Thursday, 28 May 2009

Acrobat Reader, Anna Gerber and Teal Triggs

Anna Gerber and Teal Trigg's excellent article 'Acrobat Reader', in Print magazine (July/August 2006) is a valuable text to start conversations about hybrid novels, and how integrating graphic devices in fiction challenges the practice of reading: do we begin to look at, rather than read, these books? And ask whether reading is more important than looking:

Sunday, 2 September 2007

The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Brian Selznick (Scholastic, 2007)

Hugo Cabret has been beautifully and visually connected to its subject – early French cinema. Black and white throughout, 300 out of 525 pages are double-page pencil illustrations across spreads (a canvas reminiscent of the cinema screen). These are in sequence, and are read as a flick-book, advancing the action to a point where text is needed – when, for example, the reader needs to know what Hugo is thinking, or where there is dialogue.

As his editor has pointed out in Publishers Weekly, Selznick ‘was determined to make this story about the roots of French cinema work visually’. He starts by having one of his characters brief the reader on the unusual experience ahead:

‘…I want you to picture yourself sitting in the darkness, like the beginning of a movie. On screen, the sun will soon rise, and you will find yourself zooming toward a train station in the middle of the city…’

‘…You will rush through the doors into a crowded lobby. You will eventually spot a boy amid the crowd, and he will start to move through the train station…’

‘…Follow him, because this is Hugo Cabret. His head is full of secrets, and he’s waiting for his story to begin.’

In this first 42 pages of the novel, pictures do the traditional job of words. We are shown the main characters – their faces, expressions, bearing, clothes. We are shown the setting of the novel, zooming in from a view above Paris. And we are shown the mood, which emanates from the soft, grainy black and white pencil drawings, much like it does from the silent movies of the early twentieth century. When we finally turn the page onto a text-spread, it is because we need to know Hugo’s thoughts.

This is true of the rest of the novel: the image sequences move the action on and the text contains dialogue and thoughts. Never do we see text and image on the same page. But there is no jarring when you switch abruptly between these two reading modes. To me at least, it felt effortless and natural – perhaps more so than when they are read together.

Obviously, this story-telling method uses readers’ imaginations in a different way from the conventional text novel. Rather than requiring readers to conjure images from the words on the page – to create the world of the story within their minds – here readers are given the images. In some ways, this limits the act of creation involved in reading. You could argue that it makes the story experience somehow less involved, less interactive because readers have less visualising to do – just as Selznick has argued the converse (in a New York Times 'Book Update' podcast):

‘…making every picture in the book a full double page spread and making the reader have to turn the page, it puts the reader in a different kind of position than they would otherwise be with a book because they are actively involved in moving the story forward.’

So, readers work harder physically interacting with this book, but perhaps do less work imagining its story.

An interesting upside of the imaginative constraints that come with reading a picture book is that it gives the author more control over what the reader sees in their mind’s eye. If a novelist just uses words, the ‘visual story’ created in the reader’s mind will be particular to them – and, for example, a character is likely to appear differently to each of them. Where there is an image of that character, there is no room for interpretation, and no need for conjuring. So, in Hugo Cabret, when we read the text passages what we imagine is likely to have visual continuity from Selznick’s pencil drawings.

It’s often said that featuring a protagonist on the cover of a novel is a no-no, because of this very fact – it stops them from imagining their own. But in some instances, maybe this would be useful to an author. An imagined example: some small detail of a character’s appearance is important to the plot. By showing it to us, it becomes fixed in our memory – and in a different way from how we see it in our minds as we race over the text.

In Hugo Cabret, another function of the image sequences is in moving the action along at a cracking pace – at least halving the reading time of a book describing the same action using text. This probably explains why I didn’t tend to luxuriate in the pictures, studying the details, as I’d imagined I would. It would have been like freeze-framing a film in the middle of an action scene to admire the colours and composition. It was only when I’d finished that I flicked back to enjoy the pictures as pictures.

