The Big Idea: Jonathan Walker
Posted on June 3, 2011 Posted by John Scalzi 3 Comments
Sophisticates will snark about someone who still reads a book with pictures, but those “sophisticates” have not met Jonathan Walker. As Walker explains in this introduction to his novel Five Wounds (co-produced with illustrator Dan Hallett), the presence of images in the novel does more than illustrate — it illuminates, offering the person experiencing the novel another level of sensual engagement with the book. And of course, in explaining this, he presents imagery.
The illustrated novel is a bastard format.
According to an old set of critical prejudices, the adult pleasures of true literature are entirely separate from the infantile sugar rush of pictures, and the presence of the latter in a book is therefore a kind of an implicit admission of failure on the writer’s part. The very word ‘illustration’ is part of the problem here, since it implies redundancy and subordination. Illustrations understood in this pejorative sense are somehow both more direct and more naïve than language. They cannot be paraphrased, but nor can they dissemble. They do not require interpretation, and they cannot contain a subtext. They are, by definition, un-literary.
The conclusion is false; so are the premises.
Working with a different set of critical prejudices, other readers may regard an illustrated novel as a failed attempt to achieve true formal synthesis. If you accept that pictures can carry meaning in complex ways, and if you want to combine them with words, why not just do it properly and create a comic book?
Bastardry has its advantages too.
In an illustrated novel, the pictures are not part of the narrative continuity in the way that successive frames in a comic book are. They do not have to carry the burden of explaining what is happening, since that information is provided in the text; and because they are freed from this obligation, it’s possible to use them to do other things. Working with artist Dan Hallett, I set out to discover what these other things might be in our ‘illuminated novel’ Five Wounds (the subtitle alludes to William Blake’s ‘illuminated books’).
For example, the image below is one of a group of plates printed on a separate paper stock in the centre of Five Wounds. It does not correspond to any single event described in the text. So it’s not an illustration in that conventional sense. Instead, it synthesises several different incidents by isolating emblematic visual details, which it presents in an ostentatiously unrealistic mode (e.g. the three severed fingers are at a grossly exaggerated scale in relation to the other elements); in doing so, it highlights analogies and connections between these several events that remain implicit in the text .
Five Wounds is set in a sort of alternate-history version of Venice. Among the many allusions to this setting are several to a famous painting by Tintoretto: an enormous rendition of the celestial Paradise , which is located in the Ducal Palace in Venice. In the text of the novel, we first encounter this painting via a character named Cur (whose infant self appears at the centre of the image above). Cur was raised as a member of a sect of dogs, and as a result he has a canine prejudice in favour of the sense of smell. He therefore perceives the Paradise, not as an image, but as a constellation of scents. For him, the painting is not broken down into separate figures within a virtual space, but rather into the constituent elements of the various pigments that make up its surface. Thus the Paradise is described in the text, not as a visual composition, but rather as a compendium of pigment ingredients, which Cur experiences synaesthetically.
His head was cooling and hardening. As it did so, traces of the individual scents remained in a dry, levigated form. He felt that he might scrape them off his furred tongue with the edge of a knife, like grating orange peel. The scents no longer sat like wine in his mouth, but like spices: linseed oil as sunflower seeds; smalt as rock-salt; verdigris as cloves; carmine as brittle and crunchy as caramelised sugar; vermilion hot like paprika and ginger.
How might one ‘illustrate’ this experience? A literal approach would simply reproduce the Paradise, but the whole point of the written description is that Cur doesn’t perceive the painting as a coherent image, and, similarly, in the broader context of the story and the fictional universe in which Five Wounds takes place, the point about the historical references is that they are all garbled, as if we see them only via a reflection in a fairground mirror.
I began to think this through by isolating a thin strip of the original painting that shows the four evangelists, along with a central figure that may possibly be the human soul ascending to Christ. Then I asked Dan to quote this section in his illustration, or rather to translate the five figures in the painting into versions of our book’s five protagonists, and also to represent them as if via a painting-by-numbers reproduction of the original composition, but a reproduction in which the colours would be applied in a completely random manner. The resulting ‘Synaesthetic Paradise’ takes the form of a diptych (Cur appears as the figure with the sword in the top / left panel):
Synaesthetic Paradise (left panel)
Like the written description, this version of the painting breaks the original image down into constituent elements, but it resubstitutes colour for smell: that is, it retranslates the written description back into visual terms. Thus colour becomes an irrational element, which spills over the boundaries indicated by the more precise line work underneath. Colour is literally excessive, because it represents Cur’s overwhelmed sensorium.
The ‘Synaesthetic Paradise’ both invites and requires decipherment. It has a subtext (several, in fact). It does not simply reiterate a point made already by the text, but it only makes sense in relation to the text. Thus the combination of word and image is essential here, but so is the distinction between them. This effect is perhaps unique to the illustrated novel, where word and image are juxtaposed (as in a comic book), but where (unlike a comic book) they remain conceptually separate from one another.
Five Wounds: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s
Download a free sample chapter at the website for Five Wounds. Visit the author’s blog. Visit the illustrator’s blog. Watch some introductory videos explaining the book’s format. See an author interview on the book.
Bastard form, indeed. When I brought Crumb’s illustrated Genesis to my Torah study class (I have an awesome rabbi), a fellow student who’s a retired English professor couldn’t deal with it: “But . . . it’s a comic book!”
It’s my impression that many Whatever readers are e-book early adopters. I’d be interested to know (and I’m sure my publisher would too!) if these early adopters are still interested in hard-copy books that offer more than just typeset words on paper (Illustrated novels, art books, etc.), or whether the absence of a workable Kindle edition is now a deal-breaker: not in this particular case, but in general.
It’s my theory that printed books will occupy a niche market in the future like vinyl does now for music.
@2 – Yes, as a Nook user, I am still interested in specialty hardbound books. I still buy them, even. For me, e-books don’t replace hard copy, but simply complement my collection.