"Kapow!" An experimental collaborative book of upside-down texts and fold-out pages
“Everywhere I looked I saw the cartoon sounds for violence: Wham!, for instance, or Kapow! It sometimes scared me”. [Adam Thirlwell’s Kapow!].
“Kapow!” is a novel about the events of the Arab Spring, that is, about revolutions (a word which is repeated in the text over and over again). The book has been nominated as part of the Design Museum’s Designs of the Year 2013 and is now also part of the Art Institute Chicago permanent collection.
This is not the typical book that you read whilst sitting calmly and still. In order to read the multiple directions in which the text spreads out, forming different geometric shapes you need to rotate the book around again and again and unfold the pages. All this will allow you to admire the book apart from reading it. Written wittily by Adam Thirlwell, designed playfully by Studio Frith, and published by Visual Editions, the novel experiments with content, layout, format (usually seen in magazines), and the book as an object. This publication has a tactile dimension which definitely makes the reading experience different.
“Kapow!” is a non-linear narrative, its plot a story within other stories resembling an endless nested doll. This system is apparent in the book from the very beginning: the narrator starts telling us about Faryaq, who in his turn talks about Mouloud, when all of a sudden Ahmad’s and Don Quixote stories get involved, and so on. Set partly in London and partly in Cairo, the story is narrated essentially by Adam Thirlwell himself who speaks in first person, seemingly under the influence of drugs and a caffeine overdose making the plot even quicker, more chaotic… and funnier. As the publishers explain, the novel is “about a London based writer watching and reflecting on the events of the Arab Spring and the broader global unrest that forked off it […] through reports and news from his computer screen, newspapers and taxi drivers too. From the perspective of his pop culture heaped everyday London life, he tries to make sense of it all: blending verite style real-time commentary with a dreamed up almost Bollywood style love story set among a gallery of characters in Egypt living through the revolution. Throughout, as the story ping pongs back and forth between London and Cairo, digressions wreak merry havoc and increasingly take over and become the story”.
These text digressions are the main feature of this hybrid book. Marked with little symbols in the main body text, they take different shapes, sizes and directions, interrupting the reading pace and enhancing each page (see image 6). Among these, the reader will find lines from “To You”, a poem by Kennety Koch (2005), or extracts of the script of the “The Awful Truth”, a 1937 film. The digressions continue sometimes into fold-outs that occassionally take up to 5 pages, but they also allow readers to rest their eyesight and catch their breath, since blank space is prioritised over text (see image 4).
Another feature which will also catch the reader’s attention is that the chapters’ separation is simply indicated by a one-line-space and the chapter number (see image 8), this, added to the fact that the chapters are short and, in a way, vertiginous (there are 49 chapters in 81 pages, fold-outs excluded) seem to increase the reader’s anxiety feeling and speed up the reading pace. The book seems to draw inspiration, as Granta magazine Online Editor Ted Hodgkinson explains, “from a variety of art forms, including montage, the dramatic tradition of asides and the paintings of Cy Twombly, with their cascades of text” .
The book is heavily text-based —apart from the ones in the outer and inner cover, the only other image in the book is a polka dots pattern which refers to some track pants that one of the characters wear— but the way the text is set in circles, triangles, squares and a variety of shapes is playful enough to catch the reader’s attention.
“Kapow!” is printed black and white on uncoated stock, and the only colour bits appear on the cover. According to the publishers, the production of this cover was specially problematic, as it seems Thirlwell loved the inside of the book but he didn’t quite like the outside and one week before the final deadline, after working on various proposals, they had to get down to work on it again. I guess this was another of those usual cases in the life of many creatives, when the less time you have and the more rush and the more pressure, the more interesting is the final outcome. Although personally I must admit I’m not a great fan of this cover, undeniably it’s somewhat different, radical and bold.
But the most interesting thing about this book isn’t the anecdotes —not even that at some point in the book it’s mentioned the story of Don Quixote, one of the first books I read when I was a kid (although as a comic)— but that the final outcome was a collaborative process among the book publisher, the writer and the designer, a work system immensely positive in terms of literary–visual creation, as generally it’s in this collaborative process with those parts involved contributing with different skills, where a hybrid text finally gathers strength and reinforces its meaning.
Neil Ayres, editor of Monotype’s Brand Perfect initiative, reveals in his piece on the future of the book in an issue of Creative Review that “[the project] started out with the author, Iversen and Gerber [Visual Editions founders] just chatting over drinks about what type of book they’d like to work on together […] designer Frith Kerr met with Adam Thirlwell early on in the process of making Kapow! to show him how text digressions could be treated within the printed page, and how these fragments might sit within the body of the story. Then Thirlwell went away and wrote the book. Kerr confirms that ‘the process, from start to finish, was an entirely circular one’. […] As Kapow! goes on there are more and more digressions, resulting in the narrator very nearly having a breakdown. ‘We had all sorts of crazy ideas and what’s made it into the final book is really exciting,’ Iversen says. ‘As the book progresses and gets increasingly more noisy… the visual treatment of the digressions also gets crazier and crazier, acting very much as a reflection of the narrative.’ ‘And that’s the thing,’ adds Gerber. ‘Frith’s approach was never about ‘just’ treating the digressions; her approach was about making sure the book works as a whole: both as a beautiful, crafted object as much as a new book by Adam Thirlwell’”.
The role Visual Editions played here, acting as a connecting device between writer and designer or as a kind of art director, is essential. The text written by Thirlwell was enhanced beautifully by Studio Frith and achieved a greater reading experience. The editors at Visual Editions recently explained their thoughts on “visual writing” (a term they coined themselves) in the book “Fully Booked: Ink on Paper”: Visual writing “[…] is about writing that uses visuals as an integral part of the writing itself. So that without those visual devices the story would be something different entirely. For us, this idea of visual writing isn’t about anything that is decorative or pretty for the sake of it. A lot of people can make ‘pretty’ books, but we’re more interested in the idea of creating different kinds of reading experiences […] the visual writing in each case becomes integral to the reading experience […] We want them [our books] to be touched, read and loved, not looked at in expensive glass cabinets” .
But who are the other parts involved in this story? Writer Adam Thirlwell has recently been named part of Granta’s 2013 20 Best Under 40 novelists list. Thirlwell is also author of other books such as “Politics”, a book on the international art of the novel, and “The Escape”, and he has also been guest editor of McSweeney’s magazine, an exemplary publication both for its quality and its experimentation with printed formats.
The other part is Studio Frith, a London-based graphic design consultancy set up by Frith Kerr in 2009 after 11 years as a director and partner of Kerr/Noble. Frith, a designer with excellent typographic skills, is an AGI member and works across various media for a range of corporate and cultural clients.
Last but not least, Die Keure who have been in charge of the printing process. These Belgian printers made possible an almost impossible book, “Tree of Codes”, job which apparently took them 3 months, and have collaborated again in this book.
To sum up, and turning to some of Thirlwell’s words “when you pick up this book [Kapow!] it looks like an entirely normal book, and it’s only when you start to kind of read it that you realise that this thing is kind of essentially pushing you around” .
 Interview to Adam Thirlwell on Granta
 Neil Ayres’ The further adventures of the book
 Robert Klanten, Matthias Hübner, and Andrew Losowsky. “Fully Booked: Ink on Paper. Design & Concepts for New Publications”, Gestalten. Berlin, 2013 [p.46]
 An interview in the back of a taxi with Adam Thirlwell talking about the book’s story and process