Wednesday, July 27, 2011

This Good Ink

                                                      this good ink, this rhyme,
This index card, this slender rubber band
Which always form, when dropped, an ampersand
"Pale Fire" (532-534)

During my two week self-imposed exile from the internet (with some cheating) that I spent with my family on vacation in the Michigan/Ohio area, I got a few ideas about how I would like this blog to be run. ("Run," I should say, with Tao Lin's scare quotes, as it isn't really a working machine most of the time.) Since then I've done a whole lot of nothing in the past few weeks, speaking of more than just the blog. Now I've finally gotten myself to start these changes to some extent. Mainly, I would like to add a sort of magazine-feel to the blog. The creation of serials or beats to allow me to work in specific fields without coming back to the blog every once in a while for one month's failed attempt at daily posting. To do this, I've attached the "blogaday" tab loosely, to force a bit of deadline on. Have new semester and GRE coming up in next months so "deadline" itself is a loose title, but this is all part of the struggle. One idea from my exile was remarks on "design and style," the misremembered title of an earlier post (called Art & Design) starting with the book I was reading, Nabokov's Pale Fire.

Pale Fire is a very smart novel. Which is to say it's a very difficult novel. As I put it to my uncle, "I keep realizing that there are jokes, but I'm not getting them." The book is consistently over my head, hanging in the sky like a second sun. But this is my fault. It's my second Nabokov, after The Original of Laura, if you can call that a book, and as I have said, it's above my level of intelligence. I've got to read Lolita; I'm hoping that's more on my level. Pale Fire is esoteric in the best possible way. Nabokov didn't write it for people like me to understand it. What people like me are supposed to do is look at the book like the Grand Canyon, this great chasm that, although you know the origin, is still incredibly powerful due to its enigma. This is the general approach I take towards art--if I don't love it it's my fault. But there is some definite truth to it here; I could see myself rereading this book in twenty years and finding it firing on all cylinders. (Matthew Zapruder speaks of a similar experience with John Ashbery's poetry here. I hope to find the same happening for me with Ashbery as well as Nabokov.) The book is perhaps unlikable but it can't be seen as without its high merits.

The same cannot be said for the cover to the edition that I have. Perhaps the whole edition itself. But before I critique the monotony that the book industry has created, I will first vent my frustrations with the cover specifically. The image is almost that of a painting--a purple rectangle is framed by what appears to be an ordinary black frame (imagine that), which in turn is framed by a grey color that appears to be shadowed. Oh shite, I'm not the greatest descriptor, so let me look for a pic... A match lies in this purple, smoking from being freshly lit, with the title and author's name lying in frame as well. As I said, I'm not the best descriptor. I don't even think I should be using the word "descriptor" ... it's "describer," isn't it? Anyways, so let's get back to the image. It's brilliant, isn't it? It's striking, minimal, memorable, and just pretty fucking grand. It's serious. ...

... It's serious. Let's throw you into Pale Fire a little bit. The eponymous part of the book is in fact a poem that takes up about forty of its pages. This poem is a bit controversial on its own and has enough of its own story to make recent news. The rest of the book consists of the editor's commentary and foreword for "Pale Fire" (compare to Pale Fire). What is very interesting, from a writerly standpoint is the choice by Nabokov to present the book as unedited, post editing. That makes no sense, but I can explain it. Nabokov's pseudonymous character-editor, Charles Kinbote, makes stray remarks throughout the book that would be, in any serious tome, expunged. At times he asks for certain things specifically to be changed, at others he simply writes something incorrect and corrects himself in text. One mention I specifically remember regards the poet's age, the note to page 167 being:
The poet began Canto Two (on his fourteenth card) on July 5, his sixtieth birthday (see note to line 181, "today"). My slip--change to sixty-first.
The humor of this note is expanded on by the fact that line 181, the one alluded to in this note, reads in part, "Today I'm sixty-one." The fact that Kinbote puts down sixty is comical, but also productive...let's just say that these slips of the mind cause us to doubt Kinbote's mind's ability to stand up straight on its own.

But let's interpret the scene seriously. The joke is childish, silly, and stupid. Someone who finds a book with this cover, buys it, takes it home, and starts up the old reading engine behind their ears, isn't going to want to run into this sort of juvenile humor. (I should perhaps note here that Nabokov could perhaps tell me exactly why he made this joke--why it's a great, smart, and useful point to make. Like I said, the book is over my head.) This is me at my most immodest (I hope): making assumptions about how other people are going to act. But I really do think that any bookish college writer could make jokes about just randomly forgetting something that is blatantly in front of your face. Kinbote would at least be working with some sort of potential metaphor if he were to tell us a story about searching his house for his glasses and finding them on his head hours later. And what's better about that is that it could be serious.

"My slip"? This is a somewhat occasional feature of the novel. Mistakes must be emended before the book is brought to press, right? I think I could force that one out of Kinbote if I had a month to debate him about it. I'd have to agree to go through it with him and change these mistakes (basically simply delete him saying "my mistake" over and over again) and considering the kind of man he is, I wouldn't want to do that but... I'm rambling.

What I really think needs to be done with this book is that it needs to be presented as a fair copy. Or whatever the fuck it's called. It needs to look like it didn't get printed, but made it to the publisher's desk. Or do this in some faux-way, make the cover look like an aged parchment (an idea from the top half of the cover of another book I was reading at the same time as Pale Fire), make the book look like you are attempting to make it look like something other than another boring, serious, "literature"-section-in-book-stores novel. Because when interpreted seriously, one finds Pale Fire either crudely difficult or uselessly juvenile. The book is presented to the reader as a text that would never be published. Why doesn't someone exploit that?

In fact, let me go on to something I briefly mentioned at the beginning, why does it have to be a book at all? (Or, a question I might ask at a later point on this blog: Why does any book have to be a book at all? Many of them do work well as such, but couldn't they try something else out once in awhile?) I'm going to put in a completely random block quote from a friend of mine on a Facebook status right here and then connect it back to this post:
the best parts of The Hulk stories aren't when he's fighting off bad guys or saving a girl he loves; they're when he's on his own, in some backwards, South American city, trying to avoid anyone because he doesn't want to hurt anyone.
Consider the writer of a Hulk story attempting to cater to this part of the character. You might occasionally want to write a story where our jolly-green-giant-friend doesn't even appear. For Pale Fire, some of the best of the book comes from its own haphazard existence as a book. I would play on that. The poem is written on note cards in the world of the novel. I'd put it out as note cards. The commentary could be a typed manuscript. The foreword the same, simply encased in one of those presentation folders. Because that's the way the book is going to be best experienced.

However, once again, let's double back here. I'm sure it would difficult to follow my demands to a T. But in the spirit of them, you have to inject some sort of playfulness into the cover. In writing this blog post I did a little looking around at Google Books' scanned edition of Pale Fire. This cover one works. In a beautiful touch, a quote about the book is presented in a faux handwritten style. Which is what you need: some part of the cover making you aware of the book as an incomplete work, as it is supposed to taken. The incompleteness of the book is what makes the novel complete, namely, I would add, due to the fact that it isn't, can't be, and does not work perfectly as a book. Comment on this, as a book designer, please comment on it.

PS: I must restate my immense support for the artistic effort turned out by, I believe, Stephen Doyle and Alison Gootee. The problem is simply that the cover does not work so much with the book, it defeats the book's purpose. As a designer, I do feel it is important to, if possible, somehow place the essence of the novel into the cover. (Such as using a handwritten font causing the reader to consider the fact that this book is only typed ironically, somehow wrongly.)

God I've gone on about this for much too long and must stop boring and confusing you. Hey, wake up.

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