“Sign and Design: The Visual Languages of Contemporary Fiction”
– Department of English, Saint Louis University
– Director: Devin Johnston, PhD
– Completed and Defended with Distinction, 2013
“Sign and Design: The Visual Languages of Contemporary Fiction” presents a study of the intersections between verbal narrative and visual art in twentieth- and twenty-first-century literature, with a particular attention to the use of photography, typography, graphic design, illustration, and other forms of the image in fiction. By looking closely at the ways in which recent novels adapt the uncertain temporality of images to the otherwise uniform trajectory of written language, the planar space of the page is rehabilitated as a site of a potentiality and multiplicity. Building on arguments made by Maurice Blanchot, Roland Barthes, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Fanny Howe, and others, I argue that these hybrid texts challenge the seeming orderliness and intractable linearity with which stories have been hitherto presented in print. The difference between these verbal/visual hybrids and conventional fiction is not merely a formal concern, but a question of fiction’s imposition on the experience of lived life. My emphasis on these hybrid texts is not meant to denigrate or devalue traditional novels, however. Design does not undo or negate the sign in this configuration. I see instead the image as that which interrogates the ways in which we find time in fiction—to say nothing of time in film, art, everyday life, and everything else.
In each of the texts that receive a sustained analysis in this study—W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, Carole Maso’s The Art Lover, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jenny Boully’s The Body: An Essay, Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo, and George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, among others—images interrupt the linearity of printed text and effect a radical break in both the temporality and teleology of reading. As multiple modes of time converge simultaneously upon the printed page, we see how even within the traditional model of the book, these texts negotiate compound rhythms that engage a variety of philosophical, political, and aesthetic questions. The resulting issues are not only significant with regard to the expression of time in fiction, but also address the passage of time itself in the lives of those for whom reading is a source of comfort, a site of complexity, or a sense of stability in an otherwise confusing world.