Design and narrative

I found this interview with Mark Z Danielewski over at Chuck Palahniuk’s website after I googled him to see if he had released anything new. Reading it took me back to when I first found his debut novel House of Leaves. I picked it up at random off the shelf at the bookshop and bought it after only a cursory flip through the pages. I was sold just on the way it looked. Ever since I started art college in 1994 I have been interested in typography. Not that House of Leaves is just an exercise in fancy-but-vapid typography, the book was amazing. I would say that it is one of the books that has influenced my writing the most. Not in terms of style or genre, but in spirit. More than any other book I have read it suggested that when you sit down to write you can write anything.

House of leaves had a really fascinating interplay between the story and the method of the stories delivery. The house in the book twists and changes and grows into impossible vast spaces that couldn’t logically be contained within its walls. The text in the book is laid out in such a way to make the story mimic the house. The speed with which the book is read, normally dictated by the uniform pace with which pages can be read, is affected by the layout. Some pages take considerably more time to read than others. And then, I hope I’m not spoiling anything for anyone but this book is pretty old now, right when you think you are getting to the end, that point at which you can physically feel the dwindling number of remaining pages, there is a chapter written in code which must be deciphered to read. It’s not a difficult task, but it sure did slow things down.

House of Leaves is like a total book. It’s not something that would work being read aloud, it’s not something that would work on a kindle, it is when all the different elements of it come together that you get the full effect. The story, the design, the act of reading it, all work together to make the experience complete.

Not many books do this. Most don’t have any particular concern for design within the narrative. Most don’t need it. Another book that springs to mind is The Selected Work of T.S Spivet. Not as physically challenging as House of Leaves it still uses an unusual page layout to underline and enhance the story. Where House of Leaves has you turning the book upside down and navigating a physical space that mimics the complex fictional space within the story, T.S Spivet has wide margins on every page replete with the titular characters cartographic drawings. It’s like a set of graphic footnotes that give insight into the mind of its young protagonist. The design element, in both cases, enhances the narrative in a unique way.

I can’t think of many more books that have attempted stuff like this. There was some elements of this type of thing in Steven Hall’s The Raw Shark Texts, there was some attempt to reach out of the fictional and into the physical in Sophie’s World wherein characters became aware of themselves as fictional characters in a book. And that’s about where I run out. If anyone know’s of any other books that use design and layout to compliment the story I’d love to hear about them.

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