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Not Just for Kids: 'Chopsticks'

Author Jessica Anthony and designer Rodrigo Corral use words, photographs and the Web in a compelling and inventive tale of teenage love and angst.

January 29, 2012|By Susan Carpenter, Los Angeles Times
  • Image from the book "Chopsticks" by Rodrigo Corral and Jessica Anthony.
Image from the book "Chopsticks" by Rodrigo Corral and Jessica… (Rodrigo Corral )

Chopsticks

A Novel

Jessica Anthony and Rodrigo Corral

Razorbill: 304 pp., $19.99, ages 12 and older

The first indication that "Chopsticks" is significantly more than just a novel is its trailer, which encourages readers to watch, listen, feel, look, discover, view and imagine. All of those activities are not only encouraged but enabled in this ambitious and hefty tome that works as a sort of interactive scrapbook. An exercise in multimedia storytelling, "Chopsticks" is a book, but it's also an iPhone and iPad app peppered with videos, songs and instant messages that bring the story to life in a way that isn't possible with words alone.

"Chopsticks" is a collaboration between author Jessica Anthony and designer Rodrigo Corral, the creative director of Farrar, Straus & Giroux who came up with the covers for bestsellers by Chuck Palahniuk, Jay-Z and others. It isn't the first novel for young adults to exploit the Web in conjunction with print storytelling, but it is elaborately inventive and compelling.

A visual work of fiction told mostly through photographs, "Chopsticks" is an artful love story cloaked in mystery. It opens with a two-page photo of tree branches, followed by another two-page spread of a fence casting prison-bar shadows, and then a collage of TV screen grabs as various newscasters report the disappearance of 17-year-old Glory Fleming. Glory is a world-famous piano prodigy from the Bronx who, we learn from newspaper clippings, was once loved for her fusion of classical music with songs from modern bands such as Pavement and Wilco.

According to her many playbills, she'd performed to adoring crowds at the Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall and was routinely written up in the New Yorker and New York Times. At the time of her disappearance, however, she was living in a mental institution for obsessively hammering out "Chopsticks."

To explain Glory's disappearance, the book then flashes back to 18 months earlier. Wordlessly, readers enter into Glory's house, then flip through the family photo album, which feels authentically vintage with its imperfect snapshots of Glory's small family. At age 8, Glory lost her mother to a motorcycle accident — a tragedy that is underscored in the father-and-daughter Christmas card from 2000 thanking recipients for their "support during this difficult year."

Glory and her family aren't real, of course. They're actors, as the credits at the back of the book make clear. But presenting them through photographs lends an authenticity and emotionality to this story of a girl's descent into madness, which morphs into a romance when a boy named Frank Mendoza moves in next door.

It isn't overtly stated, but based on his airplane boarding pass, a map and the deflated soccer ball and Spanish-language edition of J.D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye," Frank is from Argentina.

Being incredibly attractive and of the same age, Glory and Frank begin to hang out, despite the disapproval of Glory's father. Their bond solidifies through a shared love of the arts. Frank is a student at an all boys school, which routinely threatens him with expulsion for his poor grades in everything but drawing and painting.

Many of those drawings are included in the book's text. In the app version, they're often animated. Links to the videos Frank shoots with the camera he received for his birthday are likewise referenced in the print version of "Chopsticks" through video stills and You Tube addresses embedded in snippets of instant messaging that the two send each other when Glory is on a European tour — a tour orchestrated by her father to separate his daughter from her boyfriend. Readers of the e-version can link through and watch them.

Glory's story would be intriguing enough as text, but the use of real-world objects to visually play out the action is in a way more revealing. Readers see evidence of Glory's mental impairment through marked-up passages in Sylvia Plath's "The Bell Jar." They feel her desperation when she passes out on a keyboard, her devotion to Frank through written postcards.

Pictures are not only worth a thousand words in "Chopsticks." In hands as talented as Anthony's and Corral's, they're just as emotionally resonant.

susan.carpenter@latimes.com

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