Monday, 12:00am
31 October 2005

Paste-up ladies

Collage artist Graham Rawle has created a gripping and surreal novel entirely from words and phrases cut from 1960s women’s magazines. Critique by Rick Poynor

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Has anyone ever created a novel quite like collage artist Graham Rawle’s new book, Woman’s World? First he composed a conventional 40,000-word story. Then he spent five years reconstructing the narrative as closely as he could, using words, phrases, sentences and little images cut from women’s magazines of the early 1960s. He stuck these down in narrow columns, divided into chapters, to make a collage text 437 pages long.

Woman’s World tells the story of Roy Little and his sister, who calls herself Norma Fontaine. Norma is obsessed with ladies’ fashions and beauty care and with a notion of feminine refinement absorbed from women’s magazines such as Woman, Woman’s Own and Woman’s Journal – the novel’s literal source material. She seems to lead a strangely house-bound existence most of the time, overseen by a disapproving ‘housekeeper’, Mary, who appears at first to be Roy’s wife, though she turns out to be his mother. In an early scene, Norma takes Roy’s place at an interview at White’s laundry for a position driving a van. She behaves bizarrely, lecturing the owner on women’s capability as drivers, even though she lacks a licence, and storms out without getting the job.

As the story unfolds, Roy falls for Eve, an attractive young woman who works at the post office, while Norma meets a seedy photographer, Mr Hands, who offers to take glamour pictures of her. Hands makes unpleasant advances and Norma, defending her honour, bashes him on the head with a high-heeled shoe apparently killing him.

Woman’s World belongs to the small but growing genre of fictional hybrids that offer a reading experience both literary and visual. One precedent is Rawle’s previous novel, Diary of an Amateur Photographer, which features text collaged from amateur photography magazines. Tom Phillips’ ‘treated’ Victorian pot-boiler, A Humument, is another precursor, as are William Burroughs’ cut-ups and fold-ins of old magazines and forgotten novels. The late Eduardo Paolozzi’s 1966 collage novel Kex is a composite text constructed from passages snipped from thrillers, films reviews and magazine ads.

Despite its unconventional and perhaps initially daunting appearance, Rawle’s narrative grips as a reading experience from start to finish. His appropriation of the found material is so seamless and artful that words by an unnamed army of women’s magazine writers read as his own. He uses advertising for Lux, Omo, Brylcreem, Ovaltine, Murray Mints, Aspro, Player’s cigarettes, Silhouette girdles and Exquisite Form bras to conjure up the domestic landscape of a bygone Britain. Sometimes, with deliberate awkwardness, exposition and dialogue erupt into quaint-sounding ad copy: ‘Lucozade is a very delightful way of giving Glucose, a rapid source of energy’ . . . ‘Yardley’s sensational new “Petal-Finish” Lipstick is being acclaimed by the loveliest ladies, and will make your lips young.’

Rawle transforms the linguistic clichés peddled by these magazines into something fresh, subtly subversive and often laugh-out-loud funny. In his inspired use of simile, he is a kitchen-sink surrealist. Lips are ‘sweet and tender as Batchelor’s peas’. Rayon and Nylon skirts ‘cling to the legs like a rock climber in a gale’. Heavy raindrops fall like ‘chocolate-covered Payne’s Poppets thrown from the branches above them by playful confectioners’. Rawle adeptly manipulates the overripe, fastidiously precise descriptive language of fashion journalism to convey his characters’ aspirations and longings. As the book begins, Norma confides that she sometimes takes an idea or two from a magazine like Woman’s Own and references to women’s magazines as sources of advice and encouragement run through the narrative up to its unexpectedly affecting conclusion.

Would Woman’s World be as engaging if Rawle had presented it as an unwrinkled text in a single type style? Probably not. The changes of typeface allow you to see how he has fashioned each sentence and this adds to the pleasure. Early digital typographers liked to talk about ‘activating’ text and allowing it to speak in a more complex array of typographic voices. It has rarely been done so wittily. The different typefaces, type sizes and degrees of emphasis become an inseparable part of the prose’s texture and tone, while evoking the printed sources with great vividness. Rawle also scatters the novel with pictures – a shed, a camera, a sewing machine, some fingerprints – but he doesn’t overdo it. During a tense moment, a steam train pulling six carriages charges through a column of type.

As a virtuoso piece of old-fashioned paste-up – I spotted only a couple of errors – the book can be savoured for its visual qualities alone. Even the folios, each constructed in a different style, provide a diversion. This novel’s triumph is that it works on every level.

Rick Poynor, writer, founder of Eye, London

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.