In each copy of Simon Groth’s Ex Libris, twelve chapters have been randomly arranged in a different order, meaning, as Ryan O’Neill writes in his introduction, ‘each copy of the novel is sui generis. How the story begins and ends remains the same for everyone – the first and last chapters of the book are immutable – but what happens in between changes. The number of different combinations available? Approximately 479,001,600. It’s a boggling possibility, one that will either intrigue the reader or act as a deterrent. Fittingly, the cover has the blocky letters of the title split into fragments. The task of putting haphazard chapter instalments into a cohesive story may seem intimidating. Groth’s advice is to approach his book like a jigsaw puzzle: the fixed outside chapters act as the framework, holding together the pieces within that each reader fills in a different manner. The end result is a completed picture.

Holding a one of a kind artefact certainly has its charms – each cover is even stamped with its own definitive number (mine is 00183) and pre-ordered copies are being sent out with personalised bookplates in an elegant calligraphic hand. A hard copy of Ex Libris looks like any other book – soft spine, with text set in readable font – with one major difference: only the first chapter and a couple of the final chapters have page numbers.

Simon Groth, who’s written several books, including YA fiction, Infinite Blue (with Darren Groth, Orca Book Publishers, 2018), a rock music interview collection (Off the Record: 25 Years of Music Street Press with Sean Sennett, UQP, 2010) and a ‘remix’ of stories by nineteenth-century author Marcus Clarke, (Hunted down and other Tales, if:book, 2016), is not averse to experimentation. He has produced stories for digital billboards and participated in live writing events at writers festivals. Back in 2012, he was part of a team of writers and editors who wrote and produced a print and digital book in a 24-hour time frame.

So this is an author who has long been interested in the nexus between publishing and technology; Ex Libris is arguably his most ambitious foray, and the culmination of these hybrid ventures. As O’Neill points out, the notion of a novel derived from fluid chapters is not unprecedented. However, Ex Libris may be the first Australian book that disrupts temporal and physical linearity in this way. The book was crowdfunded and independently published. The author deserves kudos for striking out on his own; it’s hard to imagine any author successfully pitching an idea like this to a major publisher and hard to imagine any publisher being able to find the resources necessary to bring it to the market. The book’s interlocking mechanism has been eight years in the making and is highly impressive. Not only did Groth have to figure out an interchangeable system of texts that can be shuffled at random, he also had to investigate the publishing possibilities of constructing such a fiddly venture. (For those interested, there are also digital copies available.)

O’Neill identifies various experimental forerunners of fluid narratives, including The Unfortunates (1969) by English novelist, poet and critic, B.S Johnson. This text consists of 27 booklets, loosely held together by a removable wrapper, and all contained in a box. Apart from the specially marked first and last sections, the other 25 chapters are intended to be read in random order. There is also Argentinian Julio Cortázar’s postmodern project, Hopscotch (originally published in 1963; translated into English in 1988), which the author himself called a counter novel. It has 155 chapters, of which the last 99 are deemed expendable. In the table of instructions, Cortázar suggests that his work ‘consists of many books, but two books above all. The first can be read in a normal fashion and it ends with Chapter 56… The second should be read by beginning with Chapter 73 and then following the sequence indicated at the end of each chapter.’ In other words it could be read in one of two ways: progressively, from chapters 1 to 56 or by jumping around, or by following his instructions and ‘hopscotching’ through it. Hopscotch also includes expendable bonus chapters that aren’t necessary to understand the plot but provide extra details should readers wish to augment their knowledge of the characters within.

Another writer who refused to chase time’s straight-shooting arrow is American Chris Ware, whose 2012 graphic novel Building Stories consists of fourteen different sized printed materials, including pamphlets, magazines, newspapers, clothbound and flip books, even a fold out game board. All are stored in a box and can be read in any order. Readers essentially build the story themselves by selecting the pieces at random.

