Support Hyperallergic’s independent arts journalism.
Last month, the UK-based novelist Graham Rawle gave a lecture at Antenna Media Centre in Nottingham called “Writing with Scissors.” Writing with scissors — a synonymous phrase for textual collage — would seem to aptly describe the compositional process of Woman’s World, Rawle’s handsomely designed and cleverly concocted novel that was first published in Britain in 2005. In order to construct the 437-paged book (an arduous feat that took five years), Rawle pieced together approximately 40,000 snippets of text from women’s magazines dating from the early 1960s; he used publications such as Woman, Woman’s Own, House Beautiful, and Woman’s Illustrated, drawing on the very particular language of “romantic short stories” as well as advertisements for clothing and assorted domestic products. But to say that Woman’s World was exclusively “written with scissors” or that it was composed purely through collagic means would be to miss an important layer of Rawle’s process and hence to miss some of the animating concerns of the project. Time Out reviewer Dan Lopez questions whether or not the word “writing” is even “accurate” to adequately describe the labor that produced Woman’s World. But Rawle did, in fact, write the novel according to the most conventional meaning of the term — to quote Rawle’s afterword about the making of the text, he “started writing th[e] book in the usual way.”
In an interview with Nerve, Rawle recounts, “Early on, I let the narrative be driven by what I was finding. The problem was that it would quickly go off the rails.” Thus, to stay on a steady narrative course, Rawle decided to defer the collaging process — that is, the pasting and mounting — until he could write the novel “as a proper book.” Once the rough draft of the story was complete, Rawle painstakingly replaced his text with the collaged bits of magazine material that he had been accumulating and organizing in a database-like system of scrapbooks. Obviously the assembled found text could only be an “approximation” (to use Rawle’s own term) of what he had in mind, and the noticeable and frequent slippages between the intentionally planned and the availably possible gives Woman’s World its most attractive and entertaining stylistic feature. For example, during a scene in which the protagonist Norma Fontaine prepares to have her measurements taken for a dress fitting, Norma remarks, “Up until then, my measurements had always been a matter of careless approximation — as remote as Dartmoor, as vague as cheese.” The double simile allows Rawle to depart momentarily from the narrative constraints of his rough draft, and he indulges accordingly in a campy rhetorical flourish. It is unexpected — as if the source material had bequeathed the writer with a shimmering gift of the ridiculous. (According to Rick Poynor’s review in Eye magazine, Rawle’s “inspired use of simile” makes him “a kitchen-sink surrealist.”) But unlike Norma’s previous measurements, Rawle’s act of “approximation” is meant to be far less loose and “careless.” Committed to maintaining both a high level of narrative and semantic coherence and what the dust jacket copy calls “the breakneck pace of a pulp thriller,” Rawle couldn’t let his plot get completely lost in surrealism, disruption, or absurdity.
The narrative arc of Woman’s World is melodramatic. The beginning of the book follows Norma, the narrator, and her impassioned obsession with clothing, cosmetics, housekeeping, and respectful male attention — all of the prescribed trappings and concerns of femininity during the 1960s. She is, in a sense, the collective unconscious of the women’s magazines personified. After mentioning the elaborate planning necessary to achieve “the feminine look,” Norma breaks into the unadulterated language of an advice column: “The make-up you put on first thing in the morning should, if it really suits your skin, last until midday, with possibly a quick touch-up during the course of the morning. When lunch time comes, you should clean your face with cleansing milk…” (Today, Norma would no doubt be an inveterate YouTube “fashion guru.”) The fundamental twist of the novel is that Norma turns out to be a transvestite: the reader eventually discovers that she is, in fact, the alter-ego of Roy Little, a traumatized and guilt-ridden young man who impersonates the grown-up version of his sister, who died in a childhood accident. While she is alternately a figure for the performativity and social constructedness of gender, a spokesperson for the modern, liberated woman, or a parody of bourgeois ideals of femininity, Norma is portrayed as a quasi-realistic character with psychological depth and complexity, and this attempt at characterological roundness is done with varying degrees of success. Norma works best — particularly at the beginning of the novel—as an uncanny voice that veers unpredictably from naturalistic to formulaic speech. The main tension or conflict of the book stems from Roy’s and Norma’s conflicting desires: Roy wishes to intensify his relationship with his newly-found girlfriend, Eve, while Norma increasingly wishes to venture out in public and have her photograph taken by a “Mr. Hands,” a charlatan that would prove to be villainous. In rebuffing Hands’ predatory advances during a photo-shoot, Norma bludgeons him on the head with a high-heel shoe and flees, thinking that she murdered him. But Hands eventually returns, as if from the dead, to ruin the day.
Although they share certain compositional techniques, Woman’s World, in obvious ways, is quite unlike William Burroughs’ cut-up novels — The Soft Machine (1961), The Ticket that Exploded (1962), and Nova Express (1964) — and the textual collages of the historical avant-garde — such as Tristan Tzara’s proposed “Dadaist Poem” (1920)—which radically foreground a wild and aleatory logic, a writing “off the rails.” For example, André Breton’s collage poem that appears at the end of his “Manifesto of Surrealism” (1924) is meant to evoke, in his own words, “the most random assemblage possible … of headlines and scraps of headlines cut out of the newspapers.” This is the last half of the poem, which heavily trades upon the “first white paper / of chance”:
If Breton’s poem constitutes “a writing with scissors,” then Woman’s World was more properly executed through a revising or redrafting with scissors. Rawle’s multi-stage compositional process (first writing, then collaging) is — quite fittingly — tantamount to linguistic transvestism: a creative employment of found material to “dress up” the book in new attire. It is — not unlike Raymond Queneau’s Exercices de style (1947) — an exercise in adaptation and constrained diction. Since a conventionally written and conceived narrative forms the basis and structural skeleton of Rawle’s text, the novel’s conventionality interacts with what Zoe Whittall calls “the bells and whistles of how it was created” in interesting ways. This interaction sometimes blurs the line between the seemingly discrete activities of writing and revising.
