In five years, equipped with a pair of scissors and a bottle of glue, collage artist and writer Graham Rawle artfully pieced together Woman’s World by “stitching” together over 40,000 tiny fragments of text from a pile of women’s magazines from the 1960s in order to introduce readers to Roy Little and his sister Norma Fontaine, a woman whose femininity has been almost entirely constructed out of the dish soap words and images she encounters in the popular women’s magazines of her day. Having written the story he’d wanted to tell in a Word document, Rawle allowed the magazine clippings to give it new life and the result is a long and intoxicating mix of cutesy feminine ideals and an increasingly sinister secret. This ransom-note, eye-candy of a novel is seemingly from another planet and the mixed fonts, tiny pictures, and various sizes of text (often used to add emphasis to a particular word, such as “woman,” which is always emphasized in one way or another) refuse to be ignored.
Rawle’s genius is typified as it becomes apparent that format and fiction are mirror-images of one another in Woman’s World, and readers slowly come to understand that the oddly housebound Norma Fontaine isn’t quite the fashion-forward cover-girl she appears to be, but the cross-dressing alter ego of her ‘brother,’ Roy, and a product of his own obsession with the femininity propagated by the very same publications that Rawle uses to give her story life. In our contemporary world peppered with tanning beds and breast implants, Norma’s struggle to be the perfect woman isn’t trans-specific at all, but rather a satirical look into productions of femininity everywhere. Norma is a troubled actor, center-stage in the daily performance of her own “authenticity,” whether she’s window shopping or dusting:
“…it was difficult to concentrate on the job at hand, being all too aware that anyone passing by on the street would probably catch sight of my legs perfectly framed in the window. I couldn’t be sure, with my head right up against the ceiling, but I judged I was at about the right height to create the image of a stylish young woman, as seen from the waist down, like an advert for a skirt in a mail order catalogue.”
As the story progresses almost kitschy soap opera style drama ensues as Roy struggles to keep Norma out of his love affair with post office worker, Eve. Roy and Norma’s daily lives weave in and out, and although most strangers seem to take Norma for some kind of circus-freak, she attracts the unwelcomed attention of “photographer” Mr. Hands, who attempts to sexually assault her during an alleged photo shoot. The novel takes a ghastly turn when Norma, struggling to resist the rape, cuffs her aggressor with the pointed heel of her stiletto, leaving him a motionless pile on the floor. Rawle’s one part murder-mystery, one part cultural critique never loses its ability to impress—the literary maturity, the dark themes, the silly language all mix together in a perfectly maniacal cocktail of surreal taste:
“I don’t know how long I stood there. My brain had dislodged itself and become a slice of peach slithering about on a spoon. I screwed up my eyes and tried to breathe steadily. A rushing sound in my ears swelled into a mighty roar, like all the winds of the world blowing through my head in one gigantic hurricane.”
I can’t, myself, imagine another crossroads of art and writing quite like this one. Reading the quilted prose of Woman’s World left me in a state of awe; it is unlike anything else I’ve ever laid eyes on. As the characters in this novel are brought to life, so too is the author himself—the reader can picture him, hunched over his cluttered desk, picking the glue from his fingers and bandaging the papercuts, as he and Roy both created Norma, “a spring lamb taking its first confident steps, with a hop and two skips, […] on top of the world, armed with [her] feather duster, looking down on all creation.”
Reviewed by Rachel Storm
Posted in Reviews