Think of these three ordered letters: “d,” “o,” “g.” Yes: “dog.” Now close your eyes and think of what that word conjures in your mind. The dog you picture is not the same dog another reader imagines. So what does that say about the inherent nature of language?
In Rian Hughes’s graphically extravagant new illustrated novel “XX,” astronaut Dana Normansson engages this same thought experiment, debating the nature of the Grid, a catalog of extraterrestrial species. The Grid has come from the Signal; received by a radio telescope in the United Kingdom, the Signal is leaked and quickly becomes a frenzied topic of speculation. A novel about first contact is nothing new, of course, but Hughes, best known as a graphic designer, typographer, and illustrator, has reinvented this classic science fiction trope in a massive work of dizzying originality.
“XX” brims with facsimile versions of web pages and science journals, a serialized novel within the novel, and anthropomorphized typography. In the book, coding savant Jack Fenwick harnesses three DMEn (Digital Memetic Entities) that manifest internet “ideaspace” in the visual guise of the last three centuries: the 19th Count, a caped and capped dandy with a cane speaks in “vintage vernacular Grotesques and heavy, hair-line-seriffed Didots, seasoned with an ornate border or the occasional fleuron or manicule”; XX’s declarations are delivered in blocky modernist lettering writ large; Girl 21′s snarky commentary tersely fits in tweeted text blocks. Normansson and Fenwick rely on these digital mediums to help interpret and relay elements of the Signal and the Grid: What exactly are they — a warning, a Trojan Horse holding imminent doom, an evolving ecology? “XX” is a page turner that transcends the typical alien story, becoming an engaging treatise on the nature and development of written language and its indelible impact on human culture.
Hughes is not the first to utilize imagery meant to be read and not simply looked at — though his career as a type designer positions him well to remind readers that words are images. Many of the same typographic tricks and nesting dolls of visual allusions are found in a vast array of books. Laurence Sterne did it selectively in “Tristram Shandy,” back in the mid 18th century. More recently, books like “The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet” by Reif Larsen and J. J. Abrams and Doug Dorst’s “S” have bundled text and illustrated content in ways that don’t simply complement but rely on one another. Larsen’s tale of a precocious boy deftly pulled this off with field guide sketches and notes. Abrams and Dorst constructed a novel within a novel through the conceit of a library book, “Ship of Theseus,” and the color-coded marginalia and ephemera — from mailed postcards to a paper napkin map — left behind in the pages, tracking the trajectories of two readers who have borrowed the book; it is a staggering feat of print production that reads like a puzzle. Perhaps the best example of an illustrated fiction seamlessly conjoining text and imagery, however, is Leanne Shapton’s “Important Artifacts,” the story of a failed relationship told in the form of an auction catalogue. Strip the images from the words, and you’d be left with caption-length texts about bathing suits and restaurant menus, and unremarkable black-and-white photographs of tchotchkes. But Shapton alchemized the two, creating a fully realized narrative.
Released earlier this year, Fowzia Karimi’s “Above Us the Milky Way: An Illuminated Alphabet” shadows five unnamed sisters, their young roots yanked from the soil of their native land, a never named Afghanistan, and replanted in the United States. The five sisters “understood the power of words spoken and understood that words kept in held equal power.” Laced through with aged photographs and lovely watercolors painted by Karimi, the poetic prose that lingers like a strange dream would not lose its potency if the imagery was taken away but, as in “XX,” the imagery partners with the words to coax and tease language, revealing all it can and cannot do, and how that informs human behavior.
The characters in “XX” explore the Moon and study artifacts from across countless light-years, step in and out of time and space, making the case that there is not a distinction between the “real” and “virtual” in terms of how ideas function in culture. As Fenwick says: “Ideas have only ever evolved in minds. Write them down, record them in books and in films, in a coded transmission, and they become fixed and unchanging. Their form is locked down.” Hughes would have been well served to curb his designer’s tendency to namecheck fonts and make the obligatory Comic Sans joke, but on the whole the typographic fireworks and graphic design savvy are justified, and in fact absolutely necessary, because “XX” is about the transmission of ideas. Whether they are true or good ideas matters not. It only takes a cursory look at the news today to understand that lies all too often find purchase in all aspects of our lives.
On one of his dives into the Grid, Fenwick wonders about “[a] creature that reveals itself by its absence? What might that be? A thing that can’t be thought?” In “XX,” Rian Hughes spins a familiar premise into one enchantingly rich with possibility, encouraging us to look beyond the limits of language to new means of understanding.
Overlook Press, 992 pages, $35
Buzz Poole is a Maine-based writer and editor, and is the publisher of Sandorf Passage.