A review of Adam Thirlwell’s latest novella
Visual Editions: May 2012, £15, 120pp.
Since 2009, Visual Editions have established themselves as publishers of beautiful works, bridging a gap between text-driven literary books and more design-lead art books – publishing works ‘as visually interesting as the stories they tell’– and in May 2012 they released their latest offering. British author Adam Thirlwell’s novella Kapow!, stands as the latest edition in a line of wonderfully experimental texts and explores the revolutions of the Arab Spring, while pursuing revolutions of its own in the possibilities of print.
Kapow! presents the parallel and interweaving tales of Uzbek taxi driver Rustam, his wife Nigora, juice-bar owner Mouloud and lovers Ahmad and Aziza during Cairo’s segment of the Arab Spring – all told to the unnamed narrator-come-author by taxi driver, Faryaq, in London. Reifying the multiple places and perspectives available to the YouTube generation, the tales themselves sprawl across the pages in various directions, with chunks of text traversing over and through each other, bursting out at angles and untethering themselves from the pages in chaotic extension of Kapow!’s revolutionary backdrop.
The thrust of Kapow! is apparent from the outset: as a consequence of contemporary multimedia technologies, we as a generation are always mindful of the Other’s perspective; we are constantly made aware of, and actively make others aware of, the limits of our own perceptions, alongside the validity and occurrence of stories outside of our own. Everything here is disjointed, limited and simply one element in an ever-changing, unrepresentable whole: there are no grand-narratives. The various tales and directions in which the texts unfold create physical embodiment of this multiplicity – gesturing to the innumerable stories and perspectives available within every story. Coupled with this new media technology and glut of representation, comes an inherent desensitisation to violence and revolution, these concepts being always already tied to representation – embodying something more cinematic or cartoonish than their actual violence. This can be clearly seen in the book’s title and is overtly referenced on the opening page: ‘Everywhere I looked I saw the cartoon sounds for violence: Wham!, for instance, or Kapow!’. It is as if Baudrillard himself were here, pulling on the novella’s representative strings.
As the narrator progresses in his quest to represent (or rather gesture to) the unrepresentable multiplicity behind Kapow!, each narrative is superseded by others – further embodied in the textual play: tangential stories are placed at tangential angles, while others burst the seams of their pages. Unfortunately however, this textual play is often too safe – it is never that experimental (predominantly being at an angle divisible by 90, in a rectangular block of text, always in English, always reading left to right, down the block) – leaving many potential avenues of representation unplumbed and meaning that after the first few of these asides, the whole project loses some of its zeal. It also has to be noted, that these are also often not wholly justified: they appear on almost every page and hardy ever seem to embody anything specific in either placement or shape. Even when a more unusual shape, other than the predominantly rectangular block of text, is used – almost always a circle in lieu of a square – it again feels without any reason other than itself. More often than not, one engages with the technique, turning the book and unfolding its pages, accepting the verfremdungseffekt and focusing on the text as text, only to come away empty handed from the first set of questions: why this particular shape? Why this point in the text? What is the relationality between this interruption, the reader and the book? Kapow!’s textual shifts readily bring to mind the oeuvre of Mark Z. Danielewski, but this is, however, an unfortunate comparison for Thirwell: Danielewski’s works always feeling more innovative and justified in their play and much more developed in their ideas.
That is not to say the textual play is never successful; some instances work particularly well, gesturing to those stories Other to themselves, whilst concurrently working to tear the very fabric of the linear, representational novel apart. One sequence in particular – the double-sided concertina towards the end – is particularly memorable and excitingly frantic in the shifting tales and ideas unfolding within. Another point of enjoyment in this textual play comes in the foldout pages themselves: their lack of page numbers leading one to simultaneously read inside and outside of the book.
Along with their narratives, Kapow!’s characters are also swiftly superseded, tending to fade rather than develop: they are either left behind in the perspective shifts or their traits seem to be forgotten – the narrator’s ‘dope smoking’ making multiple appearances in the first 20 pages before falling by the wayside. This is either deliberate – a further embodiment of the YouTube generation’s multiplicity of short stories – or a product of focusing too much on stylistic praxis at the expense of character development. One would like to think the former, but uncertainty is not the best of signs here. As each character fades and the novella’s culmination moves closer, Pynchon’s sprawling masterpiece Gravity’s Rainbow regularly comes to mind – a novel that employs the same technique of multiplicity, but in its vastness gestures more clearly and with much greater effect, to the unrepresentable situation of violent chaos at its backdrop.
Kapow!’s narration is also a marked point of tension; Thirlwell is clearly writing in Kundera’s shadow and as such, Kunderan postmodern self-awareness and literary name-dropping permeates the narration. No character, no piece of textual play, no literary device is allowed to be discovered or interpreted by the reader, but is always swiftly pointed out. This self-aware, narrator-come-author is pretty passé by now and when coupled with all the other postmodern games in this novella, actually becomes pretty frustrating, leaving the reader battling for interpretive space. However, there are points of narratorial wit and humour that really stand out: ‘I was smoking so much whenever I saw him that I considered taking up smoking again for real’, alongside some superb supplementary descriptions: ‘a very light bee zoomed into Ahmad and was bounced away’. It’s just a shame that these moments of excellence aren’t allowed the space or recurrence they deserve.
It is in Kapow!’s brevity and corresponding development, that the relentless textual play and fading characters become an issue: given the shortness of the text, nothing is able to develop slowly enough, or to enough of a degree, to have any significant effect. Repetitious textual play on every page becomes a convention, rather than anything innovative, while not enough characters are abandoned to have the effect of an unrepresentable multiplicity. Of course, this could be equally argued as an embodiment of contemporary culture and anti-hierarchical perspectivism; but if so, this is perhaps not the best way to have gone about it – it having the unfortunate side effect of making the narrative(s) forgettable. Perhaps if the book were a novel-length project, the stories more multiple and the textual play not so unrelenting, this would come across with greater effect. As it stands though, Kapow! feels a little underdeveloped and seems to achieve all it intends within its first third.
This being said however, the book itself is not wholly forgettable, its beautiful physicality, textual play and intermittent prosaic flourishes creating enough enjoyment to leave a lasting effect.
Pick up your copy of Kapow! here