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Grief and Creation in Philip Jason’s ‘Window Eyes’

With its focus on tellings, retellings, recreation, and the act of seeing Philip Jason’s Window Eyes takes poignant notice of the all-encompassing perspectives we create with the people we love.

Window Eyes
Philip Jason
May 2023

When you read Window Eyes you will read at least two books. The first is a novel by real-world author Philip Jason. The second is a retelling of the last known completed work by renowned fictional comic book author Kellan Savoy, who has disappeared under mysterious circumstances roughly a year after an accident that killed his wife, Natalie. Natalie, we are given to understand, connected Kellan to the world in a way he was never able to replicate before or since, and her loss represents a form of exile.

Kellan’s work, also entitled Window Eyes, is a set of comics that tell the story of an unnamed man who, after the death of his wife, constructs a golem to take her place. We never get to read these comics. Instead, we read a retelling of the comics, from memory, in the voice of Thomas Levi, Kellan’s best friend and the only person to have read the original work in its entirety before it vanished along with Kellan. The bulk of Window Eyes, the novel, the one you can hold in your hand, consists of Thomas’ descriptions of each panel of the comics in detail, along with dialogue and captions. 

Thomas also includes copious footnotes, which provide his thoughts on possible interpretations, grounded in his personal knowledge of Kellan. For example, the golem is described as bearing a “galaxy-mark” on her cheek, a constellation of freckles that appear as a spiral formation. Thomas, who sees in Kellan’s work a grappling with his very real grief over Natalie’s death, notes that Natalie “had no such birthmark on her face”, but he believes the birthmark to represent what Kellan once told him about Natalie: “[W]hen he looked into other people’s eyes… it was like looking into a dark corner, but when he looked into Natalie’s eyes, it was like looking through a window at the entire universe.”

In seeing Kellan as writing about himself, Thomas imposes this perspective on the reader as well, and sometimes, in the course of the frame narrative, we are compelled to break free of the assumption we have been lulled into, which is that Kellan and the unnamed protagonist of the Window Eyes comics are one and the same. Standing in the space between the two characters forces the reader of Window Eyes, the novel, to question, and question again, whose story she is reading. How much of himself did Kellan mean to put into his character? How much of Thomas has been transposed onto Kellan’s personality through this fictional retelling? 

As a reading experience, this is all less complicated than it sounds. Before we ever get to Kellan’s Window Eyes, Jason grounds his reader well in a fictional frame narrative consisting of a short bio of Kellan, followed by an excerpt from a scholarly essay, a preface by Kellan’s editor, and an introduction by Thomas. These texts together provide us with a basic understanding of who Kellan was (brilliant, enigmatic, shy) as well as the space his oeuvre occupies in the public consciousness of the fictional world Jason has created. Kellan’s work is layered enough to invite scholarly critique and popular enough to warrant a Q & A at ComicCon; we are told upfront that there has been significant fan and industry opposition to publishing Kellan’s final work in the wake of “what has happened”. By the time we get to Thomas’ narration of the comics, we are prepared for a story whose fantastical elements all but overshadow the unconventional manner of its relation. 

The depth and complexity of Jason’s novel only become fully apparent when we step back and think about the many stories he has folded into one, the laminated, exponential layers of storytelling created by his frame structure and secondary narrator. In the outermost layer of Window Eyes, we are reading a novel about a man telling us about his friend’s book. Go in one layer, and we are reading that re-telling. In still a third layer, the unnamed protagonist of Kellan’s book tells his golem the story of the hero Window-Eyes, who has vanished and is being forever sought by Glassman, who loves her. Each story is a story of loss and grief: The world mourns the loss of an artist, Thomas mourns the disappearance of his friend, Kellan mourns Natalie, Kellan’s protagonist mourns his wife, and Glassman mourns Window-Eyes.

Indeed, there are more layers than I can describe in a review without giving away the plot. Still, the way these stories nest inside one another, so connected in content yet separate in the characters’ consciousness, represents one of the fundamental aspects of raw, recent grief: the seeming impossibility, the nearly unbearable reality of being forever separated from a person who was part of yourself, and who was right beside you only a short time ago. In its focus on tellings, retellings, recreation, and the act of seeing, Jason’s Window Eyes also takes poignant notice of the all-encompassing perspectives we create with the people we love and how the loss of a person can mean the loss of an entire world.

Window Eyes, the novel, not only contains all these stories but also offers the possibility of different approaches to reading them. In his introduction, Thomas suggests reading his retelling of Kellan’s comics straight through and then going back to read it with the footnotes after. You can choose to ignore this and read them both at the same time or skip over the elements of the frame narrative altogether and go straight to the meat of the story. The novel bears re-reading well, for the twists and turns of the plot as well as the details even a careful reader might miss on a first pass. In a wink to the world of comic books and other forms of serial storytelling, the novel also leaves space for at least one alternative reading that feels like a juicy fan theory. 

In its multiplicity of stories and storytellers, Window Eyes is, finally, a love letter to literature itself, to the ways making and consuming literature change us, and to the ways it brings us as close as possible to experiencing life inside another person’s skin. It is a love letter to the creation and sharing of art and the often heartbreaking gaps between what we intend to embody with those creations and the final product.

Thomas tells us that Kellan’s book, “in a technique borrowed from Torah manufacture”, was written on what appeared to be parchment made from animal skin. This, and other instances in the novel involving the literal use of spit, tears, and blood to facilitate the act of creation, will ring true to anyone who has ever poured all of themselves into making art of any kind. Kellan’s book, Thomas tells us, should “be given consideration as the public exposure of a deeply personal nerve, a rare and difficult to obtain glimpse into the unabridged mortality of a human being.” It’s one of those rare moments where an author speaks directly to the reader and implores them to remember what they’re holding in their hands.

RATING 8 / 10