and literary metaphor in all of Judaism. In the course of a lifetime of temple-going this phrase gets repeated over and over, and soon enough the syllables become dog-eared and yellowed. The inevitable High Holiday repetition does much to diminish the shock and awe inscribed in the concept.

For a long time I imagined the Book as a ledger, or as a computer-generated accounting of our good and bad deeds. But then I read Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin on the concept: “On a table before God lies a large book with many pages, as many pages as there are people in the world. Each of us has a page dedicated just to us. Written on that page, by our own hand, in our own writing, are all the things we have done during the past year. God considers those things, weighs the good against the bad, and then, as the prayers declare, decides ‘who shall live and who shall die.’” This passage—particularly the material about words written “by our own hand, in our own writing”—reminded me of nothing so much as In the Shadow of No Towers, the latest idiosyncratic graphic novel by Art Spiegelman.

So now, when I want to pump some life into the idea of the Book of Life, I pick up Spiegelman’s brand-new work. On my desk sits the oversized hardcover volume featuring two shiny black images of the late World Trade Center on the cover. It's a mournful and easily recognizable picture, a version of which first appeared on The New Yorker only days after 9/11. But then you take a closer look and notice, three-fourths of the way up the towers, a rectangular box containing various early-20th century cartoon figures (a Yellow Kid here, a Katzenjammer there) falling to the ground, complete with squiggly action lines and yellow, though not necessarily Jewish, stars.

In the Shadow of No Towers is a serious work of comic art, just like Spiegelman’s famed Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus volumes. It is a book radioactive with both the tragedy and optimism of Jewish history. In the introductory essay, Spiegelman writes about how 9/11 brought him to “that faultline where World History and Personal History collide—the intersection my parents, Auschwitz survivors, had warned me about.”

The intersection of the Shoah and 9/11 is so powerful that it invades Spiegelman’s self-portraits. At one point in the book he stops looking like the real-life author and starts resembling a Maus-like rodent. “I remember my father trying to describe what the smoke in Auschwitz smelled like,” he says in one panel, adding that his father reported the odor as “indescribable.” He concludes: “That’s exactly what the air in lower Manhattan smelled like after Sept. 11!”

In the Shadow is all about 9/11; about death, life, despair, and endurance. Speigelman’s constantly shifting styles and relentless self-consciousness dramatize exactly how the madness of that Black September invaded everyone’s consciousness. It also reminds us that the terror attacks were, in their own way, Osama bin Laden’s attempt to become the author of the Book of Life.

As an author, Spiegelman is something of a thematic and stylistic acrobat. His focus swings back and forth between doom and hope, the past and the present. On the one hand, In the Shadow is an affirmation. It is Spiegelman’s way of staying sane in this increasingly crazy time, in which New York became a Mecca of American death and our country gave itself to the Republican administration. It is an action of deliberate historical grounding, in which Spiegelman looks back to his past—not just the past of his father, his Jewish past, his past work in the Maus books—but to the cartoon past. Spiegelman notes that many people ran for their Auden poems when Al Qaeda attacked; he ransacked the newspaper archives for the great color comix (his spelling) that were produced in the very areas of Manhattan targeted by our terrorists. On the other hand, it’s a book haunted by the shades of the dead, the people who perished on 9/11 and in the various battles, the Six Million, and the cartoonists of yore. A major theme here is the transience of the art of cartooning, which reminds one of Nicholson Baker. Baker’s book Double Fold and his American Newspaper Repository did a lot to preserve these old color comics (Spiegelman thanks Baker on the inside flap), and his recent book Checkpoint seems to be fueled by the same desperation and anxiety that light up In the Shadow.

Spiegelman knows that getting thrown out of oneself by a monumental act of historical violence is a rich theme for a book, and a superlative way to drive oneself crazy (which is, I suppose, one consequence of being the cartoonist son of concentration-camp survivors). While we may cringe at all that Spiegelman has been through, at his willingness to display his fear and paranoia and terror, we can’t help but be grateful for the vigorous work of art it has produced.