For instance, this is an excerpt from Lopez’s Time Out review that I mentioned above: “Sometimes the writing — if such a term is accurate — falters. Rawle’s obsession with women’s fashion becomes the basis for a detailed meditation on cross-dressing, but the novel’s drag-queen character — stigmatized by mental illness — comes across as way dated.” This, contrastingly, is an excerpt from one of Kevin Killian’s legendary Amazon reviews (two volumes of Killian’s reviews, which were originally posted on Amazon.com, have been published by Hooke Press and Push Press respectively): “The basic plot of the bloke tormented by his own need to cross-dress was trite when producer William Castle used it as the basis for his Psycho rip-off Homicidal (1961). Yet Rawle can write, and has a knack for the unexpected metaphor that illuminates the central situation.” Lopez and Killian appear to be on the same page regarding the predictable psychology of Norma/Roy, but one gets the sense that what Lopez calls “writing” is not quite the same process to which Killian is referring when he says, “Rawle can write.” Lopez seems to be talking about the conventional construction of the plot, what Rawle calls “writing … in the usual way” — a process which surely determined Norma’s mental instability. It is hard to say with certainty, but Killian, on the other hand, seems to be talking about Rawle’s revising-by-collaging, the way that the constrained language from the women’s magazines forces — or at least helpfully suggests — the unexpected figure. (Here’s another surprising metaphor — one that T.S. Eliot might have penned if he had been a cartoonist: “My brain had dislodged itself and become a slice of peach slithering about on a spoon.”) But in this case, revising (or restylizing) may just be another modality of writing, and Rawle’s book nicely demonstrates the enormous potential of redrafting according to restrictions.
According to Zoe Whittall’s Globe and Mail review, a commentary with which I’d like to end, Rawle’s “language is pleasantly off-the-wall”; she forewarns, “whether you enjoy the tilt-a-whirl visuals and oddball language will influence how much you enjoy the actual story.” This seems true enough. Roy’s first appearance in the novel — recounted by Norma — allows for some splendid off-the-wall and oddball language. As Norma watches him in the bathroom mirror, Roy, de-wigged and out of drag, applies and combs Brylcreem into his hair to achieve “a lustrous black lacquer shine.” “His hairline is so crisp and even,” observes Norma, “that one would be forgiven for thinking that a long-playing record had melted on his head.” Not only is the thought wonderfully absurd — thickening our sense of Norma’s eccentric personality and delightfully distorted idiolect — but it is also precise in the way it vividly conjures an image of dark, heavily-pomaded hair. And what Whittall calls “the tilt-a-whirl visuals” are an engaging part of the book’s mise-en-page since Rawle’s carefully collaged bits of text are reproduced in facsimile throughout the length of the book. In the following example, a drawing of a train and railroad track diagonally bifurcates the page at a moment when Roy is attempting to throw a suitcase of Norma’s clothes (and with it some very incriminating evidence) off a bridge and into an open freight car of a passing train:
The divided and cleverly designed page neatly reflects the psychological split of the protagonist; instead of reading across the illustrated gap, we are forced to read in two triangular columns. The passage above clearly demonstrates Norma’s will impinging upon Roy’s actions and shows Roy’s inability to fully relinquish his alter-ego. And even if the figurative significance of Rawle’s collaged insertion is “plain as a hard-boiled egg,” it does show a kitschy ingenuity with the materials at hand.
On a larger level, the novel itself is also divided — we have the story and the “bells and whistles of how it was created” — and sometimes the two components work together and sometimes they are at odds. To adapt Whittall’s observation, you may enjoy the “tilt-a-whirl visuals” and “oddball language” despite the actual story, though Whittall herself seems to view the stylistic eccentricities as an overly repetitive distraction. At the end of her review, she understands the division as a tension between the text and the narrative:
On occasion, the text gets in the way of the narrative. For example, on page 319, when the suspense is high and we are not sure if Mr. Hands is indeed dead, we observe a boy carrying Sugar Puffs cereal under his arm. This is followed by, “Sugar Puffs are the tasty breakfast treat made from crisp wheat puffs glistening with sugar and golden honey! Energizing honey — to give kids extra ‘go’! (No need to add sugar.)” Obviously culled from an advertisement, the effect on occasion is interesting, but 319 pages in, the repetition of this tactic loses its original sparkle, and pulls me out of the story.
Pulling out of the story and retarding the suspense is, I would maintain, a pleasure in itself — that is, reading experiences do not have to be completely absorptive to be enjoyable. What Whittall calls a repetitive tactic I find to be an effective employment of heteroglossic discourse. To entertain an exercise in binary logic and analogy: if Roy is the narrative then Norma is the text. She interrupts. She catches your eye. She gets in the way. In short, she takes the story, if momentarily, off the rails. And it is her very presence that makes Woman’s World worth reading.
Graham Rawle’s Woman’s World (Counterpoint, Berkeley: 2008) is available on Amazon and other online booksellers.