The appeal of Nox (New Directions), Anne Carson’s collection of poems eulogizing the unexpected death of her brother Michael, is not only its skillful verse but also its unusual format: it is printed on a single long piece of paper which is folded like an accordion into a sturdy box.
The book opens with Catullus’s ancient poem of brotherly loss in Latin (Catullus 101); Carson proceeds to give a dictionary-length definition of each word in the poem on the left hand pages, while the right sides are reserved for Carson’s poems, black and white photographs, collages, graphite smudges and/or fragments of handwritten letters, each appearing to be pasted onto the pages. The poems themselves are understated remembrances of Michael’s “windswept spirit” and his absence in her adult life.
The power of the collection comes from the juxtaposition of the debris of Carson’s sorrow and the Latin vocabulary that makes up Catullus’ 2000-year-old elegy: Carson suggests that grief, like the work of translation, is forever a work-in-progress.
This review originally appeared as “Grief-in-Progress” in Geist 85.
Tree of Codes by Jonathan Safran Foer (Visual Editions) is a striking example of erasure literature: the unremarkable-looking trade paperback opens to reveal a latticework of die-cut pages, each page a ladder with the words clinging onto the rungs.
Foer’s work is an erasure of Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles, a collection of short stories originally published in Polish in 1934; the book preserves the position of the words in the erasure text but literally cuts out the words Foer did not select.
The story itself is told by an unidentified first-person narrator who blames their mother for their father’s descent into dementia. Although described as a work of fiction, Tree of Codes is more poetry than prose and more art than book.
For all its beauty, the book itself difficult to read: every page must be lifted to be read, turning pages requires attention so as not to snag the words on the pages below, and it is distracting to glimpse the layers of words underneath the page being read.
It’s a book I love flipping through but not one I enjoy actually reading.
This review originally appeared as “Cut-Out Lit” in Geist 86.
Love and the Mess We’re In (Gaspereau) by Stephen Marche is a beautifully designed novel whose text flows in all directions, providing an unusual reading experience as typography competes with plot.
The book tells the story of Clive and Viv, old friends who have an adulterous affair in Argentina. When Viv’s husband dies unexpectedly, she and Clive continue their relationship, get pregnant, and move to New York to start their family. Different fonts, type sizes, images and page layouts mimic what’s happening in the narrative, providing a delightful subtext to the words. A full-colour, fold-out transit map of New York City plotting significant events in Clive and Viv’s lives completes the book.
However, the typographic design overshadows and overextends the plot; scenes are drawn out (70 pages for an uncomfortable dinner; 50 pages for the sex scene) ostensibly for more room to play with the type, but at the expense of creating an interesting narrative.
I love the book’s design but wish the story had been equally exciting.