Friday, August 21, 2015

Covering Oblivion

Yes, it's that time again, folks. More mock covers! This time I did something a little different. I made covers for short stories, choosing from the ones collected in the late, great David Foster Wallace's Oblivion. His earlier work Infinite Jest is one of my all-time favorite books, but I wasn't about to take that cover on just yet, so I decided that doing covers for his stories would be fun, and there are plenty to choose from. I've done something like this before with Vonnegut's short stories, namely "Fortitude." Making covers for my favorite stories and novels is my favorite personal work to do. With these, I wanted the covers to all have their own distinct feel, albeit with common stylistic veins running through.

For all four of these, I'll go through the plot/s of the stories, and my reasons for doing what I did in the covers. Explaining things sort of takes the magic out of everything. It's more fun to read the stories, and hopefully make those connections, and say to yourself "ah, I get it!" But for those who want to know right now, here it goes. If you haven't read any of them, and want to, I'll try to avoid spoilers, but I definitely can't promise anything, so be forewarned.

Not just the title of the collection, but also a story inside, "Oblivion" unfolds as a tale of a marriage under tremendous strain, after Randall Napier's step-daughter Audrey has moved away for college. Randall explains the cause of the problems: His wife Hope has been accusing him of loudly snoring and keeping her awake, despite Randall's insistence that he is still awake when Hope sits up in bed to scream at him about the supposed snoring. This sort of back and forth bickering might make for an amusing narrative of a middle-aged couple dealing with the absence of their daughter, until Randall starts relaying the hallucinations he's experiencing. Soon the picture becomes a little clearer why Hope insisted that her daughter Audrey attend college out of state. If there are going to be any spoilers in this description, they'll come in at this point. We soon get a sense of something disturbing going on underneath Randall's story, as the allusions to some kind of sexual predation build up.

As far as my reasoning for the cover illustration, at one point Randall describes a hallucination: he imagines Audrey's breasts moving up and down like pistons, and her head 'surrounded by a halo or, as it were, "nimbus" of animated Disney characters.' In the illustration the characters are morphed into some hideous amalgamation, doing exactly what isn't completely clear, but certainly sinister. I felt it would be a good way to depict the monstrous undertones of Randall's seemingly innocent story.

"Mister Squishy"
This story was one of my favorites in Oblivion. It takes place during a focus group for a sinfully chocolatey new product from the Mister Squishy brand of snack foods. Reading with the dry, mathematical precision of market research, the story details how Terry Schmidt, the facilitator of the focus group for the Reese Shannon Belt Advertising Agency, conducts the group with the ease of a seasoned pro, fantasizes about a married co-worker, and imagines his own face physically transforming into the crudely drawn, but loveable, smiling icon of the Mister Squishy brand (now one of the most recognizable corporate mascots in the country). He also spends his time at home cultivating botulism, and synthesizing ricin, which he plans to inject- or possibly already has?- into the new snack cakes his company is performing market research on. I think this one is a little more self-explanatory. The theme of hiding behind some sort of mask or veneer is repeated throughout the story. The employees at the ad agency all seem to be two-faced careerists. Companies' use of marketing and packaging hides what is essentially nutritionless junk food, along with the added fact that these particular sweet snacks may now be hiding deadly poison. Then there's also the man climbing up the outside of the building, wearing some sort of inflatable mask, and carrying what may or may not be a high-powered rifle.

"The Suffering Channel"
This one begins with Skip Atwater, editor at Style Magazine, chasing a story about a man who makes exquisite sculptures of his shit. He doesn’t carve or mold them- these “miraculous poos” come out fully formed. But how to publish a story like this in a magazine like Style? The solution comes with the involvement of the subject of a previous story of Skip’s: a reclusive media mogul whose secret dream is starting a cable channel that broadcasts celebrities’ bowel movements. With this cover, I wanted to reference the themes on celebrity culture, fame, and art. Is it worth exposing our most private, intimate selves for a little exposure and fame? Turning your bowel movements into entertainment is something we may not be that far off from, as Wallace makes clear when the story lists some other examples of reality t.v. Another point in the story stuck out to me when making this. Two interns at Style discussing how saliva and excrement is not really gross until it comes out of us. 

"'It's maybe the same way we don't think about our organs, our livers and intestines. They're inside all of us-'
'They are us. Who can live without intestines?'
'But we still don't want to see them. If we see them, they're automatically disgusting.'"

The repeated image at the bottom of the cover was my way of paying homage to the way I used to watch t.v. With bad reception, floating screens, and bad static when an appliance like the vacuum was plugged in, before the ubiquity of cable, and the increasing importance of entertainment along with better technology made that experience a thing of the past.

"The Soul Is Not A Smithy"
The entirety of this story is the narrator's explanation of how his fourth grade civics classroom, complete with a chronological series of U.S. Presidents, copies of From Sea to Shining Sea, and handheld flags, was transformed into the scene of a traumatizing hostage situation. While substitute teacher Richard A. Johnson is lecturing at the front of the class, the narrator daydreams of a complex storyline involving a blind girl named Ruth Simmons, and her little dog Cuffie. However, while the narrator’s imagination runs wild, the substitute, who has apparently had a sudden psychotic break, begins scrawling the words “KILL THEM ALL” on the chalkboard, and emitting a terrifying, high-pitched moan. Although unbeknownst to the narrator, these events seem to subconsciously affect him, as his daydream is horribly deformed, and events take a gruesome turn in Ruth and Cuffie’s narrative as well. I think this cover is fairly straightforward too. Since the story takes place in civics class, I thought it would be fun to make that connection with George's visage. I imagined the narrator as a young boy, sitting in class trying to pay attention, but the topic at hand is slowly transforming into something else as he daydreams. And due to the frightening events going on around him, it's something disturbing, and potentially dangerous.  

Friday, August 14, 2015

Head over heels for The Atlantic

I've been looking forward to posting about this for a while now, but have been pretty busy. I have a piece in the current issue of The Atlantic (the September issue), for Caleb Crain's book review of Jonathan Franzen's new novel, Purity. I always love doing book review illustrations, and the fact that it was for the work of such a talented writer was the cherry on top.

 I'm not going to go into a long description of the plot- you can pick up a copy and read the review, or better yet, the actual book- but suffice to say it revolves around a 23 year-old woman named Purity, or Pip for short. Pip doesn't know much about where she comes from: who her father is, or even her mother's real name. In order to find out who she is, she gets involved with a clearinghouse for internet leaks, thinking that the web must surely have some answers. It's on this journey of self-discovery that she apparently runs into trouble. As Crain explains, "Franzen has always been fond of putting his characters into a psychic distress so disorienting that they make decisions that topple them into even greater psychic distress." There are multiple mentions in the review of characters seeming to "fall" or "topple" into these situations, and continuing to plunge, "like Wile E. Coyote ricocheting down the sides of a canyon..." I felt that showing the character in some phase of tumbling was the way to go, and the AD agreed.

I also made a wider version for the website, which is also how it's displayed on my site:

This was a lot of fun to work on. Thanks so much to Lauren!