Blind-embossed Victorian-style bindings; black-edged pages
Endpapers and title page
An illustration from book 2
Book 3: blurred text showing the unreliable narrator's mind
In book 4 the text follows the erratic path of the characters
Book 5: 300+ page photographic flick book
Book 6 opens into a 1862 map of London
Book 7: First person narrative 'written' by the narrator
The box: Text is replaced by ephemera hidden by the narrator

21st Century Novel: An Investigation of Graphic Devices in Literary Fiction

This project was an opportunity to look at the ways in which novelists use graphic elements within their narratives, and to then try applying similar devices myself. To do this, I decided to use a common text – Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The man of the crowd” – to tell the same story in different ways using a variety of graphic devices. This was inspired by Oulipo’s idea of constraints – originally a literary technique used by Raymond Queneau in which the writer is deliberately bound by certain rules. More recently, Matt Madden has used the approach in his book “99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style”. From his introduction:

“Each comic in this book presents the same story – recounts exactly the same events – but takes a different approach to telling the tale. You will find varying points of view, different styles of drawing, homages and parodies.”

My first book, which is text only, can be considered the template. The others – “exercises in style”. The story is 3,500 words: short enough to be reworked several times without breaking it up, while long enough to be bound as a book.


Edgar Allan Poe’s “The man of the crowd” is an enigmatic gothic tale of madness and claustrophobia, with a dark, illusory setting. It begins with the narrator sitting in the bow window of a coffee shop on one of Victorian London’s busiest streets. After months of illness, his strength is returning, “the film from the mental vision” has departed and he’s taking great pleasure and interest in everything. Darkness starts to fall and he takes to observing the “dense and continuous tides of population” outside. He looks at “the innumerable varieties of figure, dress, air, gait, visage and expression of countenance” and idly categorises people by vocation, class, morals and mental health.

As night deepens and the rays of gas-lamps “threw over everything a fitful and garish lustre”, the narrator is forced to merely glance at the faces that pass. Even so, he ‘could frequently read, even in that brief interval of a glance, the history of long years’. And then ‘there came into view a countenance (that of a decrepit old man, some sixty-five or seventy years of age) – a countenance which at once arrested and absorbed my whole attention, on account of the absolute idiosyncrasy of its expression… “How wild a history”, I said to myself, “is written within that bosom!” Then came a craving desire to keep the man in view – to know more of him.’ And so the narrator leaves the coffeeshop and trails the old man through the rain and cold of night-time London.


My first book was the template. I decided on a page size of 100 x 150mm for three reasons: because small books were common in the nineteenth century; because I have a set of Bloomsbury Classics (published in the mid-nineties) and always enjoyed reading them because of the way they fit in one’s hand; and because the format is reminiscent of notebooks and so went well with book 7 (the ‘found notebook’).


I drew seven images – snapshots of the story. I kept them focused on one figure or elements, both to keep them bold and simple, and to draw the reader’s attention to an aspect of the story key to it being effectively read. In this way, the illustrations are not mere vignettes of the story, but signposts to interpretation, and so can be said to function as ‘devices’.


Like the increasingly squeezed leading that depicts a deteriorating state of mind in Safran Foer’s Extremely loud and incredibly close, the blurring here was intended to show the fevered, hallucinatory mind of the narrator during what could be an imagined journey. The further they travel and the more desperate the narrator gets (“wearied unto death”) the less clear the text.


Here the type starts moving across and around the page when the narrator leaves the coffeeshop and starts his journey. The reader has to turn the page to follow the story and so has to physically interact with it. By following what is an impossible journey, the reader gets a sense of the narrator’s unreliability.


Here the reader has to turn the pages to follow the characters around London. To take the photos, I bribed various friends to don a cloak, shrivel into old age and walk guiltily around London, from crowd to crowd, while I followed with the camera. The original plan was to follow the route that I’d made for the map-book (book 6), but this meant very long empty stretches of road, whatever the day. In the end, we spent a lot of time in the crowds outside pubs, down Oxford Street and in Soho and Hoxton.


This book used the conventional format of a map to change the reading experience. For the first half of the story (inside the coffeeshop looking out), the book reads as a normal book, with the same 100 x 150mm page size. When the reader comes to the point where they have to open out and turn over the page, the journey in the story begins, with links from the text to points on the route on the map. The map is a replica of an 1840 original from Stanford’s. I traced the route by following directional cues in the story. An example: “The street was a long and narrow one, and his course lay within it for nearly an hour… A second turn brought us into a square, brilliantly lighted…”. Here I had to find a long street that connected to the previous long street – Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street – and turn into a square – Fitzroy Square.


How do you make the reader identify more with the narrator in a first person narrative? By showing him their handwriting and doodles. The book continues to where the narrator leaves the coffeeshop. At this point the story continues in abbreviated form as annotations on a map, which was folded and inserted in the last pages of the notebook.


Forgoing the majority of the text, a hollow book was filled — as though by the narrator — with objects and ephemera. Together, in an order of the reader’s choosing, they form the narrative of the story. After the handwritten notebook, this was the obvious next step. Included are letters, photos, scraps of scribbled-on paper, a newspaper clipping, a lock of hair, a returned diamond engagement ring, a dagger, his physiognomy reading, his bloody glove and sundries.

Read the complete essay here

Comments (1)

omg O_O esta fea, no me gusta. Primero, las letras se ven todas falsas, no se si me explico, como que no quedan bien, ased como que no tienen photoshop para ponerles efectos ? o una letra mas creativa xD y luego el fondo? se que tiene que ver con la historia (que no he leido) pero ups! no me gusta. Saludos.


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