The Short Version: Our unnamed narrator / the author recounts a story he heard from a taxi driver in London during the Arab Spring, a story about the revolution in Egypt, but the author’s mind spins it out into a story of romance as well. The novel progresses through fits and starts of digression and regression and progression, all the while reformatting the way we expect novels to be produced.
The Review: Ah Saturday – the day on which you can truly accomplish things like finishing one book then polishing off another. “But you should wait and publish the review the next day, spread things out!” you cry. I scoff and wave off your concern – idiosyncrasies are the only thing that make us unique anymore.
So where was I? Ah yes – the newest book from London publishing dynamo Visual Editions. This is their fourth project – I’ve reviewed projects 1, 2, and 3 on this very blog – and my concern has always been that while the books are dynamic and beautiful and interesting to look at, they’ve never really succeeded as stories. Shandy is, of course, an ungovernable mess, Tree of Codes a misty and ethereal glance at a novel, and Composition No. 1 is more an exercise than it is a proper tale. What has been lacking, honestly, is the actual story – and now, finally, they’ve done it. They’ve combined a brilliant eye for keeping reading truly interesting and as dynamic as it can be with a story that actually, well, reads like a novel.
Thirlwell is apparently an author of some repute due to a novel he wrote called Politics that was, in fact, a novel about sex. The wit, it kills me… but I was intrigued to see someone take on the Arab Spring so soon after it had happened. There’s an interesting lack of novels that deal with the realities of the present in a way that the discerning reader can tolerate. You can write a Bourne or Bond novel that deals with terrorism and the Middle East and what-not but it always feels like fiction. It’s only now, roughly ten years later, that 9/11 novels are coming out that aren’t, you know, ham-fisted attempts to write a 9/11 novel. So this was something intriguing: a young Turk taking on a modern circumstance with the irreverence of the YouTube generation. Sounds like my theater company.
And for the most part, he succeeds. The story begins as a story and then leaps forward in time to Thirlwell in a cab getting the first introduction to the story from his talkative cabbie. It then mostly exists as a story but we have digressions from the author, who spins it out in what I’ll call “authorial real time.” It’s like the first draft of a novel, with arrows pointing all over the place and different paper and a two page monologue about cheese or something that, upon re-reading, you immediately toss in the trash because, hello, no one is that big of a masochist (except maybe that idiot who wrote Shandy). This sounds like it could be insufferable, right? I mean, the way people handle authorial digressions these days is the footnote. And they’re awesome, when deployed smartly, but they can get a little rough if you try too hard. So you’re probably thinking “jesus, is this like a footnote inside footnote novel?”
Oh no, dear reader. This is Visual Editions we’re dealing with, remember. Using a clever little symbol that makes you think of a digression – sort of a thick | but with a little angled stick coming off near the top right – you quickly realize that when you see that, you’re meant to, well, revolve the book until you can read the sentence or paragraph or short story that unfolds onto a fold-out page that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to access through the linear reading of the story. Yeah, there’s a bit of a gimmick here: a book about revolutions that literally revolves. But tamp down that cynicism, okay? It’s the first time in a long time that I’ve had an unsuppressible grin of “….okay cool” at reading a book in a long time. You’re going along and suddenly you turn the book 90 degrees and start to read another paragraph and then find that the page folds out and you’re holding the book in a totally strange way and continuing to read and then you fold the paper back up and you’re on with the show – or you tilt your head a bit to read a slightly off-kilter circle of text – or you’ve got the book upside down and people are giving you a real look and then it gets even better as you turn the page right side up and roll on. It’s an immensely pleasurable experience.
The story itself says some interesting things, too. If it gets a bit hipster-academic at times, that can be forgiven because I’ve yet to read another piece of text – and this includes actual scholarly articles and journalism and what-not – that so cannily grasps the surreal sense of “revolution” in the modern age. The globalizing questions that author/character Thirlwell brings up, sometimes as split second diversions from the thread of the story, are what stick with me – far more than the lovely, if predictable, story from the cabbie. It’s the sort of thing you bring into a college class and 95% of kids are like “fuck you, dude” but two others get it, maybe the professor too, although he just sees that his moment in the sun has definitely passed, and out of the four of you, one will go on and remember this at a salient point in life and maybe do something actually worthwhile/meaningful when the next round of revolutions comes around.
Yeah, this book might be that powerful, in that underground sort of way.
Rating: 5 out of 5. It’s not a perfect story and Thirlwell definitely won’t be for everyone – but it’s the best melding of function and form that VE has done. It’s the novel that should blow things wide open for them, even more so than the perhaps more form-inventive Tree of Codes and Composition No. 1. It put a smile on my face, it made me laugh – it made me think, a lot. Maybe that’s just my political blood surging to the surface after so long repressed – maybe it’s actually that good. Read it yourself and find out.