I can see this book being unique in the way it combines words and images, and the ways in which they’re laid out. In the design, Selznick has purposefully tried to emulate early cinema, thinking about ‘the way the language of cinema tells its stories and thinking about how I could adapt that language within the form of the book.’

Any novel that didn’t involve cinema wouldn’t need to visually reference it in the ways Selznick does. There would be no need to keep to one image a spread. For example, where there’s a lot of action there could be multiple images to a page, and where there is need for pause – say where the reader’s shown the scene of action to come, and is expected to spend some time looking at detail, then the image could take up the whole page. More options provide the author with more control.

Selznick has definitely broken new ground with Hugo Cabret, though. One to learn from…

NB: There's some interesting stuff on this book - much of which I've used here - in an earlier post by Zoe on her PhD blog, here.

Sunday, 12 August 2007

The Frankenstein Diaries, 'translated from the original German and edited by The Reverend Hubert Venables', (Charles Herridge, 1980)

In The Frankenstein Dairies, Mary Shelley’s original story has been abridged, annotated and re-presented in a different form, with graphic elements given at least as much room as the text. So, unlike the other novels discussed so far in this blog, the visual devices in this book were not conceived at the time the story was written.

The point of this new form becomes clear at the outset. The ‘Editor’s Foreword’ (as with Alasdair Gray’s Poor things) asks us to believe that the Frankenstein legend is in fact true. The graphic elements are provided both as ‘evidence’ for this and as a way of bringing us closer to the diarist – the tormented Dr Frankenstein. Venables tells us a ‘tatttered bundle of ancient, decaying papers arrived ten years ago from a colleague in Switzerland’ and that, following research, he has ‘established beyond all personal doubt the authenticity of the diaries as a true historical record of fact.’

From the prologue, which is illustrated by 'the only known portrait of Viktor Frankenstein' and 'a portrait of Caroline Beaufort, Viktor's mother':

‘The reader is bound to view with some scepticism the publication, over 150 years after the event, of a volume purporting to contain extracts from the diaries of a figure universally considered never to have lived… Yet there is some truth in the saying that there is no smoke without fire, or, more appropriately, that there is often if not usually a basis in real life for a legend. Encouraged by this thought, I therefore began my investigations…’

Every page of typed and annotated diary entries that follows includes accompanying items from the editor’s papers. These fall into two categories: reproductions of the original diary pages and the diarist’s drawings:

and miscellaneous items from the editor’s research:

While all the visual elements serve as evidence for the claim that what we’re reading is real, the two categories have additional functions.

The captioned items from the editor’s research include portraits of key characters, illustrations showing scientific equipment of the day, a map, a clipping of a newspaper account of one the monster’s murders, and photographs. These things link the events in the book to real historical events, to the real world in which we live. They also use the visual language of newspapers and non-fiction books, and so tacitly ask the reader to accept them as fact. In this way they extend the suspension of disbelief in a way that words alone cannot.

The reproduced diary entries do something different. When reading first-person narratives, any visual element purportedly created by the narrator bring us closer to the character by allowing us to see through their eyes. The marks that they’ve ‘made’ on the page are human, familiar – believable. This is the intention here. We see ornate German handwriting and Da Vinci-like diagrams on aged and stained parchment. And somehow these marks show us into our narrator’s mind in a way that is unattainable through words and text. So, when we see Frankenstein’s monster, as drawn by its creator, in a spread that punctuates the text and the action, we are also shown the moment the sketch was made - we imagine ourselves in that room with the parchment in front of us, the creature lumbering around with its misshapen limbs and pleading eyes...

Do these graphic interventions work? Well, the reader does often have to backtrack to read captions and study pictures, and so the book has a different rhythm and pace to a text novel. But as the pictures are so integral to the mood and the ideas behind this reworking, it doesn't suffer for this.

