The Decadent Book, or the Book of the Decade?

July 14, 2009 § 1 Comment

Now reading: Only Revolutions, by Mark Z. Danielewski.

I will get into the specifics of what this very strange book might be about and how it might work soon, but first I can’t resist talking about the book itself: its physical form, its extravagant typography and layout, and the experience of reading it.  And in fact, as in all books, but especially in this strange one, that experience is a very large part of its subject and function.

Only Revolutions is a Choose Your Own Adventure: there is no set way of reading it.  Although there is a publisher-recommended way, the reader has to make many choices based simply on the book’s unusual presentation.  There are two title pages, one for the “story” by Sam, the other for Hailey.  The Sam-story and the Hailey-story start from opposite ends and meet in the middle, then go back the other way: the story you’re not reading is always upside-down on the page.  From the jacket flap: “The publisher suggests alternating between Sam and Hailey, reading eight pages at a time.”  They rather strongly suggest that — or, I suspect, Danielewski does — by introducing every ninth page with a large initial letter, intimating a break at the end of the previous page.  (And yes, I’ve followed this suggestion.)  But of course, you can start from either end.  And you can certainly disregard the advice and read all the way through one story, then all the way through the other.

But further, there is also more than one section of text on every page: there’s a main body of varying size and layout which looks suspiciously like verse, but always mostly right-justified on versos and left-justified on rectos.  In the gutter of each page is a sidebar, in small (different) font: a chronology of real-life national and world events, from 1863 to 2005.  (There are also empty sidebars up to 2063.)  These sidebar snapshots can be rather cryptic, given the space restraints and the author’s stylistic preferences: a typical line from World War II reads “6 German saboteurs go” (go being a multivalent word in the book, but very often meaning die).  Many are even less descriptive: a simple number, the meaning of which is only revealed (or not) after later repetitions.  (I hate to do this to someone as cool as Danielewski obviously is, but the device is reminiscent of nothing so much as the wildly popular but, in retrospect, horribly embarrassing Billy Joel boomer anthem “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”)

You can choose to read these and attempt to decipher them or just skim for a sense of time and zeitgeist or utterly ignore them as annoying contrivance, simply acknowledging their perceived use in the book.  But if you do pay attention to them, you can also choose what kind of meaning you wish to assign to them: are they summarizing events contemporaneous with the personal events in the main body of text?  Are they only a kind of symbolic anchoring of the themes of the text in the history of the “real” world?  What is the purpose of the bizarre but rigorously uniform phrasing and syntax and style evident in the sidebars — a cipher or code, or (dare I dream?) a kind of Oulipian game, or merely a sort of literary ticker-tape, or what?

But wait!  There’s more!  The letter “o” and the number zero always appear in green ink in Sam’s narrative, gold in Hailey’s.  The page numbers — two for each page, one for each narrative — appear on the side of the page, in two circles within a larger circle; the numbers rotate 360 degrees around each other through the course of the book.  The sidebar dates appear in a kind of deep magenta.  And the word “creep” (and character The Creep) also appears in a kind of reddish-purple (which may or may not be the same as the date-magenta — I really can’t tell if there’s a difference, because of the different sizes and fonts).  Also, characters’ names (and some important objects) besides Sam and Hailey appear in small caps.  Names of animals in Sam’s narrative, and plants in Hailey’s, appear in boldface (gray boldface in the second half).

Beyond all that, the book features across its boards a gorgeous photographic collage of plants and animals in green and gold and earth-tones, and on its two dust jacket covers extreme close-ups of a green-flecked gold iris and a gold-flecked green iris.  Plus two slightly different jacket blurbs — one for Sam, one for Hailey.  Also, gold and green ribbons, for keeping your place.  And a “concordance” of many overlapping circles of words on both sets of endpapers, to be read in a mirror.

If you’ve read his first book, House of Leaves (a book I utterly adore, and a real candidate for my favorite book of the decade), this is not exactly a surprise — but Jesus, what a load of paratext!  It is tempting to read it as a conceptual poem: more like Kenneth Goldsmith‘s work than Joyce’s, even though Finnegan’s Wake is what first springs to mind as a comparison, in that its existing is as much or more the point as anything it actually says.

That’s an overstatement, because documentation of the process is certainly not the end point of Z’s work, but it leads me to one of the things I find so interesting about the book’s format.  This is a book, published in 2006, and very much about cosmic themes of birth and death and renewal and obsolescence, which is also very much about being a book published in 2006, about what a book might be.  I don’t know how much Z actually thought about the book’s publication/marketing during its composition — while I think writers don’t much like thinking about publishing, I think Z is perforce an exception — but I think the folks at Pantheon/Random House must’ve thought of the book as a way to make “the book” hip again.  I think they had to think of it as futuristic/avant-garde/cutting-edge, for promotional purposes.  And perhaps it is; it certainly would’ve been utterly impossible to commercially produce 20-30 years ago.  But it also strikes me as, possibly, a kind of death-knell: a really remarkable piece of decadent bookmaking, an example of digital typography and layout and contemporary cheap-but-flashy binding run amok, the kind of thing that gets designed and pushed by a really very respectable publisher and nominated for the National Book Award when “the book” is going through a massive identity crisis.

In some ways the book is very book-specific, in that the look of it and the rotation of the book 360 degrees to read the other narrative and the thematic import of its typography and layout are meant to be quite profoundly part of the book’s meaning — its “content.”  In other ways it’s very hypertextual: one of those works moving past the book, which only feels constrained when it’s moved from a screen where it can more fully interact with a reader or “user” to a page.

