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CAUGHT MY EYE : The Blur Factor

August 21, 1994|DAVID EHRENSTEIN

It's too early to tell if a new trend in book cover art is in the offing, but in the case of Caleb Carr's "The Alienist," the blur appears to have sparked a lot of excitement.

"We got actual telephone calls from our sales people about the cover," reports Random House creative director, Deborah Aiges. "Before the reviews or the ads or any of the publicity campaign started, people were walking into stores, looking at the cover and scarfing the books up in two seconds."

The reason for all this scarfing? The blur.

When it comes to covers, all the John Grishams, Judith Krantzes and Danielle Steeles of this world have to do is slap their names on the dust-jacket--in giant embossed letters--and the public will buy. But if you're a less high-powered writer, or a first-timer like Carr, then a far cleverer cover is required to create the sort of visual impression that can translate into big-time sales.

What's a publisher to do? Go all-out with a flashy dramatic scene rendered in picture-perfect detail? How about a subtler approach: grabbing attention through an eye-catching abstract design? Is it possible to strike some sort of balance, creating a cover image that's neither completely literal or entirely symbolic? "The Alienist" is one among several current novels that take this third route of the blur : soft focus tableaux, with semi-distinct figures posed in a way that seems to suggest the unfolding of a dramatic action.

It's an effect that's been used in everything from women's perfume ads ("Anais, Anais") to the credit sequences of foreign films ("La Femme Infidele," "Les Biches"). Why shouldn't it work for literature?

The cover of "The Alienist" shows a caped figure walking down a turn-of-the-century city street. The image is an actual news photograph of the period, so it's perfectly in keeping with the tone of the novel, which centers on an investigation of a serial killer on the loose in New York in the early part of the century. The figure could be either the detective hero or the murderous villain.

"Profane Friendship," Harold Brodkey's novel about a furtive homosexual love affair, sports a blur cover that's less action-oriented. A man in a white shirt and dark tie stands in the foreground, while behind him a figure whose sex can't be precisely determined stands with its back to us, peering over a balcony. Because of the blur , exactly what's going on between the two figures is by no means clear. Still, it's a lot more festive than the cover of Brodkey's last book--the recently remaindered "The Runaway Soul"--whose stark blue lines gave it the less-than-inviting appearance of an accountant's ledger.

"Lucky Town," author James Brown's study of a blue-collar father and son, takes the blur to its furthest extreme. The cityscape background of the cover can be made out well enough, but the figures in the foreground are faceless, undifferentiated blobs. It's as if we were peering through a lens of a movie camera that hadn't quite been pulled into focus.

What we're seeing in these covers isn't an organized whole, but rather one small part of a continuity of images, which only a reading of the novel itself can complete. Moreover, such literary completion is itself partial, for as with nearly every novel written today, there's a potential movie to be made.

That potential is about to be realized for "The Alienist," for producer Scott Rudin has snatched up the property for Paramount. This is scarcely surprising. After all, hasn't the cover provided the film with its opening shot?

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