Saturday, September 06, 2014

By the Book, by the Box

It's that time of year around the Bibliomanse: t'is the season for wheeled carts and cartons by the skid, for surly delivery men and back-breaking trips down rickety back stairs, for dangerously high piles of boxes teetering on the verge of collapse (and thank God Chris got out of the way in time).  Over the next week as many as half a dozen titles will be arriving, with more following thereafter (complicated, this year, by the fact that the street in front of our shop has been ripped up and deliveries now have to come through the back alley), and we await each one with a mixture of joy and dread and Robaxacet.

Yesterday's delivery, however, was a very special one, and something I believe we all were awaiting with even a touch more joy and dread (should something have gone wrong at the printer) than usual.  This is because Diane Schoemperlen's new collection, By the Book: Stories and Pictures, is quite unlike any book Biblioasis has been part of, and likely unlike anything else published in Canada, ever. It is sui generis, standing quite alone, and without a single doubt the most uniquely curious book you will see this year (and for many years after).  Taking her cue from Octavio Paz and Charles Simic, who have argued that the fragment and collage represent the 20th century's greatest cultural innovation and artistic contribution, what Diane has done in By the Book is approach the story as a form of collage and appropriation, using forgotten late nineteenth century and early twentieth century texts and rearranging them to conjure new meaning and associations.  Her authorship is one less of language -- at least in the sense of her putting pen to paper or fingertips to keyboard, as is usually the case -- than of an imposing sensibility, adding structure and shape and humour and vitality to what were essentially dead texts.  The stories which make up By the Book vary in form and intent and effect: they move from something approaching a traditional narrative in the title story to others which abandon traditional narrative forms, working by careful association and accretion to, at their best, perform real magic. I have been reminded in stories such as 'A Nervous Race: 222 Brief Notes on the Study of Nature, Human and Otherwise" of the work of David Markson, the American writer I greatly admire, but few if any others come to mind. The reader has a much more active role in assembling meaning and making connections, and the pleasures to be gained from this can be quite wonderful.  It is a teasing book of encyclopedic erudition which, with tongue firmly planted in cheek, makes a good deal of fun of the very same thing.  It is a strange marvel, which pushes the bounds of form.  It is, as a literary judge said to me of another book we published last year, a book which makes other books possible.

If that was all that this book did, it would be quite the thing.  But it is much more than this.  As with Forms of Devotion, to which this tome is a rather unexpectedly strange sequel, and as the subtitle of By the Book suggests, this is also a book of pictures, an object d'art, with more than 60 full colour full-page collages throughout.  These work in interesting ways with the stories, and make By the Book, as a package, absolutely stunning to behold.  It's a work of art, and I know I speak for all of us at the Bibliomanse when I say that we're all grateful to have been able to be a part of it.

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