None of which I mean to detract from the work itself, which is really quite remarkable in many respects.  It just strikes me, when I look at it on the table, and when I hold it in my hand, and when I read its overflowing pages, as being simultaneously a very exciting and very sad thing.  And even though I’ve just spilled a lot of language about it, I’m still not sure I’ve quite captured why that is.

A Monster of a Concept

August 17, 2008 § 2 Comments

Now reading: The Raw Shark Texts, by Steven Hall.

It’s something of a commonplace that we look to find ourselves in art, and value the feeling of recognition when we do: the idea that there’s a kindred spirit, that we’re not so weird after all. We tend to think things that we understand — things that are close to our own experiences, thoughts, beings — are “good,” and those that aren’t are “bad” (if we bother with them at all).

I’m no exception here, although I wouldn’t consciously say that this kind of feeling is anywhere near the top of the list of reasons why I love to read. But there are a handful of books where I’ve experienced such an overwhelming rush of recognition that the feeling was almost appalling. Although it does involve recognition of self in deeper ways, as well, mostly it’s been such a similarity to something I’ve actually written, or at least an idea I’ve been playing around with, that there are mingled sensations of pride, envy, horror, and yes, kinship. (The short list, off the top of my head, for the curious: American Gods, House of Leaves, White Noise, a number of Bradbury stories.)

And now there’s The Raw Shark Texts. Lordy, what a first act; what a first 90 pages. I’m going to try to be even more cryptic than usual, because, frankly, you (yes, you, three people who read this blog, you, dammit) need to read this book. It’s awesome and brilliant. I mean, do conceptual sharks cruising communicative waterways for the chum of human memory and identity strike you as interesting? Come on. It’s irresistible.

(Actually, now that I think about this, you shouldn’t be reading this.

I shouldn’t be writing this.

Shit. There was even a warning about the internet.

Forget I said anything. No one reads this. Nice sharky.)

So I’ll just babble a little about four things I loved in Part One:

-Chapter 4, “The Light Bulb Fragment (Part One),” is almost unbearably poignant and touching and eerily familiar (not in the writerly ways, in the personal ones). Scary good. A DFW-level observation of a relationship, only it’s a great relationship, and we know he’s not into those.

-On p. 57-58, there are these two cool representations of a TV screen with something like (but then, very unlike) concrete poetry on their “screens.” A kind of creature made of typography, barely perceptible in the static (so the text tells us; the representation of the screen is just a blank rectangle with this typography-creature). The book has been fairly cinematic, so far — I mean, it’s extremely lucid writing, very visual, and intentionally so. But there has also been a lot of wrangling with “concept” versus “reality,” or the tangible, at any rate — the physical, the solid. (Brilliantly handled wrangling, I might add.) It made me wonder how this would be handled in (the inevitable, if there’s any justice) film adaptation, because it would be easy enough to just picture this creature as a creature, and it’s certainly a powerful enough image just as a creature, rather than a creature made of these words, this jumble of different-sized type. This is cool, after my late experiences with the “TV fiction” of Bear v. Shark and Vineland: finally, the screen makes it onto the page, only to be filled by words, letters, concepts.

-Letter #4 is awesome. This whole sequence of letters is like if Memento and The Matrix had a baby and The Crying of Lot 49 and “The Library of Babel” had a baby and those babies… well, you get the idea. (Yes, I loved Pineapple Express, too.) At any rate, I love the breakdown of the protective powers of “Books of Fact/Books of Fiction,” and this little doozy: “I have an old note written by me before I got so vague which says that some of the great and most complicated stories like The Thousand and One Nights are very old protection puzzles, or even idea nets…” If I were more ambitious, I’d found a whole school of satirical criticism based on this passage.

-On p. 86 we get a small passage which set bells a-ringin’ in my head: “I learned… how to attach the bracken and lichen of foreign ideas to my scalp and work the mud and grass of another self into and over my skin and clothes until I could become invisible at will, until anyone or anything could be looking straight at me and never see the real me at all.”

You may or may not know that I’ve been working on a piece of writing related to King Lear for a very long time. This passage sounds like Edgar transforming into Tom o’ Bedlam, the madman on the heath. And he’s doing something very similar: while his mud and grass are real, it is the other self he really is working into his skin, the mannerisms and the rantings of a being completely foreign to him, and that is mainly why he is not recognized.

Buggre Alle This for a Larke…

January 27, 2008 § 1 Comment

Shall be the title of my first album, should I magically become a musician.

Now reading: Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett.

About halfway through this book, and the title of this post is the line that made me laugh out loud on a flight from NYC in a plane full of grumpy New Yorkers.  It’s a transcription of the beginning of a fake verse inserted as Ezekiel 48:5 by a disgruntled typesetter for “the London publishing firm Bilton and Scaggs” in 1651–thereafter known as the “Buggre Alle This Bible.”  (It’s funny because it’s true: bibliographers and collectors do tend to refer to weird variants like this by whatever glaring error identifies the variant.)

What made me laugh out loud, I think, was the combination of archaic spelling and type (Gaiman and Pratchett insert the “f” for “s” in the appropriate places) with the anonymous typesetter’s old-timey insults.  What is it about 17th-century spelling that makes the funny funnier?  For some reason “Buggre Alle this” strikes me as much funnier than “Bugger all this.”  Somehow it helps me imagine this young man longing to be outdoors, putting together his type in a fit of extended pique–then to imagine the look on Master Bilton’s face when confronted by the first angry buyer.  It doesn’t hurt, I suppose, to imagine a dry British voice in your head while you’re reading, as I find myself doing throughout this book.  I’ve seen Gaiman read in person and I find his voice creeping in during the funnier bits.

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