As an undergrad I bought Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves because I needed something new to read and there was a boy to woo. I’d never seen a book like it — color-coded stories sat within other stories, text mirrored itself and columns exploded past their margins. However I soon discovered that Danielewski’s experimental epic required a lot of work, and not the kind that rewards a reader in the end. For me, House of Leaves was cumbersome and uncrackable. The only lesson I took away was that the author must be a person who liked making things more difficult than they needed to be.
Since then I’ve approached experimental novels with wary enthusiasm. I get excited when we talk about reimagining the physical book beyond its hard- or paper-backed shell. Then I face my own shelves, which hold many wonderful books that simply read left to right. I know it’s boring and closed-minded, and counter-examples have won me over (Finnegan’s Wake, Breakfast of Champions and The Wind-up Bird Chronicle to name a few), but sometimes an encounter with anything that verges on experimental makes me want to crawl back to my bedside table and re-read, for the third time this year, The Art of Fielding.
Luckily, some books change your mind.
Kapow! is British author Adam Thirlwell’s third novel. It’s a love story, and one of the first novels to address the Arab Spring. From outward appearances it looks like a normal book: paperback and slight enough in size for the commuter train. Yet closer inspection hints at Kapow!’s subversive intent: Standard blurbs are nowhere in sight, the cover stock feels DIY, like a pamphlet you’re meant to pass around. On the front, an oversized exclamation point slaps Marie Antoinette upside the head. There’s no summary on the back – just a foot kicking in glass.
Reading Kapow! requires literal page rotations. Well tucked pages unfold from the spine like surprise accordions. A bespoke typographic symbol marks divergent narrative paths that slice through blocks of body copy. When we first meet our paunchy, jet-lagged unnamed narrator, he’s doped-up, over-caffeinated and in the midst of an unclear crisis. He’s aware that “everywhere they were starting revolutions, or trying,” but he’s not convinced he cares.
“Ever seen a revolution?” asks Faryaq, an Egyptian cab driver, who zig-zags Kapow!’s narrator down London’s Edgware Road. From the backseat, the writer can recall “the picture of the burning man: a smudge of fire, and so on,” but not much more. Shouting over traffic and through the glass that separates the front from the back of the cab, Faryaq begins to tell the story of his brother and friends – normal residents in Cairo who became revolutionaries, almost by accident. The narrator befriends Faryaq and starts writing the “true” story of revolutionaries he’s never met in a place he’s never been.
Where the textual devices in House of Leaves overwhelmed with exasperating detective work, Kapow!’s avant-garde structures propel its narrative. Upside-down digressions become second-nature. The single pages made of five pages don’t distract – they’re structural beams implemented with such normalcy that upon finishing Kapow! it is almost odd to think of the book’s more traditional devices operating without them. Visually, the minds of characters run as frenetically as the cab that weaves through London’s jam-packed arteries. Kapow! is a book about revolutions, but it also exhibits a range of motion: the uncertainty of where a moment starts and where it stops and the realization that nothing happens in straight lines. Content ignites form and vice versa. The book's structure is a testament to Thirlwell’s writing, but also to the strong pairing of the novelist with British designer Frith Kerr.
Some of the novel’s digressions work better than others. In its questioning of how a story can be told, the narrator functions as an easy guise for Thirlwell's neurotic rationalizations, and at times, Kapow!’s visual grace becomes too self-aware. For instance, passages of body copy and digressions work double-duty to drive a story while also explaining why the book looks the way it does:
“What was I avoiding, via this freestyle investigation, this crisis in which I found myself? I amn’t, dear reader, going to say. Let’s say that I just cherished this idea of writing something that would keep unfolding out of itself, a story that would take in as many other stories as possible.”
The narrator’s body text continues, but a typographic symbol reminiscent of a diverging path delicately inserts itself between sentences. In this case, it’s a queue to turn the novel 90 degrees counter-clockwise to read a short column of text that barges in a few lines down: “…I wanted to enter a new era of world description.”
Then, an otherwise ordinary Page 19 folds out into a non-numbered trail the size of two extra pages. So what, asks our narrator, if I wasn’t with my protagonists in Cairo? “if you begin to worry about these kinds of limits, well why not worry about them all?”
