Graham Rawle, Soft Skull Press, 2008, 437 pages
Hazlitt wrote of Candide that “Each sentence is telling and it reads like one sentence.” Though he seems serenely without philosophical ambitions, the British artist and puzzle-maker Graham Rawle has likewise written an adult fairy tale that reads with the swiftness of one sentence—a compelling and loopy sentence, it must be said, and one that runs to over four hundred pages. In fact, better to say that he assembled his story rather than wrote it. This is because Woman’s World, as anyone who has heard of it will know, was made with scissors, glue, and countless inspired clippings from women’s magazines of the 1960s.
While lauded in the UK since its publication in 2005, the novel has yet to receive much attention in the US, where it emerged only last year. The novelty of its conceit, very likely, risks being mistaken for a gimmick. However, Woman’s World is no string of disjointed kitschy sentences. Had it been written with a pen or in the other cut and paste manner, it would still be a lively and artful work, and more than that, one that may well become a classic of comic literature.
Rawle has said that he began the book by selecting his text from the magazines, but at some point broke off, wrote the story in the normal way, and then returned to the mags to dig up the requisite words. In practice, at this second stage he was seduced back into the zone of collaboration. Reading the work, this seems evident. Some touches seem all Rawle, as when someone’s hairline is “so crisp and even that one would be forgiven for thinking that a long-playing record had melted on his head.” Conversely, one suspects that quips like “that’s all tosh and table margarine” can have issued from no single human hand. In any case, it is hard not to imagine the author losing it at some discoveries in particular. A sequence of words is excerpted outright—“Imagination could play strange tricks on people. He had read a story once about three men alone in a lifeboat who all swore that they had seen and heard a fourth”—and then finished with this: “eating crisps.” The book is said to have taken seven years to write; presumably a few of them were spent in laughter.
If all this rings a little of Oulipo, the French literary society devoted to limiting challenges, Rawle’s real flirtation is arguably with the cinema—think Grey Gardens and Hitchcock—and his book evinces a narrative speed and economy, as well as a certain popular bent, that owes something to that form. It’s fitting, incidentally, that his latest project is an illustrated edition of The Wizard of Oz, said wizard likewise being a protean spoofer, someone who could mimic a giant head or a beautiful girl, a beast or a ball of a fire, according to his needs.
The book’s heroine is Norma Little. She’s in her late twenties and lives with her mother and brother Roy at home, ensconced in a “feminine wallow.” When she does go out, it’s to have a peek at the local dress shop, or to pick up the magazines that so extravagantly define her speech and thought. Living so much in isolation, mixing in society involves some strange encounters. The novel takes off during one of them, when Norma impulsively interviews at a local laundromat, even though her brother is already due to apply for the same position. The job is making pick-ups and deliveries, and Roy, who is less eccentric than his sister, has experience in this kind of thing, and finally has the plain advantage of being a man, is the one who gets the job. Soon after he takes up with Eve, a pretty and spirited girl who works at the newsagent across the street. Meanwhile, during one of Norma’s outings, a seedy individual with a camera invites her to coffee, and then to be photographed at his flat. From there the action escalates seriously: in addition to Norma’s predicament, Roy starts behaving erratically. It all involves a crucial detail, one that unfortunately can’t be given away.
For a work that so freely dispenses with certain aspects of the naturalistic novel, Woman’s World accomplishes that kind of book’s work unusually well. The youthful romance between Roy and Eve rings delightfully true. The scene where Hands photographs Norma is memorably pathetic and suspenseful, while Norma’s job interview is destined for the annals of absurdity. Norma’s voice may be ridiculous (which is to our benefit), but that of other characters is spot on. When Roy picks up a bra from a stranger’s clothesline, a surly mother catches him in the act; her words aren’t “You pervert, I’m calling the cops,” but, “That’s our Sarah’s!” Children are scattered significantly throughout the tale, and they figure variously, as individuals. One’s shown shoving cereal up his nose; another is shy and over-mothered; a random girl is seen “thrashing the wall with a bamboo cane.” It’s a child who immediately notices something important about Roy that all the adults overlook.
If the story is somewhat tidy, that’s apt, given the commercial ideal of dainty femininity the book revels in sending up. It’s a quality that also smartly contains the unruly stuff that gradually emerges in the story. Neither satire nor exactly parody, Rawle’s book is like one extended euphemism, a loud perfume that draws attention to the odors it pretends to obscure. Norma’s humorous daydreams of glamor don’t conceal the fact that she’s a tragic figure, nor the state of things beyond the fanciful frills of her mind. Her mother is unhappy, and sometimes weeps on the stairs. Her dad may have died in the war; Eve lost both her parents in it as a child. There are dismal streets, dumping sites, and bombed out buildings. When she passes some particularly low-income housing, Norma notes a garden hedge in which “an old gas cooker . . . had been used to plug a hole.”
Everywhere we look in Woman’s World there are these subtle glimpses of postwar depression and economic hardship, a commingling of civilization with a more improvised human truth. Norma captures it, and the book’s fine double art, perfectly when she says that “Wild and garden flowers can be combined so charmingly—something that very few people seem to realize.”