In Woman’s World, Graham Rawle presents an authoritative example of the cutup technique initially made popular by William Burroughs with the Nova trilogy, consisting of The Soft Machine (1961), The Ticket That Exploded (1962), and Nova Express (1964). Rawle’s novel, published in Great Britain in 2005 and in the United States in 2008, is the culmination of years spent cutting up women’s magazines from the 1960’s and painstakingly assembling a 437-page tale from bits of text. The result is visually striking as typography and psychologically compelling as narrative.
Whereas Burroughs conformed the content of his cutup novels to the pieces he cut out of magazines, Rawle in Woman’s World shaped the tale while the cutup text determined the actual phrasing. Rawle drafted Woman’s World in a word processor, while also collecting text from magazines and organizing it by topic. Then he entered the magazine text into a computer database, enabling him to substitute this magazine text for phrases in his original draft. Using the result as a guide, he physically pasted the magazine cutouts into the draft he ultimately submitted to publishers. The entire project required five years.
The story’s protagonist, Norma Fontaine, is a recluse who believes that “as a woman, you must never look less than your loveliest.” Her chief pastime at home is to read up on “the latest fashions, beauty tips, and handy hints for the home” in women’s magazines. She reflects,I really must think about starting a scrapbook. My dressing room is piled high with all the women’s magazines I have saved over the years. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to collect together my favourite fashion features, all the hints and tips on glamour and etiquette that I have found especially useful, and keep them together in one big book?
Her loving brother, Roy, has learned as much from the magazines as has Norma; he is continually bringing the housebound woman exquisite dresses, scarves, and cosmetics.
With text scissored from old magazines and creatively spliced into narrative, Rawle can make Norma’s choice of words read like advertising copy, often with amusing effect: Raindrops fall like “chocolate-covered Payne’s Poppets thrown from the branches above them by playful confectioners.” Sometimes her dialogue, though awkward, is more inventive than commonplace expressions: She describes someone as tiptoeing “with the stealth of a cartoon mouse.” She recalls that when her brother, Roy, failed to meet up with a woman who has strongly attracted him, “his heart had slipped deep into the lining of his overcoat.”
Despite this hilarity, an ominous undertone soon becomes apparent in the story, and the book’s title begins to seem ironic. The perfect “woman’s world” of Norma’s magazine-fueled imagination clashes with the realities outside her home. She shows up to interview for a delivery job for which her brother is applying. “’Good morning,’ I began, my voice a light and airy soufflé, straight from the oven. ’I’ve come about the vacancy.’” Told she is not qualified, she complains to the boss, “You recognize me as the perfect woman, yet you are unable to see me as the perfect man for the job.” Though she nearly spoils Roy’s chance of getting hired, he does land the job, however, and in the process meets Eve, his future wife.
Meanwhile, Norma meets a photographer named Mr. Hands, who proves to be the villain of the story. (Rawle, the cutup artist, has said, “I decided on Mr. Hands for my antagonist because the word hands is easy to come by in adverts for nail polish, soap powders, and the like. The name also describes his licentious, groping nature.”) In a familiar ploy, Mr. Hands lures Norma to his apartment by offering to take glamorous photographs of her. Finding the name “Syms” on his apartment-house entrance, Norma wonders if she will be greeted by “Sylvia Syms, star of stage and screen who keeps her skin so young-looking.” Instead, the door is opened by a woman “whose resemblance to Sylvia Syms could be measured in nautical miles . . . . At her feet, a small, highly strung poodle wriggled and worried itself into a rich, creamy...
(The entire section is 1743 words.)