24 Glorious Summer Mornings

In June I attended an unusual event at Parkway Central, Philadelphia’s wonderful main library. It’s such a wonderful library, in fact, that if you were feeling fanciful—or if you had recently looked through a book of type specimens—you might be inclined to call it eminently grand, bold and solid, magnificent

Yes, our library is a special place, and the “Reading Type Specimens Aloud” event was unique. It was organized by the group The People’s Museums of Philadelphia, and its conceit was that anyone who looked through type specimens like the one above would want to read aloud from them—to “declaim their contents,” as the organizers put it. After looking at the books myself I see their point. 

Type specimens were books produced by type foundries, the companies that manufactured the metal and wood type used in printing presses, to showcase the type for potential buyers. But rather than simply printing the alphabet in the different typefaces, they composed the type into sentences and turns of phrase, many of which were poetic or amusingly strange. Alina Josan, one of the event organizers and a librarian in the Art Department, explained that the phrases were sometimes left over from print jobs, sometimes taken from popular advertisements, and sometimes composed especially for these books.

The organizers began the evening by going up to the podium and giving brief readings from a couple of the books. Afterward, the rest of us were invited to do the same. We milled around the room and looked at the books that had been pulled from the library’s collection, all of which were produced between the late 1800s and the 1920s—bona fine antiques, some with gold inlay or elaborately embossed covers.

The phrases I liked the best suggested a jumble of images that don’t usually go together, like strange, lyrical poems. In a book produced by the American Type Founders Company of Philadelphia in 1899, I found “Autumn Fashions, Damsels With Beautiful Dresses” and on the opposite page, “Trained FROG Catcher.” 

Here’s another wonderful arrangement of phrases I found:

Headache Makers, Pocket Breakers, and Money Takers
HOMEWARD SCUDDING
Grumbling, Mumbling, Stumbling Inebriate

I didn’t go up to the microphone to declaim anything; it was nice, after I’d looked through the books, just to sit and listen to people read something when they felt so moved. One woman read some lovely words I didn’t understand from a book in French. Two different people read the thing about headache makers and pocket breakers; can you blame them? Someone else went up to the podium with a book and read, joyfully and very distinctly, “FIRST CREEP. THEN GO.” The whole thing was reminiscent of Quaker meeting, only much sillier.

Josan told us that Parkway Central is unusual in that books like these, which would be housed in a special collection in many other libraries, are in circulation and accessible to the general public—crumbling pages, broken spines, and all. (As we browsed, the cover of one hardbound book that someone was holding came away from the spine and fell to the floor with a slap, but no one made a big deal out of it. It felt like a lesson: while we should be gentle when handling the books, the more important thing is that they get used, looked at, and loved.)

If you like, you can look at scans of similar type specimen books on the Internet Archive. I “paged” through a few just now and found the phrase “Presenting Prime Novelties From Bright Brain and Deft Digits”; goodness knows what product that florid phrase was advertising. Then I found “24 Glorious Summer Mornings,” which I took as a reminder to take a break from my bookishness for a little while and go outside. 

Photos from type specimen books in the Philadelphia Free Library’s collection

Body horror

Oh fuck, my body’s rejecting me.

—Zipper Mouth, Laurie Weeks
Judy Davis in The Dressmaker (2015)

I seem to love every book the Feminist Press ever publishes, so when they put out Laurie Weeks’ novel Zipper Mouth in 2011 I made a note to read it, then forgot for awhile. I finally got around to it this spring, and wow. There is a lot going on here.

The jerk on Amazon who said Bret Easton Ellis already wrote this book, only better, was wrong on both counts. It’s a different book, and hers is better. Though it was written by a woman and narrated by a female character, Zipper Mouth, in my opinion, would be better classified as the heir to Notebooks of a Naked Youth by Billy Childish. I’ve written about Childish’s wonderful novel on this blog before—in fact, one of the things I wrote about was the genderfuck of my extreme over-identification with its narrator, William Loveday, who is a man. Then along comes Zipper Mouth, offering us the female version of that sorta lovable antihero, who never stops spilling her guts in the same filthy, hilarious way. 

