Sunday, October 01, 2006

Graham Rawle - ‘Woman’s World’

As is so often the case with hardback books, it’s taken me until the paperback came out to get around to reading Woman’s World. It’s been sitting prettily on my bookshelf preening itself in the mirror on the opposite wall since last Christmas. As well it might: this is a beautiful book. Composed entirely of cut-out fragments from early ’60s women’s magazines, stuck to the page in a single central column width, sprawling outwards on occasion, it’s more like a comic then a novel in its attention the minutiae of presentation. A Chris Ware comic, perhaps (there are doubtless better comparisons to be made, but I don’t read enough comics). Larger words from headlines signal moments of drama, the word ‘colour’ rarely appears without cross-hatching filling each letter, denoting - in black and white - an array of colours. Entire sentences are lifted from advertising copy, or romance stories, with more often than not a word transplanted near the end which elevates the sentiment to ludicrousness. An example:

Some secrets | should be shared, while those that may be harmful to a loved one | are best kept wrapped in | airtight parcels, using either plastic bags or thick brown paper sealed with plastic tape, with | a handful of mothballs | sprinkled between the layers of | deceit. (p. 377)

Rawle takes advantage of the magazines’ two dominant tones: mawkish (the romance stories) and sprightly, practical (the ads and the tips on how to run a household). Put them together and you’re going to get jokes, but not only jokes: the violent swings from one voice to the other produce a sense of instability which is appropriate for the mixed up narrator Norma. She’s so steeped in the woman’s world they offer that she can’t think in any other terms, but her regurgitated version of their content is peculiar. She takes them too seriously, yet doesn’t get them quite right.

Why are the cuttings all from the early ’60s? It gives a consistency of tone, of course: this is when the novel is set, they practically guarantee that there will be no anachronisms. It is a very readable tone, the language firmly entrenched in ’50s family values but from a time when the give-’em-what-they-want approach to media had started to kick in. Later magazines, you’d imagine, would have contained references to rock ’n’ roll and sexual liberation. The rigidity of what it meant to be a woman would have started to crumble, and it’s the rigidity on which Norma relies. There is a nostalgia for this lost age of domesticity, as an aspiration if not as a reality, and, simultaneously, a demonstration of how dangerous this kind of boxing-in is for those who submit to it. Of the small set of characters in the book, only Roy’s girlfriend Eve comes close to living up to the version of womanhood set out in Norma’s beloved magazines. She is accordingly quite bland, but unusually her character isn’t weakened by this, as it gives Rawle carte blanche to plunder romance stories for sparkling eyes and tremulous hearts (nothing so crude as a heaving bosom). It’s also true that Norma is so loopy that there is room for a stock character elsewhere in the story, and so Eve fulfils the function more usually taken by the narrator, of standing by and watching whilst extraordinary things happen.

The triumph of Woman’s World (rather like a Jeeves novel) is in its use of narration by a character who is not so much unreliable as completely out of control. The excitement and glamour in Norma’s life come exclusively from the fashion pages of her magazines, and she lives largely as a recluse, changing outfits three times a day but rarely taking them beyond the confines of the house she shares with her mother. When the door bell rings she’ll dash off to her room in a panic whilst her mother answers it. Once there, she’ll change outfits again. I’m aware that this makes her sound about as 3D as a Little Britain character, but the reasons this isn’t so are so bound up in things you ought to find out from reading the book. There is history, tragedy, all sorts. But best not spilled in advance.

Weird coincidental similarities with other books I’ve written about recently: Norma is rather like Kinué in The Decay of the Angel, in her self delusion relating to her own beauty. She also adds an uncertain ‘possibly’ to the occasional sentence, as unsure of her grip on reality as Alan Bennett’s lady in the van.

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