It looks exactly like a book, and a smallish one at that, swaddled in a stark yellow-and-black cover, the text inside set in a serviceable and unshowy font. Yet local author Michael Turner’s new novel, 8 X 10 (Doubleday Canada, $27.95), is also an ambitious translation of visual-art strategies into the medium of print. Both a formal departure for the author and an oddly enticing experience for the reader, 8 X 10 manages to be both open-ended and intensely disciplined, perhaps because those were the conditions under which it was made.
As Turner tells it, the novel began to take shape following the completion of his previous effort, 1999’s The Pornographer’s Poem. Penning that highly personal volume, he says in a telephone interview, “really tired me out”. “But at the same time,” he continues, “its success allowed me opportunities to do different kinds of writing. I got a chance to write a libretto. I got a chance to work with [Vancouver visual artist] Stan Douglas, which was an amazing experience, on a writing project. I got a chance to do some art writing”¦ All these opportunities. So I thought I would devise a project where I could write a book in between all that.”
In addition to coming up with a way to write a book in modular sections, Turner wanted to address the role of the individual in contemporary life without resorting to conventional narrative structures. And then inspiration struck, thanks to a chance encounter with a chain-bookstore window display.
“Back in the day,” he notes wryly, “bookstores used to have books in the window. And now they have that which they can sell at a great markup, and what you can sell at a great markup are things like candles and picture frames.”¦I recall looking right in the dead centre of the window, trying to find what the dead centre was from the pedestrian’s view, and what I found was an empty 8-by-10 picture frame. And I thought, ”˜Well, this is an omen of sorts—this is something of interest to me,’ because it immediately activated this book project.”
The empty frame, with its missing head shot, suggested portraiture. Its dimensions proposed a format: eight subjects, each examined in 10 brief chapters. To organize those 80 passages, Turner seized on the notion of the grid, as used by visual artists ranging from early modernist painters to pop artists to photo-conceptualists. Rather than tell each story sequentially, the eight narrative lines are interwoven like bands of colour in a Piet Mondrian abstract. In an additional artistic conceit, none of the subjects are named, and neither is the city where they live.
Strangely, though, what could have a distancing effect allows readers a greater depth of engagement with Turner’s anonymous subjects.
“I tried to achieve that by not giving them names or races or setting them in places, or even within historical epochs,” the author explains. “I mean, I want them [to be] immediately contemporary, because we live in a contemporary world influenced by history and haunted by the future, and I wanted my book to make sense if it were being read in Vancouver or Cape Town or Karachi or Buenos Aires. So that’s my gift to the reader: allowing them to interpret what they’re reading in their own immediate area.”
Turner is evasive when asked if readers could “remix” his novel by reordering its chapters on a grid of their own—although he allows that “the close reader is a detective, in that you’re looking for clues to build meaning and to find your way to orient yourself.” But he’s explicit about how the visual arts, and collage in particular, have given him both inspiration and a means of locating his work within a larger, interdisciplinary vision—which, increasingly, involves a curatorial as well as a literary dimension.
This year, for instance, he’s a writer in residence at SFU, and in addition to holding weekly sessions with aspiring authors, he’s branching out into film screenings, with a showing of James Clavell’s shot-in-Vancouver The Sweet and the Bitter at the Pacific Cinémathèque in December. He’s also assembling a survey of Vancouver art from the 1960s at the SFU Gallery next January, and programming the salon-style Kandahar Art Bar at Emily Carr University during the 2010 Olympic Games.
“It’s all going to be conversation- or dialogue–based,” Turner says of that last undertaking, as interdisciplinary a project as can be imagined. “It’s really not about finished work, as opposed to discussions about how musicians, writers, and visual artists make their work.”
Michael Turner will be part of two events at the Vancouver International Writers and Readers Festival, which runs from Sunday (October 18) to October 25. He’ll appear with authors Leon Rooke, Marie-Claire Blais, and Alexis Wright next Friday (October 23) to discuss how fiction’s conventions can be broken down. And next Sunday (October 25), he’ll join Annabel Lyon, Robert Arthur Alexie, Ashok Mathur, and Maile Meloy for an edition of the festival’s popular Sunday Brunch program. See writersfest.bc.ca/ for places and times.