For a reviewer or recommender, the novel is frustratingly difficult to describe, but Kapow! visually embodies the nuance and inscrutability of the movement Thirlwell’s protagonist tries to understand. The novel’s immersive ease suggests it’s simple to get swept up in a revolution, but try telling a friend how Kapow! works. I could barely explain its functioning parts. That’s the thing about revolutions in the flesh and on paper. “You keep turning it upside-down and you never get it the right way round,” suggests the narrator. “It starts out a mystery and it just gets more chaotic.”
When a young Egyptian revolutionary named Rustam is arrested for suspicion of subversion on the state, his wife Nigora suffers insomnia spawned by both worry and the mounting guilt that she may no longer love her husband. She hugs Rustam’s “simulacrum, two pillows, to her, in the upsetting dark,” but why is she upset?
With her, the reader then physically unfolds an unexpected memory of a difficult conversation between Nigora and her sister.
“What if I don’t love him anymore?” The question, which Nigora poses to her sister, diagonally cuts through the main narrative that voices Nigora’s current longing for her husband: “Without Rustam to distract her with his terrible puns and jokes, she brushed her gums, her tongue, the back of her upper teeth, the back of her lower teeth. Each night she drew the curtains, and she drew them again each morning.”
Then the sisters’ diagonal conversation folds outward, past body-text depictions of Nigora’s life without Rustam.
“I have to do what’s best for me,” says Nigora on the unfolded page. The digression-conversation ends with a visible silence (noted by significant white space). The reader, with Nigora, comes to understand that what is “best” is unknown. She longs for a life without her husband, but now that he’s gone, she needs him. In its twists and turns, Kapow! delicately reframes the public chaos in Cairo to make sense of its characters’ personal transformations.
What is most exciting about Kapow!’s visual treatment — what makes it live up to its title — isn’t the novelty of seeing countless digressions fountain from narrative. It’s that these visual interruptions appear so naturally. And the novel looks good. Although Thirlwell adds to a growing tradition of visual writing, the thing Kapow! does differently (and well) is its ability to unite the otherwise segregated roles of novelist and designer. Art directors or designers may devote tireless hours to researching, prototyping and pitching a cover, but the design of a story and the story itself remain two separate entities. Designer Frith Kerr’s sly and rebellious visual perspective exists throughout the book. While Thirlwell remains Kapow!’s de facto author, I found myself wondering whether the novel would have succeeded without Kerr.
Kapow! ponders the nature of revolutions and the West’s view from afar; the role of one story within many; the ability to make any sense of all the noise. It also asks whether contemporary literature can or should survive on the model of one authorial voice within one accepted format. In his 1967 essay, “The Literature of Exhaustion,” experimental novelist John Barth quotes an editor of Jorge Luis Borges: “‘For [Borges] no one has claim to originality in literature; all writers are more or less faithful amanuenses of the spirit, translators and annotators of pre-existing archetypes.’ Thus his inclination to write brief comments on imaginary books.” Or Thirlwell’s choice to quote real newspaper articles, Youtube clips, and Twitter feeds alongside his fictional narrator. Or Kapow!’s ability to not pit text and image, but enable the disparate devices to simultaneously thrive.
Still, any collaboration risks favoring one voice over the other. The problem that arises in the novelist-designer scenario is an object’s immediate power to overtake a story. Fetishism happens at first sight, and a book gets kept rather than read. With the rise of collectors’ editions, readers may be suspicious that a good-looking book like Kapow! is mostly surface, that its beauty — its “good design” — must be compensating for something. Consider Jonathan Safran Foer's Tree of Codes; the novel is a beautiful object that uses a diecut technique to reimagine the page as much as the text on it, but unlike Kapow!, a disjoint occurs with Foer’s story. Tree of Codes does not require its particular presentation, and the presentation does not require its text. The narrative’s physical structure slows reading page-turning to the point of distraction, and the joy of reading comes not from the words themselves, but in wondering how the book physically arrived. Not every book can accordion from itself, nor should it.
Thirlwell has written a novel ambitious enough to unhinge itself in his attempts to convey the impossibility of codifying a revolution. The book literally brims with rotations and stories to unfold. But Kapow!’s cartoon blast lies in its ability to integrate the classic novel’s otherwise disparate pieces of form and content, not for the sake of trying, but for the good of a very good story.