And Every Day Was Overcast

An Illustrated Novel by Paul Kwiatkowski
Black Balloon Publishing, 2013

Reviewed by Leo Hsu

Issue 55

Memories of childhood humanize us as adults. With age, our version of that time is deformed then reassembled. What fragments bleed through are tailored to a narrative designed to hide vulnerability. – Paul Kwiatkowski, And Every Day Was Overcast

Paul Kwiatkowski’s protagonist in And Every Day Was Overcast – let’s call him P.K. to distinguish him from the author – is lost without knowing that he is lost, but he’s trying to lead the life that he wants. The book is set between 1991 and 1999, but the bulk of the narrative, in which the teen-aged P.K. increasingly gains self-awareness, is roughly bookended between Kurt Cobain’s suicide in 1994 and the Columbine shootings in 1999. P.K. and his friends use drugs continuously to make the boredom of suburban Florida bearable. They try to hook up with girls (sometimes succeeding) and explore the swamp that has its tendrils wrapped around them. They watch the landscape crumble around them. They ricochet off of one another, propelled in slow motion, but seldom taking deliberate action other than to seek escape. One of P.K.’s attempts to work towards a desired outcome, to impress a girl by creating a safe haven on a river island for a population of caged rabbits while on acid, has disastrous results. Kwiatkowski punctuates the book with a series of intermittent “transmissions,” referencing the transmission from youth to adulthood, the transmission of bodily fluids and potentially of deadly viruses, and the transmission of ideas, secret messages, and calls for help broadcast into the ether.

The core of this “illustrated novel” is a series of short prose chapters in the first person, and Kwiatkowski’s writing is very good- in fact, it is more than strong enough to carry the book, with or without the pictures. But the larger part of the book is comprised of pictures, which makes it into a very different kind of thing, and the book is defined as much by the relationship between text and images as it is by the relationship between Kwiatkowski the author and P.K.

Most of the pictures are artifacts, presumably made by Kwiatkowski in the 90s, though some appear to have been made more recently. Along with mixtape covers and letters and notes, the recycled photographs are put in the service of a powerful visual edit: they read not so much as descriptions of the people and happenings in the pictures, than as visualizations of Kwiatkowski’s memories of those people. The look of the photographs - washed out colors or the sudden clarity of an automatic flash - serves as an index for the time in which they were made as much as their content does. We read gestures and expressions, performances, and small details that fill out the sense of place, complementing the world realized in Kwiatkowski’s writing.

Our expectations of novels and of photographs beg a collision between “truth” and “fiction” but this seemingly unavoidable contradiction betrays the inefficiency of both words. In an interview, Kwiatkowski states: “I don’t believe in the unspoken promise of absolute journalistic truth. Images, sound and text at best can only be an amplification of your own perceived truth.” I do believe that there are many useful ways in which an idea of “truth” informs communication, even if it is the truthful account of a journalists’ perception, but I take his point. As a reader, however, I am nonetheless compelled to ask, to what extent is he consciously reconstructing his past in the service of this book?

Are the pictures that P.K. asks his friend to take of girls changing in the locker room really of the swim team? Judging by their swim suits, I’d guess that they aren’t, but I don’t know. When we first learn about the kid nicknamed “Cobain”, is that his picture that we see on the facing page? There’s a picture of another kid later in the book who looks a lot like the first kid, but the pictures feel so different that again I’m not sure.

Of course we look for correspondences. How could we not? That is the one thing that all photographs claim, a correspondence with something that passed through the world, no matter how modulated, no matter how oblique. The tension that comes from the frustration of that correspondence works particularly well in relation to Kwiatkowski’s writing. The linked disassociations create a dreamlike effect. This dissonance makes the reader aware that Kwiatkowski and P.K. are not the same, and that Kwiatkowski has actively reconstructed his past, that what we read and see are not just “what fragments bleed through”.

And that is the strange, unsettling success of this book. Kwiatkowski is such a good writer and editor that we allow him to charm us, despite the possibility that the author may be as unreliable a narrator as the protagonist, because words and pictures are both in the service of such a seductive hallucination. The work presents an affecting and introspective narrative experience.

Recontextualized pictures gain new meaning and power as a group, more than they could have as individual images. Text informs but does not establish meaning. Multiple authorial voices create a space that is evocative and specific, but that also feels unstable. If you want to know where photography is headed these days, this book provides one interesting answer: Paul Kwiatkowski has made a place inside his head for you and this book will take you there.

Does Kwiatkowski have some obligation to the original context and subjects of these pictures? I suppose it’s his concern, but I do feel a little awkward for the people in this book who discover that their memories have been recycled into Kwiatkowski’s true fiction. But I guess that’s what we all do with in the narratives that we construct of our lives; photographs have a kind of gravity, drawing our memories around them.

Leo Hsu is a photographer, writer and photography instructor, based in Pittsburgh, PA.
Contact Leo here.

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