Chopsticks ($6.99) falls somewhere between a book and an app. It’s a scrapbook “novel” telling the story of a difficult romance between two high school students, published by Razorbill, a Young Readers imprint at Penguin, in both app and print forms. The challenge of assembling this fusion of photography, video, animation, and audio clips was recently recounted in the Wall Street Journal as part of a longer story on the enhanced ebook genre. Chopsticks was held up as an important test case on the viability of the form.
I have my doubts about the inclusion of too much visual material in a text narrative (outside of picture books for young children, that is), but Chopsticks has very little text to begin with. The characters write each other notes and IMs, and there are faux documents from schools and the sanitarium where the character Glory, a piano prodigy, is sequestered for a while. You aren’t told the story, as is the case with prose novels and graphic novels; instead, you have to deduce it from the images and scraps of writing supplied by the authors, Jessica Anthony and Rodrigo Corral. While some of these are fairly straightforward — programs for Glory’s performances and newspaper clippings describing her breakdown at Carnegie Hall — others are winningly subtle: a stack of board games momentarily puzzled me until I realized it was meant to indicate how Glory killed time in the sanitarium.
This element of detective work made Chopsticks much more engaging than I’d expected. I think fiction works in part by eliciting an imaginative investment from its reader. Instead of the access to the characters’ inner selves that prose usually offers, Chopsticks shows us what they look like, what they draw (Frank, Glory’s boyfriend, is an artist), what they pack for a trip, what they scribble in the margins of the books they’re reading. From these clues, the reader is invited to imagine not just what’s happened, but how the two principles feel and think about it.
The only frustration I felt with Chopsticks resulted from the abundance of embedded YouTube clips showing what the characters watched on TV or compiled into the music mix tapes they swap. The Wall Street Journal article explains that this was a strategy to work around the rights nightmares associated with using music and video from copyrighted sources, which is clever, but ultimately not that successful. You can’t listen to the music while looking at the images in Chopsticks and I, personally, didn’t feel much like pausing to watch music videos by the Decembrists or Death Cab for Cutie. But then, I wouldn’t, and the inclusion of the characters’ favorite songs might be more meaningful to the intended audience.
Will I return to Chopsticks, the way I occasionally return to Touch Press’ landmark enhanced version of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land? Probably not, but that has more to do with the subject matter than the form. I’d love to see an adult story told this way, with images, videos, and interactive garnishes luring me into a puzzle that offered more mystery and ideas. If the videos advanced the story instead of bringing it to a halt, they might seem less of an interruption. As the WSJ explains, putting something like this together is expensive and complicated, more like making a film than writing, editing and publishing a book. But I hope someone tries it.