A novel idea
Author’s potential ‘spectacular waste of time’ makes its way across the pond
In the late 1990s, British artist Graham Rawle began wondering if it was possible to write an entire novel from the linguistic equivalent of table scraps.
Rawle began by writing a rough draft of Woman’s World in the traditional way, using computer and keyboard. At the same time, he started collecting bits of text from his collection of magazines, organizing them by theme into a large, numbered scrapbook. He then transcribed the magazine text into the computer, tagging each sentence with the appropriate scrapbook page number. A million words later, Rawle had an electronic database to work from.
Next, he began to replace his own words with approximate matches from his found-text database, a few words at a time, changing tenses and swapping “she” for “I.” Once his story had been overwritten by the magazine text, he gave the resulting manuscript to his publisher for editing to ensure the novel held its own.
“If the story doesn’t work, then it is the most spectacular waste of time known to man,” Rawle explained recently. “It’s like you’ve built the Eiffel Tower out of matchsticks.”
It did work. Using more than 1,000 British women’s magazines from the 1960s as source material, he created a full-length novel consisting of 40,000 text fragments.
From start to finish, Woman’s World took five years, including 18 months of paste-up, each page requiring three days. While laborious, this final stage was, Rawle found, the most rewarding; he likened it to knitting. Since every word had already been decided upon, he was merely eking his way toward The End, one tiny piece of paper at a time.
“The whole point of doing this, I think, is that you have to be more inventive in the way that you construct a sentence,” explained the 52-year-oldRawle. “You put two seemingly unrelated sentences together and they come together to say something completely new, something that neither of those sentences had intended to say originally.”
Rawle, a graphic designer and artist who teaches at the University of Brighton, admits that the constraints he imposed on the creation of Woman’s World forced him to be more creative and inventive with language. His book is full of colorful metaphors and similes, along with anachronisms, new idioms and the plain, old weird:
“My voice a light and airy soufflé, straight from the oven.”
“Red rage rose within me like mercury in a toffee thermometer and I knew I had to leave before I reached the boiling point for fudge.”
“Roy nodded encouragingly, though his concentration had drifted out to sea in a small dinghy.”
“His words had flung open the French windows of my mind and forced me to step out on to the balcony of indiscretion.”
This is not the first time Rawle has incorporated magazine text into his prose. His previous book, Diary of an Amateur Photographer, is a murder-mystery that includes fragments of found text to supplement the musings of a slightly crazy fellow. In putting together Diary, Rawle started to wonder if it was possible to write an entire book from magazine text.
Divided into 23 short chapters, Woman’s World catalogues the adventures of fashion-obsessed Norma Little and her delivery-truck driving brother, Roy. Rawle recombines bits of advertising text, fashion advice and housekeeping tips into a charming and suspenseful tale involving a job interview, a burgeoning romance, a creepy photographer and a nosy neighbor.
While the novel’s narrative arc is relatively smooth, the words on the page are the visual equivalent of jazz, resembling fridge-magnet poetry or an old ransom note. Font types and sizes, along with upper and lower cases, swap every few words, creating a herky-jerky rhythm and tone, akin to listening to an audio book that switches narrators and volume every couple of seconds.
The novel echoes the famous 1956 collage “Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?” by British artists Richard Hamilton, John McHale and John Voelcker. The collage features a male bodybuilder clutching an enormous Tootsie Pop, while a burlesque dancer in a lampshade vamps before a coffee table with a large tin of ham on it.
With its unexpected juxtapositions collage was, in the words of the 19th century French writer Lautréamont, “Beautiful like the chance meeting of an umbrella and a sewing machine on a dissecting table.” It has been a dominant motif of 20th century art, playing a central role in avant-garde movements such as Dada and Surrealism. As author Luc Sante wrote on his blog, collage ‘was a symbolic enactment of revolution: taking apart the detritus of the old order and refashioning the pieces into constituent elements of the new.”
Literary collage, revolutionary or not, is rarer. In the 1960s, William S. Burroughs experimented with cut-ups, which involved taking paragraphs or chunks of his work (and others’) and rearranging his thoughts at random. In 1966, inspired by Burroughs, British artist Tom Phillips spent four years re-writing W.H. Mallock’s 1892 novel, A Human Document, scratching out words in the original book with a pen and painting imagery to create a new text he called A Humument. Since then, Phillips has continued to rework the book, adding new layers of text and image.
During the 1990s, oddball actor Crispin Glover published Oak Mot and Concrete Inspection, books that reworked texts from the 1800s with overlaid ink drawings and new words. More recently, Montreal comic-strip artist Julie Doucet has incorporated the occasional word or phrase taken from newspapers or magazines into 365 Days, her frenetic visual diary, which was released in the United States earlier this year. The cover of her book has the title arranged in newsprint letters and, as she writes beside it, ‘I have spent hours trying to find a 3 that would fit with my 6 and my 5. No joke.”
Rawle’s next project is a coffee-table edition of The Wizard of Oz, featuring L. Frank Baum’s original text from 1900, and illustrated with pictures of miniature sets populated by old toys and dolls.
Meanwhile, he’s waiting patiently for Woman’s World to appear on the big screen. Optioned by Columbia (his book was published in Britain in 2005 but is only now appearing in the United States), a script is in the works, with Jean Doumanian (a former executive producer for Woody Allen) as co-producer.
No word yet if the film will be cobbled together from existing bits of film stock.