Ebooks: The thrills and limitations of digital’s distinctive qualities

A new e-publishing company does not see material and digital forms as being in competition with each other but as two distinct, if complementary, ways of reading

Reif Larsen’s Entrances and Exits  is a novella told through textual narrative and Google Street View

Reif Larsen’s Entrances and Exits is a novella told through textual narrative and Google Street View

 

Much of what has been written about ebooks has revolved around the threat they pose to their physical counterparts. The defence of the paperback is an elusive intellectual one; the defence of the digital book comes down to economics. Editions at Play, an epublishing company launched this year, sees material and digital forms not as being in competition with each other but as two distinct, if complementary, ways of reading. “We want to show that digital has narrative qualities that cannot transfer to print,” it says.

A collaboration between high-end art publishers Visual Editions and Google’s Creative Lab in Sydney, Editions at Play aims to use the internet to create fluid, non-linear, location-based fictions on mobile devices, primarily phones. (This year, mobile phones are set to be the most popular digital reading device.) Powered exclusively by Google Chrome, Editions at Play has launched the project with two publications that showcase some of the potential thrills and limitations of the new form.

Reif Larsen’s Entrances and Exits (€3.49) is a novella told through textual narrative and Google Street View. It begins on Tavistock Terrace in London in 2008 and takes readers on a journey across the globe. Its narrator begins by describing his wife’s betrayal, which he has seen coming, possibly since the moment they met. He is the type of man for whom “life has only been a series of increasing disappointments such that now all you were doing was counting away the days until your own death”.

When he finds a strange key in a book in a bookshop, it offers him escape, opening a portal into different worlds. Stepping through one doorway after another, he leaps from the backstreets of Bath to the outlying fields of Buenos Aires, from a hut in Russia to a rock in the middle of the sea: “The map had come apart at the seams.”

Larsen’s earlier work, and in particular The Selected Works of TS Spivet, is structured by journeys and extra-textual marginalia. He adapts well to the limitations and opportunities offered by the exclusively digital form. The chapters are framed by still images from Google Street View, which fade into text when you engage with them as a reader. The image orientates the story with concrete visual references – you are a detective scanning for visual clues to enter the story – but it serves a much more important function as the tale moves on and develops metafictional resonances.

Unless you are already familiar with Google Street View, however, the technical facility can take some getting used to. I am pretty sure I missed the textual element of at least three chapters, and yet the elusive nature of the narrative, with its great geographical leaps and time shifts, means I can’t be quite sure. The textual lacunae also don’t really matter. As the narrator observes in the final part of the book, looking up from his phone to orientate himself: “The world inside the phone often blurred the contours of the world outside. Or maybe it was the reverse.”

Entrances and Exits offers a strange and atmospheric tale that achieves a thriller-like quality in spite of – or perhaps because of – the faltering digital form.

The second offering from Editions at Play is a more straightforward technical accomplishment, but it is more experimental in literary style. The Truth About Cats and Dogs, by Joe Dunthorne and Sam Riviere (€3.49), is billed as a “failed collaboration between novelists”. It charts their relationship over the course of a year as they prepare for a live performance of a newly commissioned collaborative piece.

The form of the book blends diary entries, poems, letter excerpts and public addresses. There is no formal structure and the content veers from private antipathies to public enthusiasms to personal failings. Sam is aware of how offputting, and yet inevitable, the ramblings are, “as if I or anyone kept a diary on one subject/ever stuck to one subject for extractable length/the page is too narrow like this thought”.

The two writer characters are set up in opposition. They do not know each other before the project begins, and they are wary of each other, jealous of each other, sneering of each other’s work. Sam abandons capitals and punctuation in his poems, Joe tells us. He is a superior stylist, committed to his authorial conviction despite confounding readers. Sam envies Joe for his accessibility, his commercial success and his prowess as a sportsman. (Was there ever a true artist who was also a sportsman? Okay, Samuel Beckett, he concedes, but really?)

Of course, the tensions are ultimately productive. The writers may not have much to show at their public presentation, but their failure becomes the drive for this metafictional telling. The Truth About Cats and Dogs is that there is no truth for them to tell.

The book’s main technical trick is that it offers the reader a choice in how to read it. You must choose which writer to follow at first, but you can switch to the alternative narrative at any time, or read it end to end before switching perspective.

That said, the short chapters are punctuated by interjections from the opposing voice, which is presented as live text unfolding as you read. These interjections may or may not be the poems that Sam and Joe write as part of this project. The live text presentation forces the reader to slow down, which is useful. However, the metafictional game ultimately becomes an ouroboros, swallowing its own tale. Indeed Sam admits as much as he prepares to step on stage for the final performance, when he is struck by “the facetiousness of the whole endeavour . . . the lunacy of transforming literature into a social activity”.

So Editions at Play has marked its entry into digital publishing with one success and one more mixed achievement. With titles forthcoming from Adam Thirwell and Eli Horowitz later this year, it will be interesting to see how the enterprise develops.

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