Monday, 23 July 2007

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer

Jonathan Safran Foer’s second novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, is composed by three narrative voices: Oskar Schell, a precocious but fragile 9-year-old whose father is killed in the September 11 World Trade Centre attack; Oskar’s adoring Grandmother, who lives across the road, and; Oskar’s mute Grandfather, who abandoned his wife when she was pregnant with Oskar’s father. The different voices are recognisable at a glance.

click to enlarge

Oskar’s is a first-person narrative, typeset in a conventional literary way. The Grandmother’s narrative is a letter to Oskar, recognisable by unusually wide spaces between sentences – a visual que referring to the ‘tab’ space on the old typewriter composes the letter at. The Grandfather’s letters are taken from his ‘daybooks’ – he becomes mute after losing his first love in the firebombing of Dresden and communicates by writing messages in pocket books. His passages are recognisable by their erratic typesetting – sometimes a single line per page, as would be shown to someone he was communicating with, sometimes totally un-paragraphed stream of consciousness ramblings. This simple visual device assists the reader to distinguish between the three narrative voices, speaking across different continents and eras concurrently.

Unable to come to terms with the loss of his father, Oskar embarks on a fool’s errand – he discovers a mysterious key in his father’s closet and sets out to find the lock it fits, somewhere in New York. Along the way, he constructs a scrapbook he calls “Stuff That Happened to Me’. Images from this book are scattered throughout the novel. Interestingly, many images are of things that don’t ‘happen’ to Oskar; alongside photographs Oskar takes of people and places he encounters, are images he finds in newspapers and on the Internet. All these photographs relate to anecdotes or events in the written text, but they do not necessarily appear near that text. So, rather than illustrating the written narrative, the uncaptioned photographs allow the reader to see through Oskar’s eyes, providing a rich visual description of the world he exists in, and is a product of. Safran Foer considered “the visual world in which [children] are now developing”, (Khan 2005) sourcing the photographs from the Internet, newspapers and photo libraries. (Hudson 2005)

The seemingly haphazard way the photographs are presented – including a 15 page sequence of found images ranging from a wall of keys, a paper aeroplane diagram, a pair of copulating turtles and a body falling from a building when a sleepless Oskar flips through his scrapbook – emulates, for the reader, the visual world Oskar inhabits. Safran Foer says: “To speak about what happened on September 11 requires a visual language. My singular motivation was to create the most powerful book I could.” (Village Voice) The most effective way to evoke a bombardment of random images is to show the reader those images – sharing Oskar’s experience heightens our empathy with him.

Oskar finds a video of a man jumping from the second tower to avoid burning to death. Oskar speculates whether this man is his father – he feels he could cope by knowing exactly how his father died. Still images from the video appear throughout the novel – a visual reminder of how this mental image haunts Oskar. The novel closes with a series of these grainy photographs, but Oskar has reversed the sequence so the body floats back up into the building, reversing time and undoing the tragedy:
“Finally, I found the pictures of the falling body. Was it Dad? Maybe. Whoever it was, it was somebody. I ripped the pages out of the book. I reversed the order, so that the last one was first, and the first was last. When I flipped through them, it looked like the man was floating up through the sky.” (325)
As readers, we are forced to participate in this act, making the image come ‘alive’ in our hands. It is at once beautiful and terrifying, especially if the images are taken from real video footage from the Internet – the reader visually reverses a man’s actual death. The photographs in the novel evoke a vivid visual landscape of what was, for many people, a very visual event.

Thursday, 12 July 2007

The Raw Shark Texts, Steven Hall (Canongate, Melbourne, 2007)

The title of Steven Hall’s much hyped debut novel, The Raw Shark Texts, is a play on the Rorschach Test – appropriate for a thriller about an amnesic man that openly embraces its many allusions to other fiction. The original UK edition sports a Post-it note quote from Mark Haddon (The Curious Incident of the Dog and the Nighttime) stuck to the title page, describing the book as: "The bastard love-child of The Matrix, Jaws and The Da Vinci Code." Aside from these references, authors like Haruki Murakami, Italo Calvino and Paul Auster (who are all quoted within the text) and films such as Christopher Nolan’s Memento and Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind drift like phosphorescent particles through reviews of the novel. The fact that cinema is referenced as much as literature may explain why Hall chose to narrate the climax of the novel as a 20-some page flip book, rather than prose.

