I’ve always had a problem with over-the-top book design. From “interesting” binding styles to “witty” notes on the copyright page, whenever I see postmodern trickery on a book, I begin to worry that it’s trying to make up for a lack of anything more substantial. A generation of media studies students have demonstrated that postmodernism is art for the untalented, creativity for the uncreative.
I’ll probably never love McSweeney’s.
However, there are times – rare though they may be – when an eccentricity of design is simply the extension of a genuine creative process, rather than a substitute for it. If I was talking about architecture or technology, I’d say something about the form following the function and then we could all talk about Apple (or we could have, until they introduced those eye-burning glossy screens). This is a website about books, though, so I must be talking about A. C. Tillyer’s An A-Z of Possible Worlds, the latest publication from the relatively new Roast Books.
An A-Z of Possible Worlds is a collection of twenty-six short stories, each one printed as a separate booklet, collected in a red box. The stories explore aspects of imaginary places, some being direct sociological histories, while others show off their environments through an individual’s crisis or a specific event. Here is a tiny state whose previously vicious dictator seems to have developed a sense of fun… or has he? Another story introduces us to a town built on the edge of a reservoir, where they arrange events for the country’s tourists every year, but where something is beginning to go wrong. In another story, a historian working under an oppressive regime must choose between the people’s truth and the government’s one.
Many – perhaps all – of these stories seem to take place in different periods or places on the same world. Events in one are often hinted at in others. One story deals with a city in which the inhabitants are gradually breeding the physical characteristics needed for their different professions, which may represent the early years of a destroyed city visited in another story, in which the separate groups have developed into essentially different species.
The writing in many of these stories is simply wonderful. Other reviewers have mentioned names like Jorge Luis Borges, Kafka, and Italo Calvino, and with good reason. Tillyer’s style is confident and assured, managing in just a few pages to make her worlds more fully realised and engrossing than those of most novels.
As well as the twenty-six story booklets, the box contains a folded card that introduces the stories and connects them by talking about commuting: “I wrote An A-Z of Possible Worlds for anyone who has ever been trapped in a packed carriage and wished they were somewhere else. It is a journey around the mind for passengers who are unable to go anywhere except to place that don’t exist.” The idea of the ideal reader being a commuter seems a little redundant here: it may have made more sense when the book has its original title of The Commuter’s Lunchbox. Apparently there are some copies knocking around with that name, possibly the prototypes printed by Tillyer herself, which would make a great collector’s item should you chance upon one (you almost certainly won’t).
To finish up, here’s a video trailer for the book, made by Tillyer herself. See if you can spot the bits nicked from the classic 1946 movie A Matter of Life and Death…