It happened first when Johanna Skibsrud’s The Sentimentalists won the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and it is happening again with the publication (by the same small Nova Scotia press) of Stephen Marche’s Love and the Mess We’re In: The Canadian literary avant-garde is boldly retreating to a bucolic past where paper is sacred and digital technology makes no impression whatsoever.
“This is a book you cannot read on a Kindle,” the author says proudly, brandishing the artifact in question during an interview in Toronto. “It’s not possible to do. This is a physical book, and the experience of holding it in your hands is integral to its reality.”
The thing that makes Marche’s third novel so resistant to digitization is its form. Between the covers is a poignant, fractured narrative of adultery and madness that is sometimes laid out in parallel columns like a script, sometimes in typographic patterns like concrete poetry, and sometimes like flowing waves set sideways. Designed by Andrew Steeves of Gaspereau Press, it revives the kind of black-and-white formal experimentation that flourished in the dying days of hot type 50 years ago – as does the unconventional, non-linear text, which picks up where the experimenters at Coach House Press left off in 1973.
But all that has been made new again in the disembodied digital age, according to Marche, 36. “The experience of reading a book is something we’re now much more conscious of,” he says. “We’re aware of holding a book. So when people see this, which is a very beautiful object to hold in your hands, it has a certain resonance it probably didn’t have five or even three years ago.”
He and the ink-stained wizard of Kentville, N.S., combined in “an attempt to make the most beautiful book that’s ever been published in Canada,” according to Marche. “That was the goal.”
Steeves is best known to Canadian readers as the fiercely artisanal printer/publisher who refused to rush out more than the existing few hundred copies of The Sentimentalists when it won the Giller two years ago. His role in designing Love and the Mess We’re In was “so far above what I can conceive it really does amount to a collaboration,” according to Marche. Neither pressures of time nor cost were allowed to interfere with its slow gestation.
Marche says he finished the novel three years ago, and it took two years to design. “It’s an act of design as well as writing, and it took absolutely forever,” he says.
But this author is no delicate poetaster hovering beyond the pale of broad acceptance. He writes a popular column (and now a blog) for Esquire magazine, an activity he calls “just as much fun as it sounds,” and scored a modest hit last year with How Shakespeare Changed Everything , a well-received non-fiction work published throughout the English-speaking world.
Although he readily agrees that labours of love as all-consuming as Love and the Mess We’re In are “not really feasible” commercially, Marche sees the new century as a wide-open invitation to literary innovation.
“This is a great time to be a writer. Don’t let anyone tell you differently,” he says. Everything is possible now – including the archaic business of pressing paper onto type, creating old-fashioned artifacts that are entirely new.