I read Adam Thirlwell’s debut novel, Politics, a couple of months ago and quite enjoyed it, though didn’t feel it was without flaws. Kapow!, however, I liked a lot, and found it a much more engaging, rounded and serious book. Though this may just be because I like reading about literature and revolutions more than I do about sexual politics.
Kapow! seems to repeatedly straddle the fiction/non-fiction divide in the way that I like. The East London hipster narrator, who one presumes to be Thirlwell, is having a bit of a rest from his success and existing on a diet of dope and coffee (Leaving The Atocha Station, anyone?), when in the midst of the Arab Spring he makes friends with a taxi driver, Faryaq, whose brother is involved in the protests in Tahrir Square.
During regular meetings in Kingsland Road bars and cafes, the narrator is told about Mouloud (the brother) and his friends Rustam, Nigora and Ahmad. From these stories of brutality, dissent, ideology, fear and hope, Thirlwell decides to spin a romance between young revolutionary filmmaker Ahmad and married older woman Nigora. However, as events unroll and real life tragedies occur, Thirlwell realises this is not the correct background to write the tale of sexual mores that he wanted to. It is an admission of limitation, of (perhaps) failure, and certainly of acknowledged theft of setting. He jokes at one point that he hopes no one who was actually there ever writes a novel set in the Egyptian revolution, but one can see an edge of sincerity in that point. This is not his story, he openly states, and how could he pretend ownership of it if there were direct competition? The text of the book is thought provoking, intelligent and richly felt.
HOWEVER, there is more to this book than its textual content. It is published by Visual Editions, a small publishing house that aims to make aesthetically interesting and original books. They have also produced reprints of Tristram Shandy and Composition No.1, the Jonathan Safran Foer story cut out from Street of Crocodiles, and a box of original maps. In Kapow!, the visual conceit is that there are parts of text that cut through the main body in opposing and conflicting directions. Some pages fold out, expanding these asides, so the reader must constantly turn (REVOLVE) the book, open it up and flip it around to read everything. These insertions break up the text, visually (again) reflecting civil unrest, protest and change. Visually, they work. Yet in terms of text, most of the asides function EXACTLY as standard footnotes would, rendering the design and the text separate. The layout of the text is, until very close to the end, secondary OR separate to the text. One of the final pages, though, folds out like Gregory Corso’s ‘The Bomb’ and contains overlapping, contradicting and deliberately messed up asides, to be read in any order. This is the conceit working properly – the broken up text asking to be read as if broken up, rather than as one reads (to reiterate) footnotes. So although the design works as a reflection of the content, it only properly merges with it at the very end.
Is this a problem? I don’t know, I wouldn’t like to say. Kapow! is an interesting and enjoyable book – offering wit, insight, self-critique, intellectual discussion of the Arab Spring (can we still call it that?) and some great bits of writing.
I liked it.