Review by Molly E. Dotson
‘And what is the use of a book,’ thought Alice, ‘without pictures or conversations?’
—Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
In the guise of a Little Golden Book, Man with Buoy replicates the size, weight, and side-stapled binding of that familiar childhood format. These haptic qualities precondition the reading experience, whether one associates picture books with pleasure, accessibility, or simply rote learning. Unlike most modern-day picture books, however, Man with Buoy sets an aesthetic tone that is straightforward and plain—rather grown up—with raw binder’s board covers, brown buckram spine covering, and black lettering. The all-capital, sans-serif typographic composition on the front cover, which repeats on the title page(s), creates a gaping blank space that separates the words “Man With Buoy” from “And Other Tales.” This title void emphasizes the cover’s lack of illustration, which further disrupts the reader’s expectations. This design choice functions as a visual pause and allows the reader space in which to contemplate this eponymous man with buoy, but I also contend that it signals Lower’s interest in what is at work in the in-between spaces, such as between book and reader, people and places, words and images.
The second release in the Little Brown Mushroom (LBM) series of small press photographic storybooks, the publisher’s website describes Lower as “carv[ing] a path between cryptography and banality.” Indeed, this book begins with an image of a paved path, cutting through foliage and receding into the distance just left of center on the horizon. The photographer’s vantage point puts the viewer/reader on said path, but, in addition to its slightly off-centered framing, shadows intrude farther along the path and overgrowth obscures its vanishing point. A faint field of color appears opposite this first image, the gray ghost of an accidental offset onto the verso of the title page, except that more color fields follow. Each mirrors its co-occurring photograph, although the colors and intensities vary throughout the book. These color fields echo the dimensions, palette, and position of each photograph while also inflecting the mood of each story. Such subtle visual details seem to underscore the publisher’s blurb.
A path, a yard, a beach, an intersection, a fence, a lake, a wall—at first Lower’s images may disarm with their pedestrianism, much like the familiarity of the Little Golden format. Yet the pages fill with dissonance as soon as the reader attempts to make sense of these pictures in the context of these stories. For example, none of the characters in the first story are present in its accompanying photograph. Almost all Lower’s images are devoid of human figures—even the man with buoy is imperceptible. This absence is all the more puzzling because the stories are written in the present tense, which evokes a sense of unfolding action, of real-time perception. On the one hand, this narrative structure works to heighten the triviality of the stories, a kind of unaffected reportage. The choice of verb tense also emphasizes timelessness of photography, i.e., its inability to tell a story from beginning to end because it is a singled-out moment in time—trapped in the now, literally present before the camera, and yet always already past.
Whether fictional or not, these stories are easily imagined as observations from everyday life, recorded and represented “as is.” The texts transport the reader not into the realm of make-believe but into the familiar, into the experience of eavesdropping and catching snippets of conversation out of context or a song lyric blaring from a passing car. This quality of narrative, I argue, enables an even more visceral reaction to the photographs, though the photographs themselves may in fact tell their own tales, creating subplots and contradicting the attending texts. The reader must coax the narrative(s) from this picture book, and herein lies the opportunity to explore the act of reading itself, how words inhabit images and likewise how images inhabit words.
Throughout this book the connections between story and photograph are indeterminate, even dubious. Man with Buoy does not follow conventional hierarchical arrangements of text and image in which the images are either 1) the primary vehicle for the story, as with most picture books; or 2) mere illustrations, subservient to the text and presenting only excerpts from it. Besides complicating this relationship between text and image, Lower also blurs literary genres as the stories meander through prose, poetry, and drama. Even the page layouts are a series of subtle positional permutations of various design elements, including title, image, color field, and text. This is a storybook without a “Once upon a time,” but it still calls attention to the sequential ordering: the first story is “How It Starts,” and the last story is “Parting Words.” Notably, the centermost double-page spread features only a color field and an image—no words whatsoever. Is it a hidden, thirteenth story?
In true storybook fashion, the last story, “Parting Words,” includes a list of aphorisms, presumably morals to the story. But it also ends on a joke rather than a decisive “The End.” The joke, more aptly a pun (Q: How does the storyteller say he’s tired? A: Yarn), mimics kid-friendly humor and also injects a sense of nonchalance that is in keeping with both the literary and aesthetic character of the entire book. Nevertheless, a flat joke is not the final punctuation to this collection of tales. Rather, the verso of the last page, where a reader might expect an intentionally blank page or perhaps a colophon, instead features yet another title page. This design device gives the book a circular structure, prompting the reader to flip the book over and begin again. Arguably, the mark of any good picture book is a desire to return to it again and again because one sees something new with each subsequent read. Repeating the very same title page at the end of the book emphasizes that each read is a new encounter with potentially new narratives.
The ending bleeds into the beginning. Design elements shift around each two-page spread. Words and images are only loosely connected, if at all. Man with Buoy may give the reader pause, but this is exactly where the magic happens on that path between cryptography and banality. Hesitant, doubtful, perhaps even bewildered, still the reader starts to fill in the gaps of both stories and pictures and even imagines altogether new plotlines, characters, and scenes. The reader is at work in the production of this narrative, not only as storyteller but also as interpreter and even critic. The simple outward appearance of Man with Buoy belies a sophisticated examination of how picturebooks work. Lower provides subtle cues to the reader to explore, question, reconsider, and perhaps even relearn the act of reading, though his exploration of in-between spaces conceals as much as it reveals about these relationships between book and reader, people and places, words and images. If nothing else, Man with Buoy provides a chance to take notice of what is often overlooked, to create rather than just consume.
Seth Lower, Man With Buoy and Other Tales, (Little Brown Mushroom, 2010)
Images: Cover and interior of Man With Buoy and Other Tales.