boring boring boring boring boring boring boring, Zach Plague, Featherproof Books 2008
Reading boring (x7)—as I shall henceforth refer to it—has caused me to ponder several questions about art, but the most relevant question in weighing the strengths and weakness of this work is: What is the place of design in literature? As an author myself, I’m well aware of the need to design an arresting cover and spine in order to attract the casual bookstore browser. It also happens to be one aspect of the commodification of story-telling. Oral tradition became written record (in most cultures) and eventually, printed material was exchanged for commercial gain. The artist’s tightrope. How much does one embrace the commercial nature of art? What is “selling out?” Do you reject selling out simply to avoid appearing inauthentic (which might be both personally embarrassing and hurt sales in the long run)? Is selling art as a product any more authentic? Does it matter more what you say than how you sell it? Can you shout revolution from a print ad if a corporation pays you to SHOUT it? And if all books today are designed, how do you feel when they are designed?
Unless it’s a political tract offered for free in the hopes of influencing opinion, or a teaser or commercial product offered to entice future interest, or a work given away by someone who doesn’t need to earn money for it (don’t give up that day job), a book is an object for sale. Even so, until you hit the Modernist period (and even then, minimally), design has rarely been applied to text. Books were meant to be bought, yes, but they were not meant to be regarded aesthetically inside. Words should go right to the brain, to sweep you into the story, to stimulate images and ideas. If the words, the text, were designed, then this risks mediating the reader’s brain and the writer’s words. Design runs interference in literature. Let the words do the talking, so to speak.
Should design be rejected in literature? Absolutely not. House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski uses design very effectively to tell three stories simultaneously. An obscure masterpiece called The Alphabet Man by Richard Grossman uses typography to express the emotions and mental states of the psychotic main character. Poets are quite aware of the manner that word spacing and line breaks affect the pace and tone of their work—case in point, e.e. cummings. Consider the great comic books and graphic novels of our time (Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles, David Mack’s Kabuki, Chris Ware’s work, and others), which represent the ultimate combination of design and writing to produce art. How could something not be designed in the 21st century? It could be designed poorly or designed well…but can one take design out of the equation? Designless design can still be interpreted as naïve or outsider design. Or merely ironic. On the other hand, many books seek to be quite straightforward in the look and feel, to keep the object as simple and minimal as possible so that the focus is on the message not the media. With all the options available today, it boils down to the fact that design can enhance a story when used effectively. In boring x7, it is used to extreme.
To the basics: boring x7 is a story about frequently puking, drug taking art students, art tyrants, punks, hooligans, frat boys, trust fund babies, pornographers, and bimbos. The plot involves various misunderstandings and power struggles between art factions vying for attention and power. The characters are almost all narcissistic, selfish, manipulative and batshit neurotic.
The writing is energetic and arresting. Filled with surprising use of language and deftly constructed sentences. A weird obsessive tone creates an atmosphere that envelopes the reader and draws you into the narrative. The dialogues (and monologues) capture a convincing, naturalistic quality with well-rendered diversity between characters and some are quite hilarious. The plot is clever and unpredictable. What will happen when the Art Terrorists hit the White Sodality Ball? Will they bring down the royalty of the art buying/art critic world? Or will they be caught and never sell art in this town again?
Now to the design: I divide it into three aspects. First, what I feel is the most successful, is the unique graphic treatment of different types of content within the book. This design contributes to the reality of the story by bringing various diverse materials to life in a way that represents the way they might actually look. For example, the so-called grey papers (the main character’s private poetic thoughts and notes) look like actual pages from a hand-written notebook strewn throughout the story.
Second, boring (x7) was designed as nine large posters. Printing presses print multiple pages on large sheets of paper, called signatures, which are then cut and bound as books. Zach Plague treated each of those signatures as a work of art with the text being one component of the posters. The samples of the posters shown in the back of the book (the set can be purchased separately) are quite beautiful and striking. The dual nature (book/poster set) is constructed through exotic header treatments and various font and abstract design elements that appear partially on each page in borders and behind text. These elements then connect up to form the posters when not trimmed by the printing press.
The posters work well as standalone items (or, I should say, they appear to work well from the samples viewable online and in the back of the book), but do they contribute to the overall narrative experience? It’s about art so it’s fitting to create artwork out of the book itself. And yet it feels like two forms forced together that don’t fully complement each other. The page headers are used in some ways to give a sense of character personality. In that regard, it’s more successful. But the abstract design elements are slightly distracting from the reader’s ability to get lost in the story. There is no great harm done, so I regard the poster designs as neutral to the storytelling. Overall, they co-exist but don’t reinforce each other fully. I can’t argue with the merchandising of the posters. Books themselves are merchandise. But it does bring up interesting questions about the commercialization and reproduction of art. Writers don’t create for charity.
Finally, what I consider the least effective use of design in the book is that SOME elements of the text are overdesigned such as the constant use of italics and bolding for the majority of characters. In such large doses, this has the effect of making the writing seem juvenile because it feels like the author is highlighting words without letting the reader do the work.
One might at least partially excuse this use of design because the characters are so juvenile that it suits them. But some of the most juvenile characters (the frat boys and bimbos) don’t get the design treatment in their chapters, so that hypothesis doesn’t seem to apply. I considered that it might be the artist characters who receive this design treatment, but Punk, one of the non-artist characters, is also presented with excessive font highlighting. I have no doubt the author has a thematic reason he selected certain characters to be designed this way, and not others, but it’s not clear.
I would suggest that the author’s writing skill is quite sufficient on its own to capture the thoughts and personalities of his characters. The story didn’t need the font treatments. It almost seems as if Plague didn’t trust his writing to carry the character’s attitudes, when in fact it does. This use of design distracted me from the story itself and took me out of the narrative.
In addition to extreme design, another extreme on display in boring (x7) is character personality. When I was an undergrad, I had two dorm neighbors who were art students. One of them was the most hilarious guy I had ever met in my life. Just about everything he ever said made me laugh uncontrollably. The other guy was cool, and I let him shave the back of my head because he wanted to. He shaved a T into it. (The T became so embarrassing later, that I grew a mullet instead.) There was also a stunt involving door lock removal and a herd of guys wearing nothing but socks on their privates. The art majors were interesting personalities, highly entertaining, and nothing like the characters in this novel. Although I’m sure that that art school is one of the richest beds of neurosis to be found this side of an English Lit grad program, this book makes it too rich. En masse, these characters are neurotic, decadent, criminal, pompous, loony, self-indulgent, careless, reckless and violent. Although well differentiated, the characters are ALL so extreme that the sum is just so much much. Within most of the individual characters, the author achieves a fairly convincing level of psychological realism, but because each and every single one is so extreme it has the effect of delegitimizing the reality overall. Making the book seem like a cartoon world at war with itself. It has a little too much inner depth to be a satire and too much satire to be real. Is the arts community really one big mental hospital?
Finally, I would quibble with two minor letdowns. A couple elements are set up as big deals that aren’t. The “grey papers” generate a lot of angst and hoopla throughout the story, but then turn out to be a red herring. The brief glimpses of them we get don’t shock or reveal anything. And the ending seems to fall apart right at the climax with a half-page denouement that is unsatisfying. The over-the-top plot begs for an over-the-top finish rather than a bit of a fizzle.
I’ve focused critically on certain aspects of this book primarily because these issues intrigue me. All that being said, I quite liked boring (x7) and found it to be often LOL funny and worth a drug-addled romp in the Piss Christ of art school. Even if the design is too extreme.