We meet protagonist Eric Sanderson as he wakes on the floor, retching for breath, with no memory of who or where he is. Cut to Dr. Randle, his psychiatrist – “a large clashing event of a woman” – explaining that he suffers from a rare form of “dissociative amnesia”, probably caused by the accidental death of his adored girlfriend in Greece three years earlier. We have just witnessed his eleventh relapse, each incident erasing more of his memory than the last. However, we quickly discover an alternate explanation: this is actually the second Eric Sanderson, inhabiting the body of the first Eric Sanderson, whose human memory and "intrinsic sense of self" has been eaten by a Ludovician – a “conceptual shark”.

Hall’s surreal and intriguing premise is that all human minds are linked by vast 'streams' of language and thought, and, swimming through these streams, are thought-fish. The Ludovician is the most dangerous thought-fish, feeding on chunks human personality and memory, or, in Eric’s case, repeatedly attacking until there is nothing left but a shell of a person.

Eric II's first encounter with the Ludovician occurs in his living room, when it bursts through his television in a scene reminiscent of The Ring (and countless other horror flicks). Hall represents the Ludovician crossing from the conceptual to the physical realm visually; the television is a square frame on the page, the shark a collection of typographic marks. Before this attack, Eric is (like the reader) aware of his fragile mental state and highly sceptical about the concept of a word-shark, but it bursts through as a real entity – for Eric the ‘conceptual fish’ becomes a physical predator and for the reader, the verbal description becomes a physical (visual) one. As the creature crosses the channel from conceptual to physical, the description crosses from verbal to visual.

This device is repeated at several other points in the novel when the Ludovician manages to locate and attack Eric (and the motley crew of characters he enlists on his quest to escape the fate of the First Eric Sanderson). The most ambitious of these is the climax, an obvious homage to Jaws, when the shark attacks, flip-book style, as Eric and co are adrift on a conceptual-boat (of course).
Despite a wave of praise for his “innovative, postmodern, metafictional novel”, Hall has been criticised, like so many novelists who integrate typo/graphic devices in their text, for resorting to visual ‘gimmickry’. Steven Poole asks in the New Statesman: “If you invent a shark made out of words and then abandon the medium of words to represent it, what is the point?” Aside from the fact that the shark IS made out of words – in fact, it’s composed of fragments of Eric’s story, highly appropriate as it’s only when Eric reminisces that the Ludovician can find him – Poole seems to miss the point that the shark only appears as typographic illustration when it breaks through the conceptual ‘stream’ and into the physical world. To describe this device as a gimmick is to imply that it serves no purpose other than attention-seeking decoration, ignoring that this rhetorical device is, in fact, contributing something to the text that the written narrative alone cannot achieve. It manipulates the reader’s experience to reflect that of the characters.

Hall addresses this criticism as kind of literary snobbishness: "these storytelling techniques are still considered 'experimental' or even worse, 'gimmicky' in some book circles; whereas in art you can sit in a gallery with a dead lobster on your head for a week without fear of being accused of either." It’s a complaint shared by Jonathan Safran Foer, whose novel
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close also features a flip-book passage. He concurs that the use of images in novels is “still considered to be a gimmick or some expression of the failure of language”. In a review for the Village Voice Safran Foer states: "It's a shame that people consider the use of images in a novel to be experimental or brave. No one would say that the use of type in a painting is experimental or brave. Literature has been more protective of its borders than any other art form – too protective. Jay-Z samples from Annie – one of the least likely combinations imaginable – and it changes music. What if novelists were as willing to borrow?"

But Poole wonders whether this ‘borrowing’ is less about paying homage to other forms and more about yielding to them: "does it indicate that fiction is coming to accept a place subservient to film in people's imaginations? ... Indeed,
The Raw Shark Texts reads mainly like a novelisation of a film yet to exist."

