Thursday, September 30, 2010

Psuedo-Art: Book Titles

I'm fascinated by the modern inclination towards combining mundane things together to make "high art."  You know, like modern art exhibits with microwaves sitting on top of a row of stained coffee mugs, or insanely famous paintings of soup cans.  Far from being offended by the notion that such seemingly random hogwash can pass as artistic, I'm completely sincere when I say I'm fascinated.  Stuff like that is so interesting.

Just as the world of visual art has transformed into something that is neither real, surreal, impressionistic, or any other kind of traditional category, there have been a great many works of music and poetry that do the same thing.  Carson Cistulli's poetry, for example, is the product of a time that has recovered from the fanaticism and occasional incomprehensibility of the beats only to discover that the same spirit is available in much subtler tones.

Perhaps the most understated locus for what we deem - for lack of a better word - "post-modern" art is in the way we title our books.  Gone are the days when a play about a couple of lovebirds is called Romeo and Juliet.  Gone, even are the days when we were satisfied with West Side Story as a retelling.  Now we demand far stranger combinations, which are yet unpretentious.  I think of a book I just finished - a book that is hardly destined for fame or worthy of historical mention.  The book was called Gun, With Occasional Music.

What's most interesting to me is that even mediocre books often have great titles.  Gun, With Occasional Music.  That's one of the most fascinating and compelling titles I've seen, and while the book is entertaining, it could hardly hope to live up to that title.  The cover only makes the title more effective (and yes, that is a kangaroo in a suit).  The fairly standard - sans kangaroo anyway - detective scene here has a title far too mysterious for a mystery.

I'm too disconnected from contemporary literature to dig up the most recent of recent titles, but perusing the nearest bookshelf brings up all kinds of strange and unexpected amalgams of words.  Consider a few, some famous and well-known, others already forgotten:
Insect Dreams: the Half-Life of Gregor Samsa
The God of Small Things
Stripper Lessons
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
A Confederacy of Dunces
House of Sand and Fog

Certainly there have been great book titles throughout history (simple though it may be, War and Peace is about as compelling a title as you'll find), but there's something different in these modern editions.  The cynic might say it's marketing, and I've fallen for the trap, but I don't think that's totally fair.  I think there's more effort put into crafting titles today in part because of the role of sales in the literary world, but also because I think they signal a recognition that books occupy a place somewhere in between the fantastical and the mundane.

A good title, then, is like a good haiku; it surprises, it intrigues, and it creates a whole sense of meaning all its own.  I have not read The God of Small Things, but it still works on my imagination.  And even having finished Gun, With Occasional Music, I can recreate an entirely different meaning from those four words than what the book itself suggests.

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