February 2008

Eryn Loeb

Girl, Interrupting

Cut and Paste

Graham Rawle’s new novel, Woman’s World, is full of familiar references, but it’s like nothing else I’ve ever read. The book takes place in an unidentified English town in the 1960s, with its protagonist, Norma Fontaine, reluctantly -- and at first, inexplicably -- housebound. Norma’s devotion to feminine accoutrements borders on mania, and the early chapters find her innocently waxing rhapsodic about all manner of make-up, fashion and etiquette. We’re told she lives with her brother Roy, who is out of the picture for the first several chapters.

From the outset, Rawle drops hints that Norma is, as they say, “not well.” It turns out that neither she nor Roy are who they seem to be. When Roy finally appears in the flesh, he's accompanied by a disconcerting shift in point of view. The story, told until that point from Norma's effusive perspective, becomes strangely omniscient, as if Norma were watching over her brother. Rawle is working with classic narrative twists and turns, but has applied them to an unexpected story, and one he tells in an unexpected way.

The author, a collage artist, assembled the entire book using 40,000 fragments of text from 1960s women’s magazines. As he explains in a brief afterword, he started by writing the book in the “usual way,” then combed through hundreds of vintage women’s magazines, cutting out words and phrases he could use to embroider his story. From there, he reconstructed the whole thing using glue and scissors, replacing his words on the rough draft with those from the magazines. It took five years.

This painstaking process is obvious, and central to the reading experience. People may give you strange looks as you read the book in public, since you appear to be poring over an epic ransom note. Occasionally a few sentences of text are presented as an uncut block, other times nearly every word of a sentence is sliced from a different source (indicated by a difference in type, and the shade of paper). Rawle’s meticulous technique has resulted in wonderfully odd sentences like, "Red rage rose within me like mercury in a toffee thermometer and I knew I had to leave before I reached the boiling point for fudge." And, "His hairline is so crisp and even that one would be forgiven for thinking that a long-playing record had melted on his head." Also, "At her feet, a small, highly strung poodle wriggled and worried itself into a rich, creamy lather." And okay, one more: "My brain had dislodged itself and become a slice of peach slithering about on a spoon."

Rawle is inspired by this source material, but he’s never bound by it. He employs the notoriously unsubtle language of women’s magazines in ways that are deeply nuanced and complex. In less sure hands and a more predictable context, this lingo of metaphors and clichés would read very differently. The narrative is thick with physical descriptions. Rawle’s method allows him to stumble across images rather than conjure them from scratch, and has resulted in turns of phrase that feel fresh and inventive. It strikes me as an unusually honest approach to writing: the author is reveling in his influences.

Norma relishes the language of women's magazines and advertisements, reciting instructions and advice she seems to have memorized: "A quick meal of bacon is just the job for people in a hurry. That’s why active people need bacon regularly. It keeps them going. Mary had added a spoonful of delicious Branston Pickle to give the sandwich that special, luscious flavor that’s packed with honest-to-goodness goodness." Norma has read the very sources she’s been constructed from, making for an intriguingly layered narrative. As a character, she’s free to apply the magazines’ lessons in ways other than were intended.

Rawle’s style is so bold and ambitious that it would make sense if his story couldn’t keep up. But while that story is inextricable from the way it's told, it also reads surprisingly seamlessly, and suspensefully. Norma and Roy get themselves into parallel sorts of danger, forcing both to contend with who they think they are. The plot and characters are consumed by the complexities of gender identity, but there’s no big moral about identity here. Woman’s World is an absorbing, unsettling story that uses the niceties of found material to spell out darker themes. It’s an amazing mash-up, a beautifully bizarre accomplishment that might inspire copycats if it didn’t require such staggering discipline to pull off.