HELLO! DO I AMAZE YOU?
(Or do you find me a gimmicky gonad?)
In March 2000, Mark Z. Danielewski published the novel House of Leaves to whoops of delight from critics and groans of apprehension from the reading public. His novel was a brain-bending irritant and helped herald in the post-millennial postmodern uprising – novels bending conventions and writhing in glorious indulgence.
My question: Why are writers who experiment with typographical form hailed as scandalous, audacious and fabulous geniuses? Well, because it is – contrary to what you've read – a remarkable achievement to pull off a typographical headache with coherence, profundity, and narrative originality in a work of standard experimental fiction. That’s why.
But surely these mad typographies are an alienating device? Surely having the pages break into clusters, huddled in boxes, or embroidered in linguini backwards in Cyrillic characters is an anti-reader device? Yes. It is. And it is precisely this absolute disregard for the reader, and sheer pig-headed vision, that drives these writers to create their art.
There are three levels of typographical indulgence in texts, and it seems most people are only willing to tolerate the first level. It is this apprehension that bothers me. The three levels:
Footnotes: A standard device for typesetters explaining omissions or errata in texts, the footnote was later turned against the critics and typesetters as an object of ridicule. Most notably in Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, where a footnote famously engulfs the page, leaving the actual text with two lines per page.
Font size, italics, various typefaces: These are commonplace devices now, even in mass market fiction. (Heck!) The humble italic is often applied for entire pages to indicate a shift in time, reality, etc – there are countless examples. The larger font is less common, but isn’t as narksome a technique for the reader. In some cases – for readers with poor eyes – this is encouraged.
The surprise: This is where a book drops a surprise typographical quirk on the reader, such as the ‘surround sound’ metafiction in Alasdair Gray’s Lanark – quotes from books are buffered around the text itself in addition to footnotes. Likewise, in Gray’s 1982 Janine, one page zigzags itself into orgasmic jabberwocky, sealing the protagonist’s airtight descent into alcoholic perversion. These techniques often run on for numerous pages, and risk losing the reader.
The stylistic sadist: This applies to books written in recognisable prose, but which are so persistent in their ‘difficult’ stylistic quirks, the reader usually drowns in the process. Examples include the symbols used in Jonathan Safran Foer’s short A Primer For the Punctuation of Heart Disease where words are gradually replaced with a complex series of symbols. Or even a novel such as Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man, where the pages are placed in the ‘wrong’ order.
This slot is reserved for the visionary lunatics. People who write entire novels based on their unrelenting thirst for endless experimentation and subversive avant-garde wankery. James Joyce’s unkillable Ulysses will be studied by the next generation, and the generation after that, then the next million generations. If you make it through this book, you have penetrated the pantheon of the literary gods.
Ulysses is atypical, however, in that the plot is very basic – one man goes for a walk around Dublin while Joyce weaves every possible device in the history of the written word around this premise. House of Leaves, on the other hand, revels in its broken pages, its fragments and schizophrenic devilishness.
So, what place has the bizarre typographical whim in contemporary literature? Well, with the invention of Microsoft Word and other associated DIY typographical lovelies, a whole new possibility of page-fucking madness stretches before us. It is easy to dismiss these writers as gimmicky, but you really must be possessed with genius to stubbornly write a novel backwards, in Gaelic, on a cow's arse, don't you? Or, to put it another way:
Your underwear is somewhat soiled, but don't let that put you off.