Adam Thirlwell, Kapow!, Visual Editions, 2012
Reviewed by Lawrence Lenhart
Adam Thirlwell's Kapow! is the carrot that you used to eat to make your vision stronger. Vitamin A, was it? You've seen books like this before—Mark Z. Danielewski did it to you with House of Leaves and Only Revolutions—but before you dispossess Thirlwell of the pseudo-novelty of his typographic magic tricks, consider this: this book is hella self-aware. Thirlwell does not play coy with his readers; rather, he offers metaphor after metaphor to try to get a handle on it: Kudzu (Chinese climbing plant), concertina, system of chicanes; snakey structure; disintegration; chaos. I was personally reminded of Russian Nesting Dolls, the way narratives are nested within the narratives within...
The traditional left-to-right prose blocks are there, but be prepared to perform visual calisthenics as geometric interruptions speed bump your reading. I'm talking pyramids, circles, semicircles, rectangles with upside-down text, which your eyes must leap over to continue the main narrative (if there is such a thing in this novel), until you encounter a sort of wishbone symbol, which intuitively means wander. The wishbone symbol becomes, by the end, a kind of wild card time signature. It's difficult to predict how long any one page will take to read.
Your mind will not be making the only associations that this book is owed. Rather, your body—its wheeling wrists, cocking neck, and outstretched arms—will participate and associate because they have to. When I got to the first foldout page, the adrenaline surge was akin to the first time I encountered a pornographic centerfold. The payoff, of course, was more typographic gesticulation, but once you've conquered the learning curve (it's slight), it's not as annoying as you would presume.
Sometimes, the tricks are a bit gratuitous. Unless the entire page of polka dots (representing pant leg fabric) is a strategic solution to the algorithmic composition of this book, I'm unconvinced. But, (a spoiler alert on the form:) in the end, with the final foldout comprised of ten pages—it has the feel of a bona fide propagandist pamphlet with intersecting blocks of prose, a typographic grand finale—I feel the machine breaking. I feel the form being earned when the narrator points out that cinema is more acrobatic than prose, and therefore, more conducive to montage. There are limits. This is precisely what Visual Editions affords Thirlwell. The novel requires "cutting machines and spools." If you're left, in the end, wondering if the integration was sloppy or panoramic, it was probably both. That is the verisimilitude of a people's revolution.
But what's the point—except for sadistic kicks—of fatiguing the reader? This is where the content of the novel becomes relevant. Kapow! is spectacle, is ensemble, is montage. An unnamed narrator (Thirlwell's alter ego?) is being taxied through London by Faryaq who has acquaintances in Egypt during the Arab Spring. As Faryaq reveals their stories, the narrator relishes in the ecstasy of being "contaminated" by other lives. As he imagines what his role as a Westerner is in the Arab Spring, occasionally riffing on the aesthetics and ethics of writing revolution, he plugs us into the private lives of his characters as they gather at the infamous Tahrir Square. Despite the historic backdrop, though, Thirlwell purposefully retards the momentum of revolution. He dovetails the global with the personal, the multiplicity of media with the richness of the interior life. He says of Ahmad's character: "His crisis wasn't the revolution. His private life was larger than the revolution, and he didn't know it. And so it goes on, each to their own." The narrative skews personal, leaving a meager portion to parse the stuff of history.
But then, how does the content jive with the form? Following a tense scene in which a Muslim woman, Nigora, begs to be spanked by her paramour, there is a block of text embedded inside of the prose—shaped like a jigsaw—that summarizes her first kiss. While this innocent flashback would serve to deflate the tension in a traditional linear narrative, here the typographic detouring enacts how her sexual innocence has devolved. Sometimes, there is a temptation to skip ahead—to read the nonlinear text first—and this kind of false-starting accrues its own chaotic reward system for the reader. In this example, the memory of the kiss would serve as foreplay, not backstory.
A quote from Roland Barthes helps us to make sense of the acrobatic storytelling: the montage is "meant to suspend meaning, not generate it." I remember CNN turning into a geography bee during those early months of 2011: Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Syria, Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Sudan, Lebanon, Mauritania, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Djibouti. Political analyses of each revolution's trajectory were unsettlingly divergent. What else was there to do but watch? It was, as Thirlwell points out, a revolution so multiple that it became comical. Watching on mute was just as fruitful because of its unpredictability.
Sometimes, Thirlwell's narrator's engagement with the politics is glib, as when he expresses his skepticism at Che Guevara's image being enmeshed in the revolutionary atmosphere of the Arab Spring. The novel's cover features a portrait of Marie Antoinette, whose misattributed quote "let them eat cake" is part of the discourse and wonder of Thirlwell's exploration of mistaken histories. Despite the Eurocentric political paradigms that are rampant throughout the novel, the narrator declares: "Arab literature was me." The narrator feels that he has every reason to undertake the task of composing Arab literature since he has access to global media, to world literature, to Faryaq. This willful contamination of his Western spirit is delivered with both flippancy and deadpan sincerity.
Near the end, the narrator points out that epiphany is only a convention, and so, we are left with the vague disappointment of a diluted revolution and inklings of counter-revolution. Just as this novel's characters were once involved in revolutions of the Soviet Bloc in Uzbekistan and have since transitioned to the embroilment in North Africa, there is a sense that the phenomenon of democratic revolt has no punctuation, except for maybe the ellipsis. Until next time.... As combat continues in Damascus and Bashar al-Assad contemplates chemical warfare, as Mohammed Morsi (Hosni Mubarak's replacement) baffles Cairo with his uncompromising dictates, it is important that there are novels like this that balance the celebrity of the despot, that relay the "catastrophes of character of significance." After all, the Arab Spring was ignited in the vein of the picaresque with a Tunisian fruit vendor—the character of Bouazizi—wielding a single match.