Butler, Tomasula, Grotesque Design

by on Nov.01, 2010

Thinking this morning about the book design. How conventional wisdom holds that we cannot let the pages be designed, they should be transparent, just text. Design as a kind of lowbrow interference to the true meaning of the language, to put things bluntly.

Then I thought of two quick exceptions: Steve Tomasula’s Vas and Blake Butler’s Scorch Atlas. Interestingly, the design in both of these are implicitly violent. Despite a very un-physical writing style, Steve’s pages are skin that one peels (or like Plath’s nazi lampshades); Blake’s book has been soaked and dripped upon (a violence Blake later accentuated with a series of Chris-Burden-like stunts, and I mean “stunts” in the best possible way).

One might apply Mark Seltzer’s idea (I think it’s his idea, I just started the book) about serial killers: “The letter bomber is a writer who dreams of words with a direct physical impact. He dreams of words as weapons aimed at bodies: verboballistics.” The idea that this is an attempt to counter a world in which everything has become information, even the human body.

But it seems to me that these attempts have more to do with Joyelle’s “body possessed by media”: the books become bodies but they also become bodies as conduits of information:

“Can a body be possessed by media? It’s a trick (and tricky) question, since a medium, in the occult sense, is supposed to be possessed by others. If an entity can be possessed by a medium, or, worse, by media, it is then opened to all kinds of possession, penetration, contents it cannot contain, overcrowding, doubling up, debility and damage. Deformation and eclipses, ellipses, reemergence and reemergence.”

Steve’s book design is in fact full of binary code, information, as well as bodily imagery, suggesting this is a book as conduit, not resistance. It’s even “genetic code.”

Blake’s book begins with a description of a flooded world.

“I couldn’t sleep at night. You never knew what might cave in. Frost killed the power, ruined the highways. Those who tried to drive were mostly mauled – run together in gaggging slicks of solid liquid. Many neighborhoods froze enclosed. We spent uncounted ugly evenings with nowhere to look but at each other. When the TV finally came back, the news stations had such a backlog they began to list the names of the dead between commericals like the credits to some movie we wished we’d never seen.”

I.e. the body and nature block of the information society (highways, TV etc); we have to look at each other’s bodies instead of TV.

No, the book begins with the title (Scorch Atlas) and the ruined pages, suggesting that scorching is its own atlas, its own map, its own media. Water as media, as its own kind of writing. Violence as media, not its opposition.

And then, the next story begins:

“The year they tested us for scoliosis, I took my shirt off in front of the whole gym. Even the cheerleaders saw my bruises. I’d been scratching in my sleep. Insects were coming in through cracks we couldn’t find. There was something on the air. Noises from the attic. My skin was getting pale.”

What I love about this piece is how the grotesque body become shot through with all these media, with all these valences. The body is stripped (as for a theatrical spectacle, Matthew-Barney-gone-bad-style, complete with cheerleaders). Then it’s subjected to violence – of scratching, but by implication of the book design, water, turning the book into the body and vice versa. Then the insects come in through “the cracks” – of the house, but because of the chain of connections the book has already set in motion, also the body itself, the book itself. The “air” is both the natural air and the televised “air” – this is not a natural world, natural body, but one possessed by media. The result: the body is “getting pale,” which mirrors the pale book design. So it’s not in resistance to media, but a conduit galore.

I also found this when I image-googled the book:

Media is authoring the book; the meat is part of the book.

2 comments for this entry:
  1. Ryan Sanford Smith

    Another very interesting moment of book-as-object-as-art-as-something-violent-and-intriguing is William Gibson’s ‘Agrippa’ poem / artist book.

    Wiki: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agrippa_%28a_book_of_the_dead%29

    To summarize, a book object w/ 3.5″ diskette (this was a while ago) that contained the long poem in question; the diskette was programmed to erase itself after one reading, and likewise the physical book was treated with special chemicals / etc. to cause the text to fade in light, meaning a very limited number of possible readings before the text would completely disappear.

    It all ties in to the themes of the poem itself which relate to the painfully fickle nature of memories and totems of memory (photos, etc.), despite our want and need and often belief that memory is more reliable in this way, not perhaps in facts but in emotional ways.

    In this way perhaps in this occasion the body is not so much possessed by the media as reflected in it (which is always true but intensely active in this instance). I’ve always been so fascinated by this ‘object’; say you had paid $450 for the small version of the artist book or $1500 for the large—you have perhaps at most a handful of readings, when / where / why do you decide to finally lift the cover? Do you ever? When the text finally fades completely how do you feel about the money paid, and is the object now an empty (if very incredible looking) case/shell? Perhaps in -this- way the reader is indeed possessed, trapped in the anxiety and the rules that the book has laid out, marking out a very specific kind of way in which the reader has to come to the text.

    Of course in the age of the internet the text of the poem became widely available for free online, which does take a little away from the ‘project’ as it was laid out, but I’d say only a little.

  2. Johannes Göransson

    So Melzer’s book does indeed get quite a bit more interesting and complex. I’ll have to revise.