The Short Version: A collection of sixteen maps that consider the questions of time, space, being, and what, exactly, it means to ‘be’ somewhere. Some quite literally map out a place while others spin something out of invention and imagination – but all tell you, in one way or another, exactly where you are.
The Review: It took me a while to work this one up, I must say – just because I kept going back to look at the maps and really soak them up, even after I finished “reading” the book. See, Visual Editions has been putting out amazing conceptual work for a couple of years now and (for my money, anyway) Kapow!, which came out in 2012, was the ultimate combination between form and function – a novel, delivered in an interesting visual manner. Having freed themselves from the onus of actually putting out a proper novel in visually interesting format (ed. note: I enjoyed Tristram Shandy, Tree of Codes, and Composition No. 1 but do not feel that any of those three tales could be considered a proper novel, at least certainly not to the casual reader – whereas Kapow! could be), they have returned to blowing up the conventions of what we understand the book to be. In the same way that people struggle to categorize Building Stories as a book, I could see how folks might not believe this to be a book but rather… a box, with pamphlets. Or something else too narrowly defined.
Fear not, faithful reader – this is a book. It just doesn’t look like any book you’ve ever read before. Inside the beautiful doorstop of a box are sixteen boldly colored pamphlet-sized maps, each with their own story or stories and yet all coalescing into a single theme: defining where a person is. They might be nostalgia-based, like Geoff Dyer or Denis Wood’s maps – stories of towns they grew up in, the way things used to be. They might be completely abstract, like Tao Lin’s map of moon hamsters or Joe Dunthorne’s map of his own fictional influences and attempts. There are essays on the joy of maps (thanks, Alain de Botton) and a rambling discourse on the roads not taken (thanks, Peter Turchi) – and at the end of the day, each of them brings you back to where you began. Not in a circular sense but rather you begin reading the story/map/pamphlet… and by the time you’re done, you have a sense of where you are in the present moment.
Perhaps it’s best summed by Shelia Heti’s collaboration with Ted Mineo – and trust me, after my horrible experience with Ms. Heti’s work last year, I was primed to loathe this as well… but I ended up really loving her take on the I Ching. I found myself rolling a six-sided die and attempting to internalize what this modified I Ching was telling me… and I felt good, upon doing so. I felt grounded. I felt a sense of being somewhere – of the uncharted territories inside of me being exciting, not terrifying. There were other stories that made me think this way too; that a map is not necessarily something that takes you from point A to point B in the real world – but that guides you somewhere nonetheless.
That idea of being guided comes up a lot (not surprisingly) in these stories. John Simpson writes a wonderful piece about the rise of GPS and the corresponding fading of the map – that sense of not actually knowing where you are anymore but instead just following a lovely voice that tells you where to go. But if we all give in to that impulse, that impulse to be led, then how could we discover something like Lila Zanganeh’s Impossible City or Impossible Love or Impossible Future? Her Calvino-esque descriptions of places and things deemed “impossible” seems to me like something we just haven’t found yet.
There are a few maps here that don’t quite fit, in one way or another (for me, anyway). As much as I appreciated the art of “Tablescapes” by Leanne Shapton, I didn’t feel like paintings of one’s desk gave me much to interact with. And Adam Thirlwell’s attempt to map out places he’s never been felt almost too easy, compared with some of the other serious attempts to grapple with this map project. But those stories are worth it in order to get to something like Chloe Aridjis’ moving, contemplative story of a German woman left behind in Mexico by her husband and daughter, who becomes homeless – this is the map of where she would go and how she would behave. I don’t know if it’s a true story or not and I’m not sure that I want to know… because the story led me somewhere and showed me something about myself. Just because the lines might be redrawn after a new discovery doesn’t mean that I didn’t end up in that place, find that new way of looking at things. And that seems, too, to be the moral – we’ll always need our maps.
Rating: 4 out of 5. A fantastic collection, although worth taking in over several days. Tackle one or two maps at a time then take a break. Read them out of order. Think about them. If one doesn’t strike you, move on – you’ll find yourself wherever you are no matter how you tackle this box. Some say that last year was a big year for the “book-as-object” – but those ladies at Visual Editions have known from the start that the object is nothing unless there’s something worthwhile inside. Where You Are just proves that they’re still on top of the game.
(It’s also worth adding that, in this increasingly digital world, they’re not afraid to get their hands dirty. The Composition No. 1 app was pretty cool but www.where-you-are.com is even cooler. Go give it a trial run, see what you think. Then print out a map to the nearest bookstore that stocks Where You Are.)