The novel doesn’t have a ton going on in the way of plot. To sum up, an unnamed (young?) protagonist with a huge personality and a growing drug problem makes her way in New York in the ’90s. (I only know it’s supposed to be the ’90s from descriptions of the book I’ve read. It’s not really apparent from the book itself, at least to me, though the characters do wear a fair amount of animal print clothing.) Like Childish, Weeks has a rare poetic gift; the language in this book is insane. It may send you, as it sent me, googling excellent phrases and weird words to find out what they mean, or if Weeks made them up. A “vent figure,” if you didn’t know, is another name for a ventriloquist’s dummy. A “vaginal vault” as also apparently a real thing. Here’s Zipper Mouth, walking down a New York street in the dead of summer: “The dilapidated blocks had undergone a phase shift from zones combustible with violence to the sultry chiaroscuro of a black-and-white film starring Ava Gardner in a tropical setting.”

I find I want to call the narrator of Zipper Mouth Zipper Mouth, since we never learn her name—kind of like the lead in that show Fleabag who, as pretty as she is, seems to be named Fleabag. Zipper Mouth is marvelously messed-up. An adolescent grown-up who can’t stand to be around anyone ever, she betrays her need for connection through her obsessions with movie stars and unrequited real-life loves. She frequently composes letters to her obsessions, who include Vivien Leigh and Judy Davis, and incorporates them into her thoughts: a gushing of consciousness. 

Like William Loveday, Zipper Mouth’s primary obsessions are love and lust, and any other emotions she can stoke up inside herself and wallow in when she’s alone. Throughout the novel, on every page really, she tweaks her mood with drugs or quasi-drugs, like cigarettes and caffeine and those speed-like herbal substances weightlifters (ab)use. In her various heady states, she wobbles on the walk-and-turn sober test between florid beauty and visceral revulsion: 

“God I love everything, I thought, gazing out my window at passersby several stories below. Blossoms dripping from the trees, robins in love warbling among the peeping spring budlets, trash spilling festively from an orange dumpster. … Love leaked from my pituitary and converted on contact with my bloodstream into panic and I was swelling up, threatening to leave the ground and float off fast.”

Most of the descriptions in the novel are like this. They gave me intense sensations, and though the book is short—you could read it through in a couple of hours—I had to take frequent breaks to keep from feeling overwhelmed. I kept getting “worked up,” the way Zipper Mouth reports feeling when she listens to music and daydreams druggily, or reads something challenging and weird. In the final analysis, this novel does not have the substance of Notebooks (though both novels have strangely awkward endings); it needs to be more grounded, more finished. But it is literary body horror at its finest. If Zipper Mouth had a thesis statement, it would be something like this line she writes to Miss Davis in her mind: “The body is a great thing, Judy, a horrifying thing, a great and horrifying thing to be trapped in a body, anything can go haywire at any moment, you’re just hanging on with clenched teeth to a rope that swings your body sickeningly around and around over that bottomless and legendary thing we’ve come to identify as The Abyss.”  

Three months on, I don’t find myself thinking about this novel; I had to rely entirely on my notes to write about it. There was something ephemeral about it even as I read it, the imagery hard to hold onto, the ideas slipping away like smoke. But it was everything to me while I was reading it. Sometimes I have a desperate need for a book like this, something that gives my inner demons a song to scream along to. Come to that, I made a note while I was reading it that I’d found the perfect musical accompaniment—the doomy noise of an industrial act called Terminal Brain Disease. While I lived (briefly, feverishly) inside Zipper Mouth’s mind, this music came pouring out of the cassette player that sat on the floor beside me, filling the room with its perfect attitude: Witness the absolute horror and wonder of simply being alive!