A Graham Rawle publication is something to savour, not least because the author/designer/typesetter/illustrator puts such huge effort into their creation that they do not come around too often. Originator of the Guardian’s Lost Consonants series of witty wordplay graphics, his 2005 novel Woman’s World was created using text gathered exclusively from vintage women’s magazines. They were cut out and reformed into his written narrative, an absorbing nod to Lettrism which was also, in many aspects, a novel-length metonym for the way an abundance of media prescribes certain oppressive norms upon women, especially in the era the magazine texts were lifted from. It took five years to create.
His interpretation of The Wizard of Oz, a riveting, surreal assemblage, won Book of the Year at the 2009 British Book Design and Production Awards, and his second novel, The Card, while more orthodox in execution than Woman’s World, was still lavishly illustrated with the full-colour cards its protagonist cravenly pursues; he seeks a missing unit from the 1967 Mission: Impossible collectors’ deck. Overland, his third novel, will be published by Chatto & Windus on 22nd March, in trade paperback format. Only, not quite...
The book is to be read in landscape format, turned 90 degrees, with its type set in two columns per page. And the left- and right-hand pages (or, in its re-orientated iteration, “top” and “bottom” pages) are set in different typefaces: serif Caslon above, and Gill Sans below. Why? Why doesn’t Rawle do ordinary books? He is an accomplished enough writer to do so: his prose has a tautness to it, it’s laced with humour and a charming tweeness, often centring around a very British oddball.
"Each book is treated differently, according to the demands of the story,” he says, stating that his books’ formats “aim to convey an additional narrative dimension. So the Overland story determined its format."
That story unfolds in California in 1942. It follows George Godfrey, hired by the US army to make a factory invisible to the Japanese reconnaissance planes that fly overhead. The factory below George’s artificial world creates aircraft parts; and this below-ground section of the novel follows Queenie and her Japanese-American friend, Kay.
Remarkably, it is based on a true story. Rawle “discovered some amazing photographs of 1940s Californians strolling through a phony-looking neighbourhood” and found that “shortly after Pearl Harbor, the US Army commissioned Hollywood set designers to secretly fabricate an entire ersatz town on top of the Lockheed Aircraft plant, to camouflage it from potential Japanese aerial attack”. Those events had “such a strong inherent structure—one world situated above the other—that I just had to write it”.
Hence the layout: the “top” (verso) pages tell the story of Overland; the “bottom” (recto) of Underland. “Switching from a vertical to a horizontal spine, by rotating the book 90 degrees, is integral to the story’s narrative shape,” Rawle says. Differentiating the two narratives by type, too, “helps to suggest something of each location, as well as acting as signposting to help readers orientate themselves”. Caslon was used for Overland because its “timeless elegance seemed a good choice to portray that tranquil haven”; while Gill “has its own simple elegance, but by contrast is harder, heavier and more functional, perhaps more machine-driven in its form. When used for body text it may seem slightly more unsympathetic, [but] it’s the right choice to describe the functionality of industry and the darker side of the war” on display in the grittier, more industrial landscape of Underland.
The reading of the book in itself is initially queer, but soon becomes familiar and, because of its structure, it’s literally more of a page-turner than most books, because when the narrative is in Overland, the Underland pages are left blank, and vice versa. As the story progresses and their delineation becomes increasingly imperilled, this structure breaks down beautifully, with concrete poetry-esque joins forming between the two worlds.
For instance, when George is fishing in his synthetic “lake”; his tackle (and the text describing it) descends into Underland territory, where Queenie attaches a tin of sardines onto it before it is rescinded, and “thus the two worlds and the two stories become connected”.
Yet until that point, swathes of the pages are empty: was there much resistance getting the idea signed off, with the cost implications of added “wasted” pages? “Resistance? No,” Rawle replies. “I have a wonderful editor, Clara Farmer, who managed to convince everyone at PRH that the unconventional form was justified. As the plot began to take shape, the allegory of Heaven and Hell, and the delineation between the worlds, became more marked, and I felt I needed to reflect this in the design.
“The [page] gutter acts as both a physical and metaphorical barrier between the two worlds, and the layout makes use of negative space to express how the Residents of Overland, and the workers in the aircraft factory below, are, for the most part, oblivious of each other. While the story in Overland is being told, the factory storyline is ‘on hold’, and becomes invisible— hence the blank pages. And towards the end of the book, when the Overland Residents have descended into the underworld, they can no longer find their way back. It’s that lovely Shangri-la idea: once you leave the special world, you can never return.”
He’s quick to praise the “very helpful” production team, and says he himself undertook “a lot of testing with mock-ups and dummies, papers and bindings, to ensure a comfortable reading experience”. The end result has a swiss-bound cover (not attached to the pages at their spine, which is green fabric tape-bound). Rawle also, presumably, made sure the production desk’s job was not too onerous: as he says, “I do the whole thing” in terms of its design and typesetting. “There are better book designers than me,” he continues, “but for me it feels like part of the book’s creation: the writing, the typesetting, the layout and the cover design are all parts of the same creative process. It’s seeing the book as a whole.”
He conferred with his friend David Pearson, “a genius with book and cover design”, who was “incredibly helpful, encouraging me to trust my instincts and make it my own, recognising my holistic approach to writing and designing a book.”
And what about the cover? Rawle says he did numerous versions (“more than 35, I think”), to achieve the right balance between the “Truman Show”-esque topping and its grimier underbelly. (The novel is also littered with subtle nods and metaphors alluding to coverage and concealment, including some comic toupée scenes.) He says he was “tinkering endlessly— like the hero from the story”, George, whose “art-director’s collected vision of Heaven”, Overland, informed the cover design.
“I wanted that ‘calendar art’ look of a painted idyllic scene, like you might find on a chocolate box or a paint-by-numbers picture. The cover is a combination of fragments from [such] paintings, mixed with bits of 1930s travel posters, with their clean and idealised locations.” He left the “joins and rough edges visible to reflect how the town has been fabricated from a number of sources and ideas” by George, the final piece in a package that’s all the more remarkable because, as its creator confesses, “initially, I didn’t think much about the physical design of the book. I just wanted to tell the story.”