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.


Zoe said...

Hi Greg,
Thanks for posting the first review, it looks like a great book (another for my ever-growing list). I think it's important that you've identified the purpose of the graphic devices – to extend the reader's suspension of disbelief – from the outset. When arguing for the value of including graphic devices in novels, if you can clearly describe the function of the images, you automatically silence dismissive claims that they are 'gimmicky' or 'merely decorative'. In the last sentence, you only touch on the idea that the overall affect of the visual devices is to provide a "different, fuller reading experience" and I think this needs to be elaborated. The idea of a more interactive or engaging reader experience is what's most interesting about this use of graphic devices – authors are using graphics/images because they communicate something that words alone do not. What is it, and why is this a 'fuller' experience?

digshot said...

Hi Zoe,

The overall function of the images, and in particular the 'facsmilie' covers and inside covers with their handwritten dedication, is to bolster the conceit that what we're reading is a real, found text. If this was a text-only novel and Gray had said 'The autobiography that follows was found in a box file on the edge of a pavement... and has been retyped to fit in this volume', the premise would still work, but just not as well. The covers show the reader the book, rather than requiring it to be conjured up in their minds. The Victorian illustrations and typographical flourishes within bolster this by visually placing the story in its era. And the handwritten dedication and a scribbled and tear-blurred letter from Bella Baxter (the story's feminist Frankenstein's monster) bring us closer to the characters simply by showing us their hands.

For me, this last is a simple but powerful tool, particularly for characterisation. Handwriting and doodles speak volumes about a person. Anything seemingly written or drawn by the character through whose eyes you're seeing can subtley flesh out your perception of them in ways that text just can't.

In interviews on his website ( Gray discusses his typo/graphic devices:

[On 'Poor things']

'It contained no original devices at all. The editor's introduction of long lost narrative was in The Master of Ballantrae. That book, as well as The Moonstone and Frankenstein, is told by a narrator who quotes long narratives by other people, many of them letters. But why explain where I got the tried and true ideas for constructing the Poor Things automobile? I want the reader to enjoy driving it.'

[On his inclusion of images/experimental typography]

'Was there ever a preference for the word over the image or vice versa?'

Gray: 'Never. I preferred Disney films to all others as a child and their words and sounds and images were simultaneous. The first books I read had pictures in them.

'Your illustrations are visually unique and doubtlessly Gray. Where do they fit into the texts? In other words, do you think of them with the text, as a prelude, as an afterthought?'

Gray: 'As an afterthought. My illustrations are not essential to the text but intended to make it more enjoyable.'

'You obviously take typographic liberties in your work as well. What motivates you to use such graphic devices and how do people react to them? One would think they might bristle at such an intrusion into the text.'

Gray: 'I use a variety of typefaces where this makes the story clearer. Thus in Poor Things the letters of Bella and Wedderburn are printed in italic, a type based on handwriting rather than Roman chiselling. In 1982, Janine - an interior monologue novel - the speaker has a nervous breakdown conveyed by three columns of different typefaces on the same pages, each a stream of thought or feelings at war with the rest. I do not know how else I could have done it. Since a lot of people buy these books I think they give more pleasure than pain.'

'It seems that I cannot start out to be visually playful. I have to start any work I do - painting or writing - in a conservative way which uses an already well-known form. Only when safe with it does the possibility of fracturing it somewhere and grafting in something unexpected (to give new height or depth) occur... But... the superimposition of one complete idea on another, I can't build that way. Not on a page. Or not yet!'

Zoe said...

Could you describe this first point, bolstering the conceit that what we're reading is found, as suspension of disbelief? I've been trying to find literary terms that parallel what the visual elements are doing in all the books I've looked at, and generally I can. But I think it's important to define what it is that is special about this as a VISUAL device (ie why is it unique rather than a mere translation of something that could be done with words). And you have argued that well here (that the premise would work, but not as well). What is it about the visual that makes it work better than the verbal description would? I can't actually answer that, I'm just tossing it out there. Maybe it's the immediacy of the visual - you actually are holding something that is not a conventional novel, so the suspension of disbelief is more immediate?