Such freedom of choice presented by these freewheeling authors also recalls those Choose your own Adventure books popular in the 1980s, and their successors, like the Give Yourself Goosebumps series, an offshoot of the original Goosebumps novels. Young readers are the protagonists of the stories and granted agency in choosing the pathways that will determine the outcome. Depending on your choices, you could wind up the owner of desert island treasure or fall victim to writhing snakes in an underground pit.

Yet unlike Groth’s predecessors, who had to contend with placing all their instalments in a box, he had access to the printing technology to be able to map out his vision. The decision to publish Ex Libris as a sheaf of bound pages is far tidier an option than a series of loose printed media, whether box-contained or not, but unless readers obtain multiple books for comparative analysis, they are presented with a singular narrative trajectory. With only our own version as a reference point, we’re left to speculate whether different chapter shuffles would’ve change the way we engaged with the themes and motivations of the novel. This piecemeal set up opens up the novel’s aleatoric possibilities.

Which leads us to the question: how does a critic review a book whose form changes with every copy? It’s more like reviewing a videogame with hundreds of different variables than a conventional novel.

Groth has made some aspects of this task easier for the critic. Each chapter of Ex Libris is a discrete unit, a kind of block that can read on its own and then attached to others to gradually build up a story. As separate carriages affixed to one another, his book is a train that travels to the border of the real and the imaginary. Destabilising the architecture of narrative is a risky undertaking. The innovator who deigns to dismantle the fixed structure of beginning-middle-end is vulnerable to charges of gimmickry. Form and content are both sites of play in Ex Libris; it’s not so much a case of style over substance; the two are intertwined.

Despite its structural novelty, in terms of content, Ex Libris has borrowed from classic speculative fiction sources. These debts become obvious the more one travels down the chapter-blocks. Groth taps into familiar tropes of anxiety between humans and robots. His fiction is a futuristic high-tech world where artificial intelligence systems have made deep incursions into civilian life, with human skills outmoded by the speed and accuracy of machines. There are driverless cars, and bots (including spruiker, preacher and bartender varieties) are ubiquitous.

With derivative strands taken from 1984, Fahreneheit 451 and Brave New World, Groth spins his own dystopia. Bit by bit the reader begins to put together the blocks. In a clear echo of Fahrenheit 451, all books in this world are considered contraband and have been purged under state sanctions. Being in possession of them is seen as an act of sedition. Texts in ebook form have also been scrambled and made unreadable. Big Brother, meanwhile, takes the totalitarian, all-seeing form of the ‘Committee of Public Safety’, a shadowy and shady outfit that keeps tabs on every citizen of the metropole. Dissidents risk their entire digital histories being erased should they fall foul of various determined strictures. If all data generated from birth is deleted, their lives are no longer authorised. Essentially, the non-compliant will be rendered ‘non-humans unrecognised by the systems that supported and controlled the world. Even automatic doors would no longer open for them’. Transgressions equivalent to Orwell’s Thoughtcrimes are measured in this world by surveillance machines that predict human behaviour and encourage the arrest of people for misdemeanours not yet committed.

But what about entertainment for the rest of the conforming sheeple? Like Aldous Huxley’s recreational soma, there are drugs available here: in this case, instantaneous sensory hits that have been algorithmically generated according to individuals’ ‘bio-feed data streams’.

Into this soulless urban landscape, a group of idealists appear, and they painstakingly try to recreate a library page per page. They are the free readers, a band of subversives who see books as ‘a symbol of knowledge that would not be mediated by the network… reminding people that they could hold a thought in their head independent of the machines and their protocols and algorithms’. Using an abandoned telecommunication exchange building impervious to network signals as their headquarters in order to evade detection, they find loose fragments of books hastily abandoned or still in community circulation. These pieces are then collated and recombined to recreate as much as possible the original printed forms from whence they came.

Ex Libris is a (fragmented) book about (fragmented) books, proudly displaying its metafictional credentials; it’s playful in the sense that it operates as a narrative that’s conscious of its own fiction. In the same way that the free readers aim to assemble pieces into whole, Groth’s own readers are also attempting to put together fragments he’s randomly gathered into his book and to find meaning and cohesion in whatever form that’s been offered. This in-joke is introduced right at the beginning in the preface that reads ‘THIS BOOK BELONGS TO: You, free reader, Now read it.’

