First off an apology. I meant to write about, A Life In Books: The Rise and Fall of Bleu Mobley by Warren Lehrer, months ago. It has been sitting on my desk and I have picked it up to write something about it a great many times. I even took it on my Christmas vacation meaning to write something then. I just haven’t been able to find the words to capture it and write intelligently about it.
What is it? Well, it is rather complicated:
A LIFE IN BOOKS: The Rise and Fall of Bleu Mobley is an illuminated novel containing 101 books within it, all written by Lehrer’s protagonist who finds himself in prison looking back on his life and career. Nearly a year after the controversial author is thrown into a federal prison for refusing to reveal the name of a confidential source, he decides to break his silence. But it’s not as simple as giving up a name to the grand jury. Over the course of one long night, in the darkness of his prison cell, he whispers his life story into a microcassette recorder, tracing his journey from the public housing project of his youth, to a career as a journalist, then experimental novelist, college professor, accidental bestselling author, pop-culture pundit, and unindicted prisoner.
In A LIFE IN BOOKS, Mobley’s autobiography/apologia is paired with a review of all 101 of his books. Each book is represented by its first-edition cover design and catalogue copy, and more than a third of his books are excerpted. The resulting retrospective contrasts the published writings (which read like short stories) with the author’s confessional memoir, forming a most unusual portrait of a well-intentioned, obsessively inventive (but ethically challenged) visionary.
It is hard for me to describe because I have never come across something quite like it. The best article on it is actually a story from 2011 before the details of how it would be published were settled. Steven Heller in The Atlantic does a nice job of explaining how the project came to be and what it involves.
Adding to the novel’s colorful allure, the verisimilitude of Lehrer’s 101 cover designs for Mobley’s books is beyond credible. And like the best film title sequences, which establish moods or introduce plotlines, these fictional covers are vehicles by which Lehrer illuminates Mobley’s sad tale of success and failure.
This is by no means a portfolio; instead Lehrer has created a parallel art world. He set out to make a book that reveals a lot about the creative process, “that shows how artists channel experiences from their lives into their work in ways that are often not directly autobiographical, but oblique, transformative, metaphorical, and hopefully as reflective of the world around them as of themselves.” Lehrer is also smitten by the idea of writing a book filled with stories that spring from other stories. “And like Scheherazade, Bleu tells stories as a means of survival,” he adds.
A Life in Books evolved out of Lehrer’s queue of book ideas that were lying around in notebooks and random pieces of paper. With his wife and performance partner Judith Sloan, he had the idea of together doing a faux catalogue of 101 best sellers. “Then I decided that as the basis of a novel, all the books would be written by the same author, who is in prison looking back on his life and career,” Lehrer says. “Besides this vague notion and a few ideas about the trajectory of Bleu’s story, the writing really began with book titles. Then designing the covers opened another door. Truth is, I barely looked at other book cover designs or studied tropes associated with different genres while working on these covers. I wanted Bleu, who designs the covers of all his books, to have his own way of doing things, almost naively. I’m not so much into emulation. Pastiche, nostalgia, appropriation can be deadening. If I was spot on with some of these covers, it must come from seeing so much stuff, it just seeps in.”
I would love to be able to tell you that I will no plunge into the book and give a more in depth review but that would be dishonest. Of course, I might pick it up some day in a burst of inspiration but don’t hold your breath on that one.
But after all that planning to write a review I felt like I had to post something, and it is a very unique book, so if you are looking for something different to read consider this your chance.