Inspired by Edward Gorey’s strange and whimsical stories, I proposed to my friend David: “Let’s write a story together, each doing our own illustrations of the text, without seeing each other’s pictures. I’ll send you the first line. You send me the second. We alternate and illustrate as we go and adapt or change the process as needed. Eventually we’ll decide when and how to end it.”
I went to Paris with this project in the back of my mind and some art materials in hand. The writing began and proceeded with weekly reports from David about how much he was enjoying doing the illustrations. However, for whatever reason, I just couldn’t get started. Paris, perhaps, was too distracting. Nevertheless, we did write 8 or 9 lines discussing the process by email. I didn’t tell David that I wasn’t making any pictures.
It wasn’t until late August and I was in Toronto expecting to meet David in a few days that I was able to make the first few pages of the book. The pressure of wanting something to show him finally helped me make those necessary decisions for the project to get underway. I do not remember my thoughts. Each image seemed to compose itself in my mind and then appear a short time later on paper. The process was immensely satisfying.
By the time of our meeting my illustrations were caught up with the text and I could confess my recalcitrance without guilt. What a delight to see his version of the story! How wonderful to talk about our interpretations of the text and write a few more lines, make a few more pages.
The greatest thrill was how we each brought our own completely different creative impulses to the illustrations. Mine are more traditional in that they attached more concretely to the text. David’s illustrations are more elemental, more primal. Cut circles, squares and rectangles, like windows and doors, pull me into Mouffetard’s stream of consciousness as I read the narrative. In each picture my eye is led to a single powerful focus. The unity of structure and repetition of forms become a kind of signature that identifies Mouffetard. His mental world is playful, layered, non-linear, and yet ordered. It is bound by his desire to understand the forces at work in his emotional life. Recurrent images such as hands, bodies, mythological figures, religious icons, and everyday objects emerge from the measured space. Torn red, blue, yellow, and purple papers invite the viewer to enter the pictures spontaneously. When I look through them I feel as though I am being let in on a secret. Real objects like petals, pencil sheds, and lint pull me out of the representational world of art into the physical tactile world of my own experience.
While I listen to the words I am reading, my eyes feast on the unexpected associations in Mouffetard’s mind. Each illustration is a poem demanding my attention, asking me to imagine the world in a different way.
On a sensible day, a week before losing not two but two dozen inhibitions, Mouffetard made a momentous decision.
He opened a cabinet in which was filed thirty years’ correspondence with someone he had never met in the flesh. The first letter brought tears to his eyes. The second left him confusing ecstasy with insight.
The seventh letter inspired him to dig around in his Glory Hole where he found a mysterious object. The discovery called up the scent of roasting chestnuts and the sound of water lapping at an ancient quay.
On the third day, he remembered he’d forgotten to put a coin in his mother’s purse so she would have something to give to Harrison on her afternoon walk. Her resources of improvisation were considerable; but he still felt deep regret at the oversight. His reverie, however, was interrupted by the next letter,
which startled his vocal cords into inarticulate sound. It came from his body; or else from a place in his soul that had little truck with his monkey mind. All it was, was “Ah.” When he failed to make the “ah” again, he made a pot of tea and reread the letter.
“Enough already with the half-baked koans,” he muttered. “I don’t have all century for this.” He went to his father’s desk, took out paper, ink and a bamboo brush, and began to write. Laying down his brush at the end of a page, he tore a leaf from Remembrance of Things Past, and rolled a joint.
“Regret will not bring back what I have lost,” he thought. “But losing my fist might give me back my hand.” From the letters came a strange light, and with it, the courage to act. “What dread hand dare seize the fire?” he asked himself – knowing the answer at last.
On the morning of the seventh day, he scooped up the cremated ashes from the kitchen hearth into an envelope and filed them in his father’s cabinet. Shutting the door behind him, he stepped out into an unfamiliar garden, across which his mother’s clothesline still hung.