As I mentioned in my post on Friday, I’ve been spending happy time with some wonderfully innovative works written by Daniel Williams and published by Half Pint Press. “Letterpress [n]” was a gentle introduction into lipograms; however the book I’m going to feature today, “The Edge of the Object”, takes things much further, venturing into calligrams and producing an unforgettable and Oulipian piece of writing…

First up, a description of its physical form: “Edge…” is made up of three large format, perfect bound volumes (around A4 size) in a hand-made slipcase, with the colours of red, white and blue presumably representing the French flag as their spines peek out of the slipcase. The design is stunning, two of the volumes featuring calligrams in the form of images either wrapped by the text, or which the text forms; these images are, of course, a main point of each page. The book is brilliantly constructed so that the image and text therefore complement each other, and the calligrams force the mind to focus on the meaning behind each page.

As for the story, it’s set in the 1990s and tells the story of an unnamed narrator making his escape from England to hide in rural Normandy. Living in a decrepit cottage, with limited French and few human contacts, the narrator is trying to make sense of himself and the life he’s left behind. So he cycles the countryside; lives simply on bread and cheese; and looks back on events which have brought him to this point, in particular his dull work and his relationship with Louise, the woman he loves.

In part two, after a period of time in the cottage, he heads off to Paris and then on tour with some indie bands he knows, drawing on his time spent as a photographer (albeit one who has abandoned his Leica for the moment). Our protagonist follows the chaos of life on the road as an outsider and observer – which is in line with his role as photographer really – and becomes attracted to a woman called Sophie whom he encounters during his time with the bands. In part three, after another period of solitude, the narrator sets off for the south of France to track down Sophie and see if she feels the same as he did – or whether his perceptions were mistaken…

A simple description of the plot really does bely the complexity of “Edge…”, and for a number of reasons. For a start, parts 1 and 3 are written from the second person POV. which is most unusual and I’m actually struggling to think of another work I’ve read like this. I did wonder how I would feel about this kind of writing, but it’s incredibly immediate and works brilliantly here to take you inside the protagonist’s head. The narrative form allows him to dig deep into his emotions and psyche, and so the second person is an excellent way to convey the feelings of someone living very much in isolation. By necessity, it seems, part 2 is told in the first person, as the narrator is mixing with others, in a more outward looking setting, and here there are no calligrams.

By the table, there is a light which doesn’t work – always a light which doesn’t work, as if the whole French nation had an aversion to changing light bulbs, or that when one blew, they shrugged and decided they liked the slightly darker atmosphere better.

So the writing is really excellent, and captures not only the narrator’s insecurities but also the emotions of being on your own and trying to survive that solitude and not slip into some kind of madness – his alienation is often palpable. The fact that the narrator is a photographer is extremely relevant too, as he so obviously presents as an observer, somewhat detached from what’s happening around him; despite having abandoned his Leica, he still sees things in photographic terms, and is always an outsider looking in. He’s obviously a man with issues – as you read through the book, you learn to recognise his selfishness and awkwardness, yet he does have charm…

An example of the stunning calligrams

Alongside the deeper elements of the book there is also much humour; there are little references to e.g. Smiths lyrics and rural Suffolk to ground the narrative in the familiar; and a wry acceptance that the music industry is always focused on youth and the next trend, with talented older musicians being cast by the wayside.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that as soon as there are sufficient Scots to fill a small foreign bar, beer will get downed at breakneck speed. Throw in some English introverts self-medicating to overcome their shyness, and things are likely to become rowdy.

As I hinted above, the immediacy of the second person narrative drawns you in completely, and I found myself totally absorbed from the first page. The writing is often lyrical, the setting vividly conjured and the wonderful calligrams really add to the experience of reading the book. I have to say that, because the narrator is unnamed and first or second person, I did suspect I was reading autofiction (but then, so much fiction *is* autofiction, so it really doesn’t matter). Whether it is or not is by the by in the end, however; I loved the experience of reading this book, following the narrator on his adventures through love, loss, isolation, travels on the road and his search for himself.

The inclusion!

“Edge…” is a work which continues to intrigue all the way through. Part way through the third part, I came upon what Nicholas Royle (in his book “White Spines“) would call an “inclusion” – in this case, what looks like a little information leaflet about Oloron-Sainte-Marie (a small town in the south of France). As the Half Pint Press website website reveals, each copy of the edition includes a little, unique relic of the author’s own trip to France in 1991. That might be a bit of a map or a bus ticket or a receipt or a pressed leaf. It’s a nod to the real world adventure that @awildslimalien twisted into this novel and also to previous Half Pint Press efforts which play with the real world and the imaginary world and found objects that might sit inbetween.” This certainly added to the specialness of having a copy of this rather wonderful edition!

“The Edge of the Object” is a stunning book not only as a physical object, but also as a piece of writing, and I suspect I’ve only touched on the many layers in the work in my post. The designing and setting of the calligrams alone are an incredible and impressive achievement (by Tim of Half Pint). The book is available as a limited edition from Half Pint Press (you can find more information here) and I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s a wonderful, experimental piece of writing and publishing which is actually really accessible – brilliant!

(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!)