A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Anyone who follows this site avidly (so avidly they have read every post for the past four years) will know I was a real fan of Nik Perring’s last collection for Roast Books, Not so Perfect. This weird and refreshing little book of ultra-short stories was full of strange touches, surreal images and quirky truisms that perhaps couldn’t be done in any other form than flash fiction. So when Roast Books got in touch about a new Nik Perring offering, Beautiful Words, I jumped at the chance to read it.
Roast Books are a small publisher who have produced some very original and creative formats – using the form of the book just as much as the story to communicate ideas. An A-Z of Possible Worlds, for example, (reviewed here ) was a beautiful bound box full of tiny stories – each like a contained world of its own. And here, again, Beautiful Words, is a beautiful object that is a pleasure to hold and flick though.
Beautiful Words is – basically – an alphabet book for grown-ups, a gift-book, perhaps. Charting favourite words from A-Z we find out about two people (or are there more?) – Alexander, the sometime narrator, and Lucy. They have had some sort of relationship but, whilst the entries go from A-Z, we are left to piece their story together ourselves.
Some of the entries are charming (I particularly liked the inclusion of Guddle – a great word) and I learnt some definitions to boot.
The illustrations have the charm of cards at a craft fair – you could imagine cutting them out and pinning them cheerfully on the walls.
What Not So Perfect did so well was marry the ordinary to the bizarre in quite mundane situations. In this way, Perring was able to bring a new way of looking and a fresh voice to a very universal theme. Not so Perfect cleverly alighted on a subject-matter that was perfectly suited to the form: the quirky, the not perfect, the slight eccentricities and weirdnesses of our relationships and our emotions.
What flash fiction perhaps doesn’t lend itself to so well is developing a strong sense of character.
For this reason, in Beautiful Words, I gobbled up entries like D:
He met Lucy when she was studying Dravidian. The Dravidian are a people a family of languages from India, Pakistan, Tibet and Sri Lanka. Even Malaysia and Singapore too.
In the cafe he asked her what beautiful looked like in Dravidian script so he could tell her.
She flattened a napkin on the table top and pulled a lipstick from her bag and then she showed him.”
This entry conjures up a sense of particularity – of character, of context, of situation in just a few lines. I would have liked more moments of particularity like this to really get a sense of character and engage with the story.
Flash fiction is a form that grew up on the internet – and perhaps that is for a reason. Flash fiction takes advantage of the speed, the internet audience’s lack of attention span, and the disposableness of online content to hit us suddenly and immediately with something often striking or unexpected to, then, disappear again in a puff of pixels. Its very disposableness can be part of the pleasure of the form – adding to its irreverence, quirkiness or bite.
The trouble is that when you try to make something more lasting with the flash fiction form it can lead to different expectations from the reader. Beautiful Words is gorgeously produced and illustrated and lovingly put together. But it’s also priced accordingly. Does presenting such a transient form in this way risk stretching the form that bit too thin? Is this the case with Beautiful Words?
The answer to that is I just don’t know.
Without the density of word and image of poetry or a stronger sense of narrative, Beautiful Words seems to inhabit a strange middle ground – where there are lovely elements, but I’m unsure how much they add up to something more than these – beautiful – parts. It should be added that the illustrations are very attractive, making this a lovely object to have and flick through – but, from a narrative or meaning point of view, I yearned for elements of visual subtext or illustrative detail to add to, or even undermine, the narrative. A less straightforward interaction between words and illustrations could have made even more of this very brief form.
I enjoyed reading this book, looking at it and found myself pausing over it and getting more from a second reading. But, for me, Beautiful Words as a stand-alone one-off doesn’t quite satisfy.
However, all this could change and I could end up having to eat these words – beautiful or otherwise. Because, Beautiful Words is not a one-off. Rather it is the first of three publications that Roast Books is bringing out charting the relationship between these characters, with the next installment due to be published later this year.
The concept of books coming out in installments is an attractive one, as is telling stories obliquely and of playing with the form across a number of short books. And there do seem to be hints in Beautiful Words – so subtle I’m not sure if they are even there – that all is not what it seems. Will the second installment, Beautiful Trees, echo back and allow me to read this first offering in a different way? Could the format of the book – with its childlike alphabet illustrations – actually be telling us more about what might be to come narratively? Could it be showing us the symbol of the “childhood” of a relationship? Will the story be developed further and start to open out like a satisfying puzzle?
Again, I simply do not know….Yet.
So, this is a not-quite-complete review of a not-quite-complete project. And for that I apologise. But I am intrigued to see how the concept develops when the next book comes out.
Whether or not this project completely delivers in the end, I really hope that both Roast Books and Nik Perring continue to do what they are doing by experimenting with stories and form. The ground they are tilling is such potentially rich territory and, in reaching for something new or different, sometimes form and content will come together to create something startling or resonant, and sometimes it will be less successful. But it takes real creative energy and courage to go for these areas and experiment – and we need a lot more of that generally around the place.
I look forward to the next point of the journey.
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