boring boring boring boring boring boring boring, Zach Plague. Featherproof Books. 288pp, $14.95.
For good reason, Featherproof Books’ description of its latest release, boring boring boring boring boring boring boring by Zach Plague, emphasizes how the book’s design is meant to contribute to a reader’s appreciation of the story: the book is beautiful. The promotional letter that accompanied my copy says that boring is “a hybrid typo/graphic novel that uses innovative typography and design to create a more expressive, vocal read.” As a physical text-object, boring presents a reading experience unlike most novels or short story collections; the quality of its design compares nicely to that of recent issues of the notedly innovative journal Ninth Letter and the catalog at Calamari Press, whose books often incorporate careful design and high-impact interior graphics.
When you first hold boring, you cannot help but admire how much earnest, serious thought went into designing the book. Across the front and back cover scrolls the title, set in white ink and various fonts. The cover itself is a grayscale photograph of what appear to be similarly dressed hipsters at a show or party, the upper half of their heads cut off by the top edge. Upon closer inspection, I noticed that Featherproof Books had combined a glossy finish with a matte one so as to highlight certain silhouettes in the photograph and to create a simple floral pattern in the background. The effect is subtle and exciting to discover.
Between the covers of the book, the level of detail seems to explode, as if Plague could not stop himself until he had modified each block of text in some way. Randomly flipping through the book reveals handwritten notes and text, exotic illuminations, pages in both portrait and landscape orientation, and various fonts and shades throughout. Even the design of the book’s front and back matter is aesthetically pleasing. Up the title page, for example, grows the word boring in seven different fonts, and a second look reveals a gray shadow of the word in another font altogether hiding behind each one. This layering successfully draws the reader into the page before the story has even begun.
Insofar as it’s possible for a text to teach us how to read itself, boring does exactly that. The coherence of the combined design elements suggests that not everything that appears in this book is what it seems to be, and everything is there for a reason. Thus, the reader of boring should examine everything twice, should read the more confusing and fragmented passages closely to get a sense of what is literally happening in the story. Zach Dodson, the man behind the pen name Zach Plague, confirms as much in an interview with David Barringer:
The design of my book is more about the shapes of letters, the weights of different fonts, how they can have different voices on the page. The book uses more than 100 typefaces. It’s about using type variation as a vehicle for expressing a new layer of meaning beneath the words. Some people will find it hard to read. It is harder to read. The goal is to have those patterns assimilate into the reader’s experience and bring another dimension to the text. I’m not sure I completely pulled it off. It’s an experiment, that’s for sure.
The deliberate use of Dodson’s talents at design is impressive, especially because he hopes to create additional meaning as a result, but I’m not sure he completely pulls it off.
The problem with boring is that the text does not support the deeper meaning that Dodson wishes to create with his design skills. The story itself and the language with which it is told do not meet the high level of expectations established by the beautiful design elements. The story, as far as I can tell, follows two very important and talented art school “scenesters,” Ollister and Adelaide, as they struggle to recover from their failed romantic relationship, the intensity of which they have recorded in a mysterious diary called the “gray papers.” Local art patriarch/villain The Platypus, thinking the gray papers are some sort of artistic manifesto, maneuvers to steal them in order to destroy Ollister and finally take control of the town’s art scene once and for all. One way or another, a whole cast of characters becomes involved in the conflict between Ollister, Adelaide, and The Platypus, some inexplicably, as in the case of The Prep Kids, who show up halfway through the book to provide a humorous contrast to the overly self-conscious art school students before taking part in a drug-induced orgy in one of the final scenes. Of this odd, disjointed story, Dodson says in the interview, “Since this book is about teenage art students, I was okay with it being a mash-up and kind of a mess. I was interested in what happens when you screw up a formula that is so firmly in place.” Mash-up, yes. Kind of a mess, absolutely. As for screwing up a formula, I disagree. He may have played with the idea of linear narrative, but this book follows an old formula, one popular since the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans.
Even those unfamiliar with the state of contemporary art, the art schools that award MFA degrees, and the galleries that support recent graduates should recognize this as the realm of indirect satire: through ridiculous exaggeration and a disjointed narrative, Dodson has taken aim at the aesthetic failures of the modern art world. In that sense, the meaning of the story is set, and so it is here that the first disconnect arises. The story, its clownish characters, its carnivalesque events, and the extreme swing of emotions involved, do not seem to match the sincerity behind the book’s beautiful design and layout. There is certainly nothing wrong with satire and beautiful design as separate entities, but despite the promise offered by the book’s intricate design, the story here lacks any subtlety of meaning. Significant elements are generic, the sort of things that one might see in a hardboiled crime novel: two different sets of gray papers, a mysterious sex drug that causes the person who has ingested it to desire the first man or woman in sight, an army of ominous henchmen in white suits, and many cases of mistaken identity. This, a superficial set of clues, does not seem to be the sort of added dimension of meaning that Dodson intended the design of the book to create.
Because boring’s satirical shortcomings limit the potential for expansive, new meaning, some of the design elements incorporated directly into the text seem overwrought. For example, each character has been assigned a specific typeface: Ollister’s is a bolded font that makes use of the majiscule Greek letter omega, Adelaide’s is more of a flowery italicized font, and The Platypus appears in gothic script. This works well for a satirical work, because the fonts help to establish the purpose of each character. In this case, the meaning is fairly clear: Ollister is the final set, the last true artist. But there is little more to these fonts than caricature-making.
Plague attempts a similar design shift in the text by italicizing or making bold certain words for emphasis, but again the effect is limited by overuse. Consider this passage from page 132 (fonts are approximate reproductions of the original):
He would go away. The only thing to do was to start over. Somewhere else. A fresh palette. Things here were fucked up beyond repair.
Ωllister decided to leave town. He had nothing left. Especially after he sold most of his possessions. His extended family had a summer home in a small town far away. He would go and stay there, and figure out what to do next. He didn’t want to see these people, or this town, or any art, ever again.
Certainly this section of text is interesting to look at, and there is a nice moment when the emphasis on the melodramatically tuned phrase “nothing left” sets up that wonderful punch line, in which we find out that Ollister has sold all of his possessions, but Dodson fails to take advantage of this kind of typographic and design-based timing throughout much of the book. Most of the emphasized words eventually blend together into a mild annoyance, something to be tolerated in order to figure out the mystery of the gray papers.
This is not to say that boring is not an enjoyable book, only that it doesn’t quite exemplify the coherent vision that it might have reached. This possibly results from the disconnect between the writing’s satirical tone and the book’s earnestly beautiful design. So how can we reconcile these differences? As with most satirists who have gone quite far, Dodson won’t let us. Instead, Dodson turns the language of derision upon himself and says to Barringer, “I tend to get really self-deprecating and insult whatever it is I’m trying to promote, which is probably not the best marketing idea, and only sometimes funny.” Thus we have the book’s subtitle, An Intrigue of Mundane Proportions.
Ryan Call’s fiction appears or is forthcoming in Barrelhouse, Hobart, Avery, Caketrain, NO COLONY, and Sonora Review.
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