in Visual Prose | 05 SEP 96
Featured in
Issue 28

Visual Prose

Tracing the visual representation of language in the novel

in Visual Prose | 05 SEP 96

Something funny is going on in the pages of contemporary fiction. Words are restless, on the move. While there is generally no reason to give the look of the printed page a second thought, readers have lately had no choice but to take notice. Once meekly quiescent, an unregarded window on the narrative within, type is showing marked exhibitionist tendencies; and not just in publishing's more marginal experiments, but in some of the 90s' most fashionable novels.

In Jeff Noon's Pollen, a deadly airborne mutation descends on the streets of a future Manchester. The book opens with an attention-grabbing 'aachoosh!' in which letters of all sizes are sprayed across three pages as though the computer printer itself has emitted a huge typographic sneeze. Other kinds of fictional type play are less literally illustrative and more convincingly sustained. In Irvine Welsh's violent and disturbing Marabou Stork Nightmares the typography itself is dysfunctional, speeding with barely controlled rage towards terminal breakdown. In the extreme effort of communication, type stutters and repeats itself, words are dismembered letter by letter, lines read up the page rather than down and parallel commentaries are crudely bashed into the broken body of the text.

More sophisticated still in its use of typography as an additional expressive layer is Douglas Coupland's witty dissection of life in computerland, Microserfs. In this concerted (and fitting) attempt to make the prose novel more consumably graphic, email messages are shown in a computer-like typeface, their errors uncorrected, and whole spreads are given over to duplicated keywords, impenetrable exercises in vowel removal and wodges of binary code. Microserfs is further punctuated by frequent lists in headline-sized bold type, a technosphere stream-of-consciousness pieced together from random wordbites that more resemble the starting point for a conceptual artwork than the stuff of conventional narrative fiction:


morphin mighty




boy game

64 bits



anti alias


Contemporary as all this will sound, such interventions are not particularly new. Visual prose, as it is sometimes called, has a history that can be traced from the visible graph lines plotting narrative development in Sterne's 18th century Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy to the meandering mouse's tail of type in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Hubert Selby Jr was hammering out passages of screaming demotic capitals for Last Exit to Brooklyn while Irvine Welsh was still in short trousers. B.S. Johnson's 1971 'geriatric comedy' House Mother Normal, though set in a single point size, makes highly original use of fractured typographical layouts as a metaphor for the psychological condition of its elderly subjects.

But as with concrete poetry, visual prose's close cousin, there has always been a problem of critical definition and ownership. The visual representation of language is a significant component of so much of this century's literature, demanding proper appraisal, but literary reviewing and criticism are not well equipped to probe or encourage this extra-literary dimension. Concrete poetry, as a result, found a more sympathetic audience within the pages of fine art journals and in gallery exhibitions. Inherently more literary, visual prose has remained in the perhaps reluctant care of the Word's official custodians and its implications and potential for mainstream publishing have, in both critical and commercial senses, been largely unexplored. In less rigidly defined circumstances, the French designer Massin's remarkable graphic interpretation in 1964 of absurdist playwright Eugène Ionesco's The Bald Prima Donna might have initiated a new genre of visual literature with a considerably wider audience than that for the limited edition artist's book.

Clearly, though, such a literature would also require a new kind of writing that could be more than intermittently sensitive to the parallel possibilities of visual language. The rudimentary typographic effects seen in the novels mentioned could be achieved by any writer with a word-processor and a little help later on from a publisher. The Bald Prima Donna involved a much greater degree of intervention by the designer and a willingness on the part of the writer to allow such changes to the text as the removal of all punctuation except for question and exclamation marks, and the creation, ultimately, of a hybrid work.

In four new publications by the American artist Warren Lehrer, the implications of Massin's work are at last being pursued. Lehrer studied graphic design at Yale University, going on to write, design and publish the books versations, I mean you know and French Fries, all complex transcriptions of recorded speech with each voice expressed on the page by a different typeface to form a typographical analogue of a musical score. Though they ran to editions of 1,000 copies and sold for as little as $35, these were in both production and appearance artists' books. By contrast, Lehrer's recent 'Portrait Series' - first-person word and picture narratives of four eccentric male acquaintances - takes the form of ordinary, low-cost trade paperbacks published by Bay Press, their only unusual feature, at first sight, their tall and narrow proportions. 'The monologues that make up this series,' writes Lehrer, 'are informed by the structure of supper talk, messages left on phone machines, ruminations of long walks, and reminiscences evoked by photo albums and rainy Sundays ... I've taken liberties that a painter or photographer might take when a subject sits for a portrait.'

In Nicky D. from L.I.C., Lehrer dispenses with punctuation and capitals, breaking the recollections of 72 year-old Long Island City dweller Nicholas DeTomasso into short, punchy, rhythmical lines. Nicky D. spins his alternately amusing and poignant yarns in Template Gothic, a typeface of pronounced vernacular energy; other characters speak in their own typographic voices. Indentation, size change, overlap, repetition and inset pictures help to animate Nicky D.'s tales of his war years as a longshoreman working with the Mafia and the miraculous fusion, when he was still a child, of his damaged spine. Pages that can look needlessly emphatic or even clumsy when scanned, prove when read to be articulated with enormous feeling and care by an author with an ear superbly attuned to the cadences of spoken language.

Lehrer, unlike so many contemporary graphic stylists, begins from a deep engagement with content he has created himself. There is a convincing expressive unity in these four books - four more portraits, this time of women, are in preparation - that challenges other artist-writers to explore this still largely overlooked publishing path.