Thursday, April 17, 2008

Exquisite Corpses

Woman’s World, by Graham Rawle, Counterpoint, 2008

Perhaps the most fun thing that can happen to a reader is serendipity. The novel you casually pluck from the shelf with no previous information to go on turns out to be an excellent read. You’re luckiest when the writer in question turns out to have been prolific and you are launched on a course of devouring the complete works. Most often this isn’t the case. Who doesn’t know, more or less, what to expect when they first pick up an Agatha Christie novel? (For my own part, I hadn’t expected those mysteries to be so damn fun, which was a treat for me, but the general structure was just as expected.)

The cover of the hardback edition of Graham Rawle’s novel Woman’s World didn’t promise anything particularly special. The recent election had made me more aware of women’s representation in media and art, and the idea of a novel written by a man with such a title made me give the book a second glance. Low on the cover clung a blurb from Joanna Lumley (of Absolutely Fabulous) which gave me additional pause. Piqued enough, I plucked up the novel and flipped it open.

This is what I found:

Holy crap, I thought and flipped the page.

More of the same.

I riffled through the book, then looked very closely at the pages. Either this was a put on done with some kind of graphic design tool in Photoshop (which would probably be immensely time-consuming) or it was legit (quite likely immensely time-consuming times ten).

I flipped to the back of the book and read the back cover where the blurb from The Guardian promised that this was indeed for real.

For five years Rawle, Stakhanovite of the scissors and paste, has laboured 17 hours a day, seven days a week, assembling 40,000 fragments of text from women's magazines to produce a tale that moves with the pace of a thriller, with as many cliffhanging chapter endings and swerves of story. But there's the added excitement of a typographical rollercoaster: each page features nearly 100 variations as we lurch from sedate Times Roman to the fullblown exclamations of advertisers' fancy capitals.

My first major worry upon starting the novel was that it would prove very distracting, the visual cut and pastiness of the text, but that feature soon faded into the background. Certainly there were pages where the radical juxtaposition of text or the use of imagery forced your attention back to the very graphic nature of the novel, but overall, Rawle was wise to limit just how much the pages attract the eyes to look rather than read. To be sure, as you can see from the excerpts above, the pages are very chock-a-block full of switches and changes and font and size are often chosen specifically at times for emphasis, but much of the story unfolds in relatively the same size text and mostly stays within the straight and narrow of accepted margins.

Primarily a novel of fractured identity, Rawle’s book beautifully illustrates the difficulties of knowing who you are when you’re being bombarded with media messaging about who you should be. The kind of stereotypes taken for granted in the 1950s and 60s (and the era from which these magazine bits are clipped) are here given novel twists, our more media savvier minds “getting the joke” while at the same time we feel their oppressive ubiquity in a way previous generations might have been less prone to notice outright.

We are introduced at the novel’s beginning, to its first person narrator Norma Little, sister of Roy Little and Mary her “housekeeper.” Something is clearly off between Mary and Norma, the older woman acting far above her station as mere housekeeper. The actual relationship of these characters I’ll leave for the reader to discover, but needless to say, much like the novel itself, nothing is fully what it seems. In a rather shocking opening scene that will come to mean far more as the book unfolds (and it is very infrequent that Rawle or Norma will point to anything outright), Norma witnesses a traffic accident.

Standing at an upstairs window, Norma sees a delivery van run down a child:

The front of the van hit the girl side-on, hammering her head hard on to the road. Her legs seemed to float up and the vehicle caught her again and pushed her along, folding her body into the tarmac. By the time the van managed to stop the girl was lying on her back, but she didn’t look right at all. Her left leg was bent under her so she was lying on it, and her foot was up by her face but with the toes pointing the wrong way. Her head had gone flat at the back like a burst football.

102 words done in 42 pieces of text with words like “hit” and “head” done in white on black reverse text while the use of “float up” in a different style visually lifts those words on the page just as the body is described as doing. It is extraordinarily moving at times how Rawle’s use of design can underscore a text’s meaning (or in other places, undercut it).

Norma shakes off this vision and goes about her day, applying for a job. The fact that she does so so effortlessly (“Anyway, if you get too involved in these things you end up going in the ambulance. I didn’t want to go in the ambulance.”) is our first tip-off that all is not right with this woman. The strange looks she gets throughout the day are written off as things other than they are, the reactions of characters to her dismissed as jealousy, lust, and sexist prejudice. Unsettled, we start to question what precisely is going on.

Norma’s story, however, is interrupted by the return of Roy, her brother. Between Norma and Roy’s relationship with Mary a certain clarity begins to arrive. The continuing development of this relationship and the complications of it begin to come to the forefront. Before the novel is over, there will be an engagement, a sexual assault, possibly murder, emotional upheaval, a continuing psychological breakdown, and many revelations. Rawle’s ending leaves us hanging to some degree, the climax of the book dovetailing neatly (perhaps a trifle too neatly) with the genesis of our story, but with enough open-endedness that its lack of resolution obscures some patness.

I fully expected the limitations of Rawle’s style to lead to awkwardness in his phrasings, but he neatly scissors his way around that, sometimes chopping up words, very occasionally getting down to the nitty-gritty of individual letters. The liberal large-scale use of marketing slogans, some of the novel’s more sizable excerpts, fit perfectly into the story’s conceit and also help to highlight the very fragile ground on which Norma’s personality rests.

What Rawle has done here is nothing short of genius. From bits and pieces he has constructed a novel that is humanly moving with characters rich and complex and he has done so in a fashion that feels neither gimmicky nor forced. It is art of the first degree when the medium and the message become so seamlessly interwoven. How ever he chooses to follow this up, it will be a challenge of the first order.

1 comment:

The Critic said...

Rawle analyzes what he did in this little bit here: