Few must be the lovers of the bound, printed page who do not now quail at the onslaught of the e-book: not only are e-readers increasingly affordable and ubiquitous, but their once rather poor displays and interfaces have undergone rapid improvement to the point that even the fiercest Luddite must fall back on other arguments. Those last redoubts usually focus on the physical pleasures of the book as object: the feel of its pages, the smell of its ink, the reassuring heft of its simple presence.
The text is incarnate in the book, and in some way its prestige is heightened in the simple mechanical act of binding leaves of paper. Nevertheless, these are the kind of arguments made in favor of vinyl records, and now increasingly of compact discs, and it is hard not to see the book going the way of the 45. It will perhaps remain, tucked in the corner of stores real or virtual, as a kind of fetish object, an increasingly elaborate totem for those enthusiastic enough to seek it out. The future of the book is in one sense rather bright, then: it will go from the disposable, mass-produced paperback which falls apart after a single thorough read to something grander and perhaps stranger; it will be a special object again, like an elaborate, mysterious, potent codex pulled from a shelf in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
It's possible already to see this future for the book in today's publishing houses: cloth-bound volumes are increasingly common, as are untrimmed pages and gilded edges. These are attempts to persuade buyers to eschew the ephemeral Kindle edition—that virtual, inchoate version of the text you may or may not be able to read in ten years' time, or loan to your friends, or may even be in sinister endlessly editable flux, isn't nearly as pretty and permanent as a leather-bound edition of Huckleberry Finn. The book is beautiful. The e-book is merely functional.
What's interesting about this new battleground is the renewed attention it has brought to the innovative potential of the humble deadtree book. Of these, Theodora Goss's The Thorn and the Blossom is an obvious example: packaged in a handsomely illustrated slipcase (complete with removable sticker for those of us who wish to rid our glorious object of the tawdry publisher's blurb), it is a book without a spine. Instead, it opens up in the manner of an accordion (this, too, is trumpeted by a sticker affixed to the slipcase), first from one end and then from another. Its double-sided pages, splaying backwards and forwards in a concertina of story, offer the reader the pleasure that all true bibliophiles have sometimes wished to have: the opportunity to read their book again.
The Thorn and the Blossom bills itself as a love story told from both sides. In a very real sense, this is precisely what it is: the reader chooses whether to start with either the book's heroine, the American student Evelyn, or its hero, the Cornish bookshop assistant Brendan, reads the forty or so pages narrated from their point of view, and then starts again from the reverse of what had been the back page, reading the same events narrated from the other’s perspective. My own reading began with Evelyn's narration, and I found this approach rewarding; I've seen other reviewers do the opposite and wonder if starting with Evelyn would have any value. I can in this way confirm that Goss has at least succeeded in crafting a work which rewards her reader, whichever of the two paths through her novel they choose.
On the other hand, the rewards on offer are thin. This is a short book, with no more than 80 rather small pages, and, though Goss compresses a lot of story time into this small space, she doesn’t quite build in the weight of story for which she aims. Evelyn and Brendan’s relationship revolves around a story he tells her the first time they meet—of Gawain of the Round Table and Elowen, the Queen of Cornwall—and we come to read the modern-day couple as a sort of iteration of that mythical pair’s doomed romance. In such a spare number of pages, however, this comes to feel bathetic. For instance, Goss's decision to stick fairly rigidly to the clichés of the contemporary romance novel results in some clunkingly awful moments:
"I gather you're not from around here."
She laughed, partly with relief. "What gave me away, the accent?"
"Yes, and I already know all the pretty girls in Clews." ("Evelyn", p. 8)
The reader might expect to read in Brendan's account of his mortification at deploying so banal and cringe-worthy a pick-up line. Instead, he is merely astounded by his boldness:
He couldn't believe he'd just said that. He never flirted with girls—at least, not successfully. And she had a look on her face, as though she couldn't quite believe he'd said it, either. He thought American girls were used to getting compliments? ("Brendan", p. 5)
This is naïve stuff, and Goss is by this point in her career no naïf. What, then, is she up to when she delivers lines such as: "What she realized, as the semester progressed, was that she had never been in love before. Not really" ("Evelyn", p. 26)? In part, one suspects, this is an experiment in allying hackneyed style with innovative forms: those concertinaed pages hold not a metafictional symphony but a generic ditty. This might be interesting if the style did not so regularly rob the content of impact, however. When Brendan's approach to foreplay is to wonder, "if he would remember how to unhook a bra, how to make a woman cry out with pleasure," the reader might be forgiven for rolling their eyes in a quite different fashion ("Brendan", p. 26). When a character delivers exposition through dialogue in the entirely unreal manner beloved by hack writers—"You should have seen the horses I rode as a child in Ireland," says one, speaking as no human ever has ("Brendan", p. 19)—Goss boots us right out of her story, whether the one we're reading or the one with which the characters are apparently obsessed.
If this experiment doesn't quite come off, then, what of that other formal innovation, telling the same story from two perspectives? This, of course, is a tried and tested technique here simply married to an unusual mechanism: indeed, other than the accordion format, Goss's multiple perspectives are fairly unmemorable. Whilst there is slightly more interaction in Evelyn's account than in Brendan's—which may or may not be a comment on how Goss imagines men to experience courtship—for large parts of the narrative the dialogue is identical. Evelyn may remember a line about cynicism that Brendan forgets, but these telling details are few and far between. The Thorn and the Blossom seems to me to miss its trick: having set up so elaborately the potential for its narrators to disagree, we find all they are really doing is dancing around their respectively incomplete datasets. "I'm sorry I didn’t tell you," Brendan says of the novella's biggest secret. "I thought—I wanted to be with you so badly. I thought if you knew, you'd never given me a chance" ("Evelyn", p. 31). If we pass over once again the hackneyed expression, we still only arrive at two narrators who simply withhold a bit of information from each other. Evelyn, too, is guilty of the sin of omission, though in her case unwillingly: "she'd sent Brendan a letter . . . She hadn't known where he was living, so she'd used the address for the bookstore. But she had never heard back" ("Evelyn", p. 19).
It is not that Goss has entirely lost her magic: The Thorn and the Blossom has moments of spooky grandeur, when the gentle, almost invisible, prose style speaks frostily but potently. At one point, for instance, Brendan dreams himself as Gawain: "A woman stood there, auburn hair streaming in the wind, her white robes lifted and tossed. She was holding her arms out to him. Her mouth was open, and she was saying something, but he couldn’t hear, the wind was too loud" ("Brendan", p. 27). Likewise, the fantastical visions experienced by Evelyn are vividly and memorably described, and these moments of energy give the story an undercurrent of mystery which lingers after the workaday details have faded.
Nevertheless, there's very little here that plays with the reader's expectations: as soon as I'd figured out how best to read this unusual book (and, practically speaking, it is not always easy to do so), I had solved Goss's biggest puzzle. As well as untold secrets and unread letters, we are provided with star-crossed lovers and an ambiguous fantasy element, leaning, naturally, on a recurrent mental illness. In short, this feels like a minor work dressed up as something more interesting—a canny move by a publisher alive to the challenges of the digital marketplace, but a less ringing endorsement of the future of the book-as-object. If printed pages are to have a future, they will need to be filled by stories more vibrant than this diverting, but ultimately strangely unambitious, curio.
Dan Hartland blogs at http://thestoryandthetruth.wordpress.com.