Woman's World. By Graham Rawle. Counterpoint, 448 pp, $17, softcover
At its root, obsession is a way of making sense of the world. It finds meaning in the outwardly trivial. It pulls the random into its own precise order.
Proof of this is in Graham Rawle's Woman's World, an astonishing concept novel that's not only about the powers of obsession but also, it seems, a product of them. Rawle, a British writer and collage artist best known for his work in the Guardian Weekend magazine, has built his story word by word, phrase by phrase, out of roughly 40,000 clippings from British women's magazines published in the early 1960s. These fragments are visible on the page, reproduced just as Rawle glued them down into sentences and paragraphs. It looks like a book-length ransom note. But it's far more than an elaborate stunt: as soon becomes clear to the reader, Woman's World is a first-rate piece of comedic art.
The novel's narrator, Norma Fontaine, presents herself as a model homemaker of the Cold War era, the kind of glamorous-yet-demure figure that has long been the butt of satire. She's constantly stopping her tale of romance to offer breathless tips on skirt lengths and the proper dusting of light bulbs. Rawle gets plenty of fun out of this supermarket-mag patter, especially when he scrambles it into bizarrely efficient metaphors (“I was as nervous as an eighteen-month-old baby meeting Marlon Brando for the first time”; “His hairline is so crisp and even that one would be forgiven for thinking that a long-playing record had melted on his head”). What's more, the storytelling is fast-paced and engaging, grabbing the reader early on with hints that Norma's “deliciously normal” life has its share of dark secrets.
But most fascinating is the book's pure ingenuity, and what that ingenuity says about fiction-making as a whole. As your eye traces over the reassembled verbal shards, your thoughts are constantly drawn back in wonder to Rawle at work in his studio, with his magazine stacks and scissors and mazelike filing system. Reading Woman's World is like watching a comic reenactment of the writing process itself. Each font shift and ragged border between words portrays the countless anxious decisions every writer faces. Each cliché broken up or turned on its head revives language from the coma of ad copy and media-driven platitude into which we all risk falling.
Woman's World is both technically superb and hugely enjoyable. Rawle is a master in a field of one.