Pictures in the Pages (Part 2)

Last time I blogged about standalone illustrations in children’s and adult literature. This time I’ll explore illustrations that interact directly with the text.

As I read Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections earlier this year, I’ll take a quick look at a few of his visual tricks first. For those who haven’t read it, The Corrections focuses on an elderly Midwestern couple and their three grownup children who’ve all fled to the East Coast. It moves around in time from the 1950s to just before the turn of the millennium.

Before the reader arrives at the first real textual illustration, Franzen has already played around with typography. For example, embedded within the text there’s an excerpt from Chip’s (the youngest son) failed screenplay that’s formatted in movie script style, indented, double spaced and set off by the script’s page number (Picador version, p.27-28).

Chip is reviewing the screenplay (and why it failed) and the word breast is bolded throughout. It appears very frequently and allows the reader a wry smirk at male writers who drop women into a story merely as sex objects. It also shows us exactly how Chip writes drama (flatulently) and, more importantly, how he thinks (a lusty and unravelling ex-academic).

In a similar vein, Franzen uses a pair of pilcrows (¶) (p. 45) to bullet point Chip’s thoughts. As already stated, Chip is a likeable but rather pretentious ex-assistant professor and this device does a lot to characterise him without words. (After all, who thinks in pilcrows?) The lesson here is that you can play with typography (sparingly) to get a reader deeper into the story. Old Modernist tricks still work well.

The following illustration in The Corrections connects and intersects with four characters out of five. Chip is inspecting a prescription pill (street: “Mexican A”) on a short road trip (p. 55). He believes the drug is embossed with:


20150518_204801The pill may be real, but  the “Midland Pacific Lines” logo is purely a figment of his imagination. His father  spent his entire life working for that railroad company and this simple illustration implies so much about the fraught dynamic between father and (estranged) son. For the writer to take the necessary time and words to describe the pill (the logo is a sun, something like a bargain sticker in a dime store with Midland Pacific Lines set in the centre) would flip the reader out of the scene and therefore lose immediacy and impact. Furthermore, Chip’s already wasted so seeing it from his point of view without authorial comment is highly effective.

The drug (minus the Midland Pacific logo) reappears in the story when his mother visits a doctor on a cruise ship to combat her depression, and then once again when a pill ends up being placed inside an advent calendar on December 24th by his sister. Regarding the connection to his father, Midland Pacific Lines is never far from the old man’s thoughts as he is defined by his past work, hence his youngest son seeing his father’s now defunct employer embossed into a pill while stoned and immediately prior to copulating with one of his students. It’s enough to send anyone on a guilt trip.

Moving on, Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 and the Trystero (a muted post horn) is worth a mention as it jumped from being a reference between the pages to becoming the symbol of the book, not just with the designers of various editions but with fans themselves. The muted horn represents the Trystero/Tristero mail system, an organisation defeated by Thurn-und-Taxis Post (a real mail company, although German not American, this, after all, is Pynchon) before the organisation moved underground and began using waste bins as collection boxes (W.A.S.T.E. being an acronym for: We Await Silent Tristero’s Empire).

The protagonist sees the Trystero pop up everywhere on her travels, and this is rendered in illustration within the novel. Back in 2012, Penguin Press designed a hunt using stickers showing the novel’s Trystero and a URL that contained a coded clue. This would’ve been a lot more interesting if it’d been organised by fans rather than a corporate marketing campaign, but it does at least show how a simple illustration can take hold of the public imagination.

I’ve run out of time, but a very honourable mention must go to Kurt Vonnegut who not only used illustrations in many of his novels, Breakfast of Champions and Slaughterhouse Five spring immediately to mind, but who actually penned the illustrations himself. This being Vonnegut his doodles were always crammed full of wit, and although he was a good sketch artist he prioritised getting his illustrations in character over good penmanship. Take a look.

If that fails to impress you then this might: In 1999, a newly-discovered minor planet was named “25399 Vonnegut“. It might only be an asteroid between Jupiter and Mars, but, some rather major physical discomforts aside, I imagine it to be an excellent place to light up a Pall Mall. I’d like to see a Ralph Steadman sketch of that.

Until next time.

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  1. Andrew Oberg
    Posted May 21, 2015 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

    Great examples, and insightful comment on how describing the Midland Pacific logo would’ve ruined the flow. That Chip sounds like a real piece of work.

    I share your opinion on the Trystero hunt, although that it happened is inspiration for more creative and less gimmicky uses of such devices. I can think of a couple of good symbols you could use for your forthcoming book. ;)

  2. Paul j Rogers
    Posted May 21, 2015 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    Yes, I play around with typography a little in my book. I also have some chapter heading illustrations that I plan to drop in as well. I guess my own writing must’ve subconsciously given me the idea for this post as it predates it by about three and a half years, which, of course is how long I’ve been slogging away at my book, minus the odd sabbatical.

  3. Nick Cody
    Posted May 27, 2015 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    I haven’t read Freedom, but maybe you can tell me Paul if Franzen uses some of the same graphic devices in that novel? Anyway, interesting post and I’ll chat it up with you in the office sometime soon.

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