Reviewed by Sarah Bezan
By the Book: Stories and Pictures. Biblioasis Press, 2014.
222 pp. 73 colour collages.
An innovative reconstruction of late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century source books, including nature guidebooks, encyclopedias, didactic children’s manuals and immigration handbooks, By the Book: Stories and Pictures is an assembly of fragments of text and images skillfully combined to tell a new story. Ordering and repurposing these textual and visual remnants to invent alternative narratives, Schoemperlen is both an engineer and an architect of a new form of writing, as well as an annalist of forgotten historical documents. While By The Book is an ode to the profound materiality of re-discovered textual and artistic objects (in the tradition of the objet trouvé), it is also an experiment in literary creativity. For Schoemperlen, the text is always open to disassembly, reconstitution, and expansion.
Schoemperlen’s other fictional works, including her first book, Double Exposures (1984), similarly probe the relationship between image (such as family photos) and text. Others, such as her short-story collections Frogs and other Stories (1986), Hockey Night in Canada (1987), Man of My Dreams (1990), Forms of Devotion (1998) and her novels In the Language of Love (1994) and Our Lady of the Lost and Found (2001) explore the everyday lives of ordinary people. While By the Book also explores the quotidian, its creative process is unique: from the painstakingly hand-assembled colour collages to the extracted and re-assembled textual fragments, this is a book that explicitly reflects upon its own form and composition.
The 73 colour collages that appear within the book typically feature a background of yellowed facsimile copies of the source text, along with period images of angels or floral designs, anatomical drawings, and enlarged portions of her selected texts. Then, for each of the book’s seven sections, Schoemperlen improvises and copies the style of the sourcebook through a repetition of its characteristic elements, from its written style to its visual design. For example, several sections of the book, such as “A Body Like a Little Nut” and “History Becomes Authentic,” proceed paragraph by paragraph according to an alphabetical scheme, similar to an encyclopedia. Imitating the prescriptive prose of A Child’s Guide to Knowledge (1903), Schoemperlen also creates a new index of information and challenges the mode of interrogation characteristic of the genre of instruction manuals. Such manuals are replete with imperative statements, interrogative questions, and numerated lists of the rules of etiquette. The text inquires: “Where was corn first used? Where do the Egyptians dwell? What is maize?” (92), then demands, “Give me a short account of sculpture in Germany and France” (114). Other sections, such as “Around the World in 100 Postcards,” rely on factual information sourced from geographical texts, which are curiously full of over-generalized statements indicative of their date of publication and their implied readership: “The Afghans are a very brave but very cruel race,” declares an extracted piece from a textbook published by the Ontario Public School Geography (210). These sections rely on mimicry and extemporization – and what Schoemperlen calls a spirit of “collision and collaboration” (xi) – to create new and unexpected knowledge.
Perhaps the most successful section of the book, entitled “By the Book or: Alessandro in the New World,” reads between the lines of the Nuovissima Grammatica Accelerata: Italian-Inglese Enciclopedia Popolare (1900), a book intended to be read by new Italian immigrants to the United States. The original text, which includes advice, notes on grammar and nomenclature, and a background on the American Constitution, also traces correspondence that can be used by its readers to navigate “everyday situations such as discussing the weather, looking for work, getting a hair cut, buying groceries, and visiting the doctor,” as Schoemperlen writes in the section’s introduction (2). Interspersed with extracts from the Nuovissima (indicated by Schoemperlen with the use of boldface), this section imagines a real world of love and loss in the character of Alessandro, who longs for his home country, and for the beautiful young women of the New World, in equal measure. Similar to texts that combine historical documents with creative fiction, such as Liana Finck’s graphic novel A Bintel Brief: Love and Longing in Old New York (a story of turn-of-the-century Jewish European immigrants in New York City), Schoemperlen’s text reclaims these written records by imagining the lives of immigrants struggling to succeed in the New World during the early twentieth-century.
Redeeming personal accounts and stories left untold between the lines of remaining documents, By The Book toys with the notion of completeness. Pieced together “the old-fashioned way by the traditional cut-and-paste method with real paper, real scissors, and real glue” (xi), her most recent book explores the enigmatic possibilities of juxtaposing unfamiliar elements in a bold creative practice of scission and adhesion.
Sarah Bezan is a doctoral candidate enrolled in The University of Alberta’s Department of English and Film Studies. Her doctoral thesis, “Posthuman Postmortalities: The Human and Animal Carcass in Contemporary Fiction and Film” is funded by a SSHRC Canada Graduate Scholarship. Sarah is also a Sessional Lecturer in The University of Winnipeg’s English Department and a contributor to Mosaic, the Journal for Critical Animal Studies, the Journal of the African Literature Association, and Criterion.
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