The Short Version: the story of an unnamed man – and, perhaps more importantly, that of the women in his life. But it’s much more (and much less) than that, too.
The Review: Visual Editions, the London based publisher behind Tree of Codes and that most recent edition of Tristram Shandy, are back in action with a reprint of a nearly-lost French novel from the ’70s that is, arguably, the first ever interactive novel. It isn’t choose your own adventure so much as creating an unique reading experience for every individual who may pick up the book. See, the pages are unbound. Yes, that’s right – 150 loose-leaf pages await you when you open the box. Your mission is to then shuffle those pages and see what happens. A scary thought, no?
Every single person I’ve discussed this with has asked me the same question: how is it going to be comprehensible? I told them I didn’t know but I assumed there’d be some kind of through-line that I was able to latch onto.
…this both is and is not the case. Visual Editions, for whatever reason, has done away with the ‘description’ that apparently graced the inside of the original printing. This ‘description’ explained that this was the story of ‘X’ and that it all has to do with various points in his life: during the Resistance in World War II, his childhood, his time at school, his relationships to Helga and Dagmar and Marianne. But I went in not knowing this – and as a result, the novel was (to me, anyway) much more about the lives of these women. Helga, a young girl experiencing a sexual awakening. Marianne, an obsessive-compulsive who grows increasingly mad. Dagmar, a beautiful and free-spirited artist. There are then these other moments – the car crash (which, to me, included Dagmar…), the German/French WWII scenes – that sort of lend an ethereal quality to the entire story. But the story was not, to me, about a specific gentleman and his life. The women were much more crucial to the story, I thought, and there were times that I wasn’t even aware of a male ‘main character’/narrator.
The wonderful thing about the book is, as it is with all Visual Editions products, the packaging. Wrapped in special wrapping paper, I received the book in the mail and was just thrilled to get to play with it. Here’s a picture of the shuffling process:
It was fascinating and strange to see this as a book. Indeed, I saw it more as notes – as though I was reading a collection of notes, similar to Ann Carson’s Nox or something. This did, truly, challenge my perception of not only a ‘novel’ but of a ‘book’ itself. So bravo on that front.
Rating: 4 out of 5. Look, I won’t lie and say that I understood the story of the novel. I found it sometimes frustrating, sometimes fascinating, often a little repetitive, and much more of an experiment in form and function than an actual piece. But I felt that way (experiment/exercise vs. actual effort) about Tom Stoppard’s “Every Good Boy Deserves Favour” and yet I loved the experience of seeing that play. It’s similar here. I didn’t necessarily love the story or even understand it – but the experience of the novel, as with all Visual Editions works, is at least half the fun of the thing. I’ll be interested to see them turn their efforts towards a more traditional form – even the children’s stories for their next book should be a change-up, let alone Adam Thirwell’s book next year. In the meantime, I’m just happy to know that the book-as-art-form hasn’t faded away.