Composition No. 1 – A Review

I first heard about Composition No. 1 through another book, Twisty Little Passages, which examines the history and impact of Interactive Fiction (Including the humble text adventure).

Owing to it’s rarity I never expected to actually own a copy, but here it is – beautifully re-imagined, for a new audience, by Visual Editions.

The first thing that hits you upon opening the box, containing the 150 pages that comprise this piece of work, is bemusement. Composition No. 1 flies in the face of our conventional understanding of how to consume a piece of literature. The most obvious way that this manifests itself is through its unbound pages.

The idea is that you shuffle the pages to create your own story – a quick factorial calculation (150!) reveals 3.8089226376305687e+260 unique combinations (that’s a lot) or, as its more elegantly framed in the introduction, 150 different beginnings with 149 possible endings.

You really need to hold the physical stack of pages, first-hand, in order to feel the overwhelming instinct to leave them in the order they are already in. If you can fight this paralysing instinct, you may find that you come out of the other side, as I did, with a devilish desire to wreak havoc on that neat stack and shuffle the pages into your own chaotic mess of literature.

The challenges to convention don’t end with the shuffling of pages. On closer inspection you’ll realise that Composition No. 1 has no page numbers, no chapters, and doesn’t have a beginning, middle, or end. Each page is intended as a short piece of writing that can be read in isolation but that, when combined with its siblings, tells a greater story.

As you finish reading your first page you are confronted with another assault on convention. What do you do with the pages you have read? Do you create a separate pile or simply put them to the back? They don’t have numbers to mark them so, if you put them to the back, how will you know you’ve reached the end – does it even matter?

I haven’t mentioned the story yet, and I’m not going to. That would spoil it. It’s part of the mystery, that information about the story itself is difficult to find. Besides, this piece of interactive fiction focuses on the separated pages rather than the story it has to tell – it challenges conventions.

As you can see from the images in this post, the Visual Editions version of this book is beautiful to behold. Striking contrasting colours adorn the sturdy, well cut box. At fist I was unsure about the weight of the paper (I felt a thicker stock would allow for more shuffling), but then I realised that this would make the book difficult to handle and would remove the work too far away from the concept of a book. It’s the very fact that the pages feel like a standard novel that creates the disconcerting feeling.

In the box there’s an introduction from Tom Uglow (Creative Director for Google & Youtube) that does a good job of introducing you to the book and its relevance in a modern society. I understand that the original book has a brief explanation on the inside of the box that has you assume a role – I think this may have been a nice inclusion but it certainly doesn’t detract from the experience.

(A little bit of internet research reveals the text from the original book – I’ve stripped out the elements that reveal the books premise)

“The reader is requested to shuffle these pages like a deck of cards; to cut, if he likes, with his left hand, as at a fortuneteller’s. The order the pages then assume will orient X’s fate.

For the time and order of events control a man’s life more than the nature of such events…

..Whether the story ends well or badly depends on the concatenation of circumstances. A life if composed of many elements. But the number of possible compositions is infinite.”

One of the coolest aspects of the Visual Edition version are the text patterns on the back of each page. When laid flat and looked at from a little distance, they look like three dimensional landscapes rising out of the page.

As if the physical book weren’t enough, there’s even an iPad version of the book. I’d encourage you to buy the real thing though.

Overall its a really nice piece of work. It questions the way we approach reading and provides an element of interaction. It’s not intended to revolutionise the book as we know it, it’s merely intended to make you stop and think about tried and tested conventions, and in this it succeeds.

Time for a new interactive fiction project? I think so…

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