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.