“I should have known that caterpillars are not sated easily—in my pre-Skittles Phase, Eric Carle taught me that caterpillars are very hungry.”
From this footnote on page twenty-eight of Woody Leslie’s Parsely, one could guess the book is about words, storytelling, memory…and caterpillars. Specifically, it chronicles how the artist became transfixed by these creatures as they ravaged a plant he was supposed to be tending for his neighbors, who were out of town. This simple story is fraught with anxiety. The narrator struggles with his conflicting impulses and the plant interjects to voice its fear and indignation. Together they give their account like a bickering couple. All the while the caterpillars munch away onomatopoetically.
Parsely is driven by the written word, which accounts for its visual content as well as the narrative text(s). Its creative use of footnotes, page numbers and other features of book design epitomize the field of ergodic literature. Named for the Greek for ‘work’ and ‘path’, ergodic literature requires nonpassive effort from the reader. Extra effort may not sound like something one wants from a book, but Parsely draws the reader in with a humorous and relatable narrative. Leslie delivers this anecdote with such great intimacy and interiority, one could almost miss the book’s success as a veritable treatise on books and linguistics.
Parsely’s physical structure is a simple codex, a double-pamphlet binding in a paper cover, but its format enables the complex play of the text’s various elements. The main narrative, told in past tense from Leslie’s perspective, is set relatively large on the book’s rectos. Disrupting this space are interjections from the perspective of the parsley, which distort the temporal space of the book. The banter between Leslie and the parsley brings the book into the present. The sense of presentness is heightened by the chains of word associations that spontaneously grow from the main text as the storyline progresses. What begin as a few words branching off the story eventually form an intricate web of shared ideas and surprising connections.
Across the gutter, the versos remain more rigid. A vocabulary section of real and invented words is positioned above a section of footnotes, which expands to accommodate new threads in the increasingly meandering narrative. As text expands wildly and takes over the space of the recto pages, these other elements of the book evolve more slowly. Leslie seems to outline a hierarchy, wherein certain aspects of book design or different kinds of content hold out longer against the linguistic entropy. Whereas the narrative, rooted in the subjectivity of memory and dialogue, begins to splinter immediately, elements like the repeated header ‘Vocabulary’ change slowly and subtly.
The format shines through in part because of the book’s restrained design. The color palette is limited. A pleasant bright green fills oversized quotation marks, which act almost like cartoon word bubbles to organize the dialogue on the page. A single red ‘W’ identifies the narrator, and the rest of the text is black. The typefaces are legible and understated. The primary narrative is set in Perpetua, which engages classic book typography and feels somehow leaf-like with its distinctive cut terminals. The many smaller words deviating from this text are set in Gill Sans, a suitable choice for such small sizes and a good pair with Perpetua, also designed by Eric Gill. Parsely appears less designed than it is. The vocabulary and footnote sections have the neutrality we attribute to authorities like the dictionary, as though such things aren’t designed or could not appear differently. On the other end of the spectrum, and the web of tangents and word associations appear wholly organic, spreading like a fungus or raindrops finding their way downhill. Between these extremes, Leslie’s use of quotation marks is a bold exception. The face and color of these marks do help indicate who is speaking and in what order, but they are also an expressive celebration of typographic form, rotating and overlapping to create odd yet familiar new shapes.
Parsely demonstrates the powerful influence the book form can exert on the pacing of a narrative. It’s codex form and restrained cover design do not betray the variety within its pages. At the narrative’s climax, a page could take easily five or ten times longer to read than an earlier page. Combined with the text’s uneven entropy, the unusual pacing makes the reader keenly aware of time passing, which heightens the drama of the caterpillars and parsley. The unpredictable leaps from one page to the next create an uneasy sense for readers who are used to the experience of finishing a novel, thumbing through the final pages and wondering whether there is still time for a happy resolution. Parsely plays with this tension between the clearly finite codex form and the difficulty of predicting exactly how and when the plot will resolve.
The uncertainty of the resolution is strongest when the book guides the reader backwards by recycling a footnote in a new context. These footnotes are the exception, but they show that the book could continue even once the plot is finished, rendering useless that familiar feedback of pages counting down in one’s right hand. The footnotes are arguably the most poetic aspect of the book, rarely linking an idea with the most obvious word, but instead taking the reader on a circuitous path through the narrator’s memories and associations. This movement among ideas, from one word to another, is the heart of the book. Sometimes the link is clear—a pun, a near rhyme, a common phrase—but elsewhere the reader follows a train of thought entirely contingent upon the artist’s own history.
These idiosyncrasies, which make sense given the personal style of narration, expand exponentially when they stray further from the original plot. For instance, when the footnotes spawn more footnotes, decoupled from the main narrative, but integral to the work’s meaning. Parsley reveals that the book is a generative form, not merely a container for text. Even the page numbers interject to support or otherwise engage the text, and give the reader insight into the narrator’s world.
This glimpse into Leslie’s mind feels authentic. As narrator, he alludes to an early interest in etymology, and it is easy to believe given the book’s particular brand of etymological humor. There is also an obsessive quality that seems hard to fake. Beyond the sheer quantity of words (and there are a lot), the connections between them would only be made by someone who views language as terrain for play. The reader may get in on the joke, but with the sense that it was a joke for the artist, and would happily have been made were there no other readers. Yet, the artist did decide to share the book, and the muchness is balanced with careful editing. There are many words, but none are superfluous. This meticulous attention paid to harnessing the book’s text paradoxically lends further authenticity to its celebration of language.
Parsely is philology in the literal meaning: a love of words. There is no single theory of linguistics being promoted, and there is nothing didactic about the book. The narrative is not just an excuse to make a book about language. If anything, the book seems envious of orality, marveling that dialogue seems so direct and effective, but is so slippery and tenuous. The linguistic investigations are practiced rather than theorized. They focus on the way language is actually used rather than the precise meanings of words.
Leslie doesn’t discuss whether neologism is really the feature that separates human language from animal communication, he simply coins new words that the reader will no doubt understand. Likewise, he demonstrates how the small shift from bat to cat to rat, etc. conveys a whole new concept in the reader’s mind without a discussion of “rigid designators” or other philosophical baggage. A psychoanalytic angle emerges organically among the word associations and parallel trains of thought when, for example, a particular digression reveals the narrator’s inner conflict over the caterpillars.
These explorations will be of interest to many readers, but the book’s focus on dialogue and everyday language is what stands out. Like good observational comedy, Parsely points out little inconsistencies that speak volumes about social interactions. Euphemisms are a great way to shirk responsibility. Space is understood, seemingly, in spite of prepositions rather than because of them. Communication in general seems so sloppy that social norms dictate one must not hold another to too great a standard of accuracy. A couple is rarely just two, a week is not always seven days, and most people would not insist on either of these points. In Parsely, language is revealed in all its strangeness, and it is left to the reader to wonder why it is the way it is. One message is clear, though: the artists’ book is a potent and enjoyable form for reading and writing narratives.