Looking in Every Direction

Adam Thirlwell, Kapow!

Visual Editions, 81pp, £15, ISBN 9780956569233

reviewed by Sarah Emily Duff

Between 1989 and 2000, the journal History and Theory published one of the longest – and possibly most interesting – disputes within the historical profession. Over the course of the decade, Perez Zagorin, Frank Ankersmit, and, later, Keith Jenkins, debated the relative usefulness of postmodernism to historians. Historians like Zagorin, routinely accused by postmodernists of being at best naïve and at worst reactionary, have argued that since at least the 1960s few historians have been so arrogant to claim that their research is not heavily influenced by the contexts – political, social – in which they work.

Writing about postmodernism and history in 2012 does feel distinctly old hat. Hayden White’s angry critiques of historians’ use of narrative and texts seems to be as much of a product of the cultural politics of the 1980s and 1990s as they do of a post-1989 period in which Francis Fukuyama could confidently proclaim an ‘end of history.’ But after 9/11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Arab Spring, it is the postmodernists who may appear naïve.

Nonetheless, some aspects of post-structuralism remain useful to historians. In fact, Adam Thirlwell’s most recent novel, Kapow! could serve as a primer for the lessons that historians can learn from aspects of postmodern theory. How do we make sense of the multiple, complex events which constitute an historical moment? (What is this ‘moment’?) How do we describe events far removed from our own experience? And to what extent does narrative shape our understanding of events as chaotic, confused, and apparently random as revolutions?

Kapow! is both an essay on writing about history, revolution, and time, and a love story set in Egypt during the Arab Spring. These two strands are, interlinked throughout. The narrator – modelled closely on Thirlwell himself – bases his Cairo story on a series of conversations he has with a London cab driver, Faryaq, whose brother, Mouloud, is tangentially involved in the protests at Tahrir Square. As he imagines a love triangle between Mouloud’s ‘sidekick’ Ahmad, and Nigora, he contemplates his own set of responses and attempts to make sense of the Arab Spring.

As the narrative moves between the Cairo story and the London essay the text itself enacts the narrator’s desire to create a ‘montage,’ or ‘a system where as many things as possible were visible at once.’ As one would expect of Visual Editions, a publisher which specialises in producing books whose design is integral to the narrative, Kapow! is a beautiful and wonderfully tactile book. Although most of the novel is printed in a traditional, linear form, it has a subtext: parts of the story – thoughts, asides, diversions – are scattered, apparently randomly, around the page. Pages fold out in concertinas, words fall off the edges of pages. As the plot begins to fall apart, so does the book.

The narrative begins with crisis: the narrator feels that he is in danger of a kind of dissolution of self: ‘I’d been thinking that this thing called I wasn’t anything at all. I was beginning to think that I was basically a pseudonym.’ At the same time, he finds himself increasingly fascinated by the Arab Spring, and drawn to the chaos of revolution: ‘Everywhere I looked I saw the cartoon sounds for violence: Wham!, for instance, or Kapow!’ He explains that he ‘understood this urge to disrupt and savage things’.

As he begins to doubt the foundations of his own identity, as well as his ability properly to understand the causes and nature of the political upheaval in Egypt, the narrator begins to realise that this very uncertainty allows him to write about a city, an event, and a group of people about which he knows almost nothing:

'although I was from the green London suburbs and I was Jewish or at least half-Jewish, as I listened to Faryaq I was still beginning to wonder if I could in some way construct my own Arabic novel. Or at least a pulp novelette, a zoom of pure joyfulness. Maybe the cartoon sound effects were right. The era was world historical, so why couldn’t I describe whatever stories I wanted and claim that they were real?'

Thirwell’s project is ambitious, but problematic. The Cairo sections of the novel are not the cartoonish, zooming, joyous pulp fiction which the narrator sets out to create, and the two parts of the narrative, split between story and reflection, do not sit easily with each other. Too often the narrator’s thinking about his ‘sitcom’ and his ‘romance’ feel like a distraction from the Cairo love story. In comparison to the violence and real suffering in Egypt, his various crises feel narcissistic and unimportant.

Oddly, for all the narrator’s anxieties about describing a revolution and a country which he could only ever experience second hand, he evokes a series of convincing, compelling love stories. Thirwell’s self-consciousness, is, ultimately, the central concern of the novel: the text draws attention to its artifice – to its ‘created-ness’.

If Thirlwell had relied more on Visual Editions’ innovative design in order to emphasise the artifice of the story, he may have been able to make his point without having to resort to long and repetitive digressions about his own uncertainties and anxieties. Despite the messiness of this novel, Thirlwell manages to draw his readers’ attention to the ways in which history is made through narrative.
Sarah Emily Duff is a researcher in the medical humanities at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research in Johannesburg, South Africa.