In whatever order a reader’s copy has been organised, Groth drops a motley crew of four misfits into the ambit of the free readers, and much of the book concentrates on their respective histories and how they each found themselves as part of the mission of recovery and reclamation.

The first chapter (which all readers will read first) is called ‘The beginning of the end’ and drops the reader right in the middle of the action. All four characters are introduced, car-bound in sixteen lanes of traffic, as they try to escape from situation or persons yet unknown. Their ultimate destination is also unclear. We’re told that they are at risk of being erased by the committee for public safety. As one of the party is injured, it’s a high stress, fast-paced situation. They scramble to get off grid and eventually end up in a strange building. The narrative then backtracks and edges sideways.

Each of the quartet has salvaged literary fragments, bound or unbound, print or electronically saved, illustrative or text, and the rest of Ex Libris follows them individually and collectively in their adventures. There’s Trace, who unlike other pulpy zealots, does not fetishise the physical print object and is more attached to the electronic device for reading; Dock, who has a wireless implant in his skull that snakes through his cortex, its antennae nestled behinds his temporal bone. Financial data is streamed through his cerebrum so he can predict and capitalise on market changes. He is literally a cog in the wider machine, and expendable if need be. Inkle is the most audacious and forceful of the four while High was brought up on a diet of religion, having had to learn mantras such as, ‘Stories are not the province of flawed humans. Stories are the province of the divine. There is only one storyteller: the storyteller who created you and everything about you.’

Ex Libris is a risky gambit that mostly pays off for a curious reader interested in Groth’s ambition to confound novelistic expectations – but there’s a lot that’s frustratingly incomplete in his world building. Apart from the four protagonists, the free readers and a couple of ancillary characters, there isn’t much detail about the historical backdrop that precipitated this data-driven landscape the rebel bibliophiles are fighting against, or how the rest of society operates: what jobs are left to human hands and brains in this metropole? In the vertiginous blocks of steel and glass, Groth does venture that there are people whose only job was to move information around, ‘to buy and sell things that only exists in your mind’. Granted, Dock’s skull implant enables market trading and High does work as a store greeter at one point, but other than these examples, the social and economic hierarchy of this dystopia remains sketchy. There are other sundry questions that go unanswered: why is the god worshipped by the devout referred to as the ‘Ghost Minor’? The innermost workings within the oppressing ruling network, the ‘society for public safety’, are not explored either. Maybe a couple more insertable chapters wouldn’t have gone astray.

In terms of its technical construction, there’s a great deal to admire about Ex Libris, this experimental book that invites you to participate in its storytelling, even if the halting, disrupted, non-chronological and jumpy narrative platform also take some time to get used to. Depending on your copy, a single chapter may flow neatly from the previous ones or it may force you to play hopscotch.

Groth opens up a conversation about the historical role of book burning in suppressing ideas, imagination and free thought. The playful non-linear form of Ex Libris leads the reader to contemplate theories about narrative consumption and to re-imagine stories – not as sequential movie reels unspooling frame by frame, but as a series of photo fragments that can be endlessly shuffled about before being placed together to form a slightly different picture each time.

Despite the fixed start and final chapters, Ex Libris shuns a singular, closed reading. Truth, its relativity and elasticity, is integral to this book and a re-reading is necessary in order to shore up meaning from the disparate, recombinant pieces. So, unlike Groth’s promise of it being a jigsaw puzzle completed once the last page is reached, the novel feels more like random stray pieces have been artfully scattered and left for the reader to connect. The book feels open to many interpretations and its operation is more in line with B.S. Johnson’s observation that ‘Life is chaotic, fluid, random; it leaves myriads of ends untied, untidily.’

Published October 8, 2020
Part of Juncture: JUNCTURE is a fellowship program presenting a series of new essays on Australian and international literature by leading critics.  All Juncture essays →
Thuy On

Thuy On is a Melbourne-based freelance arts journalist/critic. She’s written for a variety of...

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