For several years now, I have been on the board of an experimental literary press where we have spent a great deal of time trying to figure out how to keep the printed book vibrant and alive. At Les Figues Press, we decided to publish books in unique dimensions and we coupled each author’s work with the visual work of another artist, hoping against hope that the resulting physical object would convince even the most cyber-savvy readers to purchase our special little hunks of pulverized tree.
So I contantly keep my eyes peeled for efforts to revitalize interest in the printed book. My most recent encounter with an inspiring innovation was in Medellin, Colombia, where the intrepid forces behind Proyecto Liquido – a group that explores the overlapping territory in fiction, art, science and technology – had transformed an online short story published 18 years ago into a surprisingly layered tactile experience.
With a black rubberized cover (not unlike the one on my iPad), Kij Johnson’s Chicas Miticas (Myth Girls) feels more like a machine than a book. Everything inside is dual: from the bilingual translation (Spanish and English) to the double-sided format (the book is basically composed of two pamphlets facing one another). While one side is devoted to a disturbing tale about the terrible cost of freedom, the opposite renders the story into sleek, hyper-polished illustrations by Oscar Gonzalez, one of the five collaborators who transformed Johnson’s story into this unique material object.
If the book were simply illustrated, and bound in this surprising way, it would have been arresting enough. But three pages into the lushly animated version of this stark tale, you finally see a depiction of the main character, but only from behind, and rendered on vellum, so that you can see her ghost-like presence in two inhuman vistas, extended by a trifold. A few pages further in, you reach the material heart of the work, where lush illustrations bleed into layered vellum inserts and – I kid you not – a ripped quilted jacket is sewn directly onto the page.
(I was there the night that Johnson – a Hugo and Nebula award winner – was first presented the book. I think it’s fair to say she was flabbergasted).
Believe me, I can find metadiscursive moments in just about any text: in Myth Girls, it’s almost too easy. As the first paragraph explains, myth girls are visceral storytellers who physically engage those whose stories they tell. How fitting, then, that the illustrated version of this tale is not only composed of two-dimensional pages, but layers of transparency and opacity that allow the reader to interact with the work as if playing with paperdolls (I just wish we had more outfits to play with). Johnson’s interest in telling stories about storytelling provides readers with an obvious invitation to contemplate their role in the consumption of this tale. Do they feel a visceral engagement? If they’re flipping through the illustrations and arranging the layers to suit their reading of the tale, one can’t help but think “yes!”
But does every story need a tactile element, beyond the flipping of pages and the scanning of eyes across the page? Of course not. Especially as Johnson envisions it. At the Fractal 11 conference, where we were asked to “decode the present,” Johnson gave a thoughtful talk about how she imagines the relationship between authors and readers. She explained her theory that fiction is similar to a World War II enigma machine, encoding the thoughts, ideas and emotions of a writer, which are ultimately decoded by readers. In the text of Myth Girls, she infuses this intimate material exchange with the promise of physical violence. The justification? “Pain cements things.” And, as everyone knows, we generally want our stories to be physically palpable. Proyecto Liquido’s effort to bring that idea into the form of a physical book reminds us of the pleasures of materiality and physically instantiated storytelling. No matter how sweet that iPad might feel, it’ll never be devoted to one story as well as Chicas Miticas is devoted to this one.
For my run-down of the fabulous Fractal 11 conference, click here.
And here’s an interview with Kij Johnson about Myth Girls.