I think what Hall, and other novelists employing typo/graphic devices, are recognising is not just the contemporary prevalence of visual story telling forms, but a changing expectation from readers. The flip book device is not just an homage to cinematic drama, but an attempt to engage the reader in a more visually evocative experience. Hall offers a succinct description of the difference between ‘gimmicky’ visual devices and those that are integrated into the written text:
“I'm a huge advocate of unusual typesetting, visual elements, even altering the structure of a book itself, but these devices must always enhance the reading experience rather than obstruct it ... this new interactivity is less about the reader having to create a story and more about offering the reader opportunities to find more of the story for themselves … It's not about creating so much as the offer of a more active form of engagement.

Wednesday, 4 July 2007

Poor things by Alasdair Gray (Bloomsbury, UK)

Poor things, published in 1992, won Alasdair Gray the Whitbread Novel Award and the Guardian Fiction Prize. Simultaneously gothic fantasy, social commentary, pastiche and satire, the book is also a beautiful object, filled with the author’s illustrations and visual devices. As Newsweek put it: ‘A master of pastiche and collage in words and pictures, Gray has found a way to perfectly evoke a cracked, slightly out-of-balance sense of reality.’

He goes to great lengths to extend the reader’s suspension of disbelief. We’re told he’s the book’s editor, merely providing an introduction to the found text that takes up the bulk of the pages that follow. There’s a preliminary page of cod reviews overlaid with a fake erratum slip. The next page has his biography sitting atop a biography of Alexander McCandless, the supposed writer of the self-published Victorian autobiography that follows. We’re told a series of unlikely events brought the book into his hands. Intended as a humble gift to the author’s wife in 1909, she in turn left it ‘for the attention of her eldest grandchild or surviving descendant after August 1974’. There having been no descendants in 1974, it had been thrown out by the current occupants of her lawyers’ offices. A local historian found it in a ‘a heap of old-fashioned box files on the edge of the pavement, obviously placed there for the Cleansing Department to collect and destroy’. Then it found it’s way to Gray:

‘He lent me this book, saying he thought it a lost masterpiece which ought to be printed. I agreed with him, and said I would arrange it if he gave me complete control of the editing. He agreed, a little reluctantly, when I promised to make no changes to Archibald McCandless’s actual text… the main part of this book is as near to a facsimile of the original as possible, with the Strand etchings and other illustrative devices reproduced photographically.’

In this ‘introduction’ Gray goes on to provide the reader with ‘evidence’ to prove the factual basis of the autobiography to follow. He also explains his falling-out with the historian:

‘He blames me for the loss of the original volume, which is unfair. I would have gladly have sent a photocopy to the publisher and returned the original, but that would have added at least £300 to the production costs. Modern typesetters can “scan” a book into their machine from a typed page, but from a photocopy must type it in all over again; moreover the book was needed by a photographic specialist, to make plates from which the Strang etchings and facsimiles of Bella’s letter could be reproduced. Somewhere between editor, publisher, typesetter and photographer the unique first edition was mislaid. These mistakes are continually happening in book production, and nobody regrets it more than I do.’

And so we turn to the cover of the book-within-a-book:

The inside cover and the author’s handwritten dedication to his wife:

And the contents page, with its ‘William Strang’ etching of the author:

More etchings throughout:

‘Wedderburn’s letter: making a maniac’:

A typical typographical flourish:

A scrawled cry for help from ‘Bella Baxter’s letter: making a conscience’.

A newspaper cutting:

From the appendix: ‘Notes critical and historical by Alasdair Gray’:

When the autobiography draws to a close, we’re shown the inside back cover and the back cover. Then Gray the ‘editor’ provides 40 pages of clippings, illustrations and written evidence for the fantastical events in the preceding pages. The visual devices work from first page to last to bolster the suspension of disbelief - all voices are first-person and put us in the minds of the characters; the graphic elements go further and allow us to see through their eyes.

By designing as well as authoring ‘Poor things’, Gray has not only produced a beautiful and special book, he has also provided a different, fuller reading experience.