The Arab Spring was one of the first truly real-time global news events. Thousands of personal accounts, broadcast through Twitter, email, and weblog, mingled with the reports of newscasters and mainstream journalists to weave a living, breathing fabric of stories. In a new novel called Kapow!, British author Adam Thirlwell tries to replicate the experience in print.
At the start, Kapow! looks and reads like a typical novel. It follows an overweight, neurotic British narrator reading about the Arab Spring in London, "trying to make sense of this history in real time," piecing together information from a cab driver friend, the news, and his imagination. But keep reading, and you’ll find the main narrative leaps around—quite literally—as other story lines crash loudly onto the page. Oddly formatted pieces of text appear in the body, following characters in Egypt. Some paragraphs flip upside down, while others melt into shapes that cut straight through the main structure. Fold-out accordion pages let text fall across 12 inches of paper.
"This thing is essentially pushing you around," says Thirlwell, who started working with Studio Frith on the design before he had even written the story. "As the book progresses and gets increasingly more noisy, the visual treatment of the digressions also gets crazier and crazier, acting very much as a reflection of the narrative," publisher Britt Iversen told Creative Review earlier this year. It’s a clever way of reframing the fractious contemporary news cycle.
Kapow! is the fourth book from the young British publishing team Visual Editions, headed up by Anna Gerber and Britt Iversen. Their first book was a visual re-imagining of the nine-volume 1759 novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. For their third, Tree of Codes, Jonathan Safran Foer cut a story out of a piece of pre-existing text—meaning that each page of the published book required a unique die-cut. "Most of us compute visuals in our everyday more than ever before," the duo explain on their website. "We wondered why there is such a large divide between text-driven literary books on the one hand and picture-driven art and design books on the other."
Plenty of applications reformat digital content to look more like print. Kapow! does the exact opposite by typesetting a bricolage of fractured stories. Though the book draws on a rich history of visual writing (MoMA’s new show about alphabets addresses the tradition), it may be the first novel to mimic how we read in the digital age.
Click here to buy Kapow!