Double Vision: What’s In a Book Cover?

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The Time Crime book cover. Which I really adore and frankly never tire of admiring is the top-notch work of Robin Vuchnich (hereafter R.V.) at https://mycustombookcover.com/ and it speaks for itself, doesn’t it? Yes, and… well, no. That is to say, in a compelling way it evokes some perplexities. Does the book cover, for instance, have a meaning? Is it a scene in the novel? What about Vixy’s face – is she wearing a mask? And what’s with the green tear?

No, she’s not wearing a mask. However, in the novel she spends time wearing a veil, There is the partial image of Five, of course, looming over the fraught Vixy. What of the green tear? And the red and green lips? Is it all in the book?

The short answer is no. But most of it is. Akin to a pulp era novel and golden age comic books some enjoyable if curious liberties are taken with the artwork. It isn’t literal. And yet it is intended to be accurately evocative of the content.

Vixy’s teary image is in the book but moreover she’s brought to tears more than once, each time in vastly different circumstances. Devoted readers out there, can you name them? Okay, perhaps I don’t have any devoted readers. Regardless, Vixy  fights back tears almost continually following her kidnapping but surrenders to her anguish first after she’s assaulted in the desert. She puts her face in her hands and perhaps she weeps when she, Hesso and Deloua all confront Five and he endures his breakdown, his enantiodromia, as it were, and everyone suffers a form of cosmic angst together. Finally, and this is the scene that is evoked most strongly for me because the image includes Vixy also putting her hand to her mouth, she breaks down when she realizes it’s Mr. Z. who has arrived to save her.

Meanwhile, the greenness of Vixy’s tear, which I consider a super snazzy, uncannily apt sci-fi touch on behalf of R.V. is rather a fabrication. Or more accurately an intuition that in my opinion does well to evoke the aforementioned curious liberties that so many early sci-fi stories, in magazines or as novels and of course as comic books were apparently obliged to express. Why didn’t the covers always accurately render an image from the text? I think it has to do with practicality: the illustrators simply hadn’t the time to read the books prior to doing the artwork. Hence, if they were provided a blurb and went as far as perhaps scanning the pages for inspiration they may have come across some bits and pieces of the story and just ran with it, so to say, filling in the gaps and attempting to amplify the drama according to their own on-the-spot inclinations. This will help sell it, they may have thought, or we need to amp this up somehow. I don’t know for certain. I do know that it’s a talent – a real magic trick – to render a novel into a compelling single image and I’m convinced also that not having all the time in the world to get the job done mostly seems to help matters. R.V. admitted that, having already finished a handful of versions she was prepared to submit, the one we used came to her at the last minute and she whipped it together, the whole thing, as is so spookily common in the art-craft world, coming together in a flash.

In the novel, at the point of Vixy reuniting with Mr. Z., her face is “streaked with black tears.” Black is the color of kohl, her Egyptian eye cosmetic. Vixy’s fraught expression is likewise true to the story, though in the novel she is rather experiencing heartrending salvation than sublime fear or horror, which merely demonstrates how facial expressions are oftentimes explained differently depending upon context. So that, arguably, the book cover and Vixy’s expression convey very well the entirety of Vixy’s emotional journey and what amounts to the heart and soul of the entire story. It works beyond my wildest expectations.

Of note, some technical details:

  • I had asked R.V. to try adding some cartographic imagery to the swirly, sandy colored, warped space-time area behind the title but though she did her best to comply I was immediately convinced I was wrongheaded and in the end we didn’t change a thing from her first iteration.
  • I was of a mind not to include the oft used phrased “A Novel” as I’d convinced myself that it was passé to do so but, again, I’m thankful that R.V. followed her professional nose and incorporated the text as part of Five’s eyebeams – very cool and all her idea.

I’d read somewhere about George Lucas, in the first Star Wars film, having managed to “make the future look like the past.” Well, in the Time Crime universe, as any reader will know, the future is the past. And this is perhaps the only useful suggestion I was able to communicate to R.V. for otherwise I was lost in a muddle of 1930s, 1940s and 1950s sci-fi pulpiness and antique thrills as far as the book cover imagery. Make the future look like the past. This is really and truly the best  thing Lucas ever did for the genre and it’s a very touchy, delicate thing to render without appropriating images and otherwise being heavy handed and deliberate and clumsily obvious. R.V.’s magic trick is all about implication and subtlety and innuendo – it’s all there and then again it isn’t, hence our imagination is activated and we make the image our own.

Vixy’s red and green lips? Well, I’d originally suggested to R.V. that it would be nice if she could incorporate the idea of the play-of-opposites, the spiritual or philosophical idea especially well rendered by the famous Chinese taijitu,[1] or yin-yang symbol that runs through much of Time Crime. The novel is concerned, after all, obliquely at least, with the question of whether Time itself is indeed linear in the Occidental or Western sense or circular (wheellike) as it is commonly assumed within Buddhism, say, or Hinduism, even within old Norse mythology – the ages of the world coming to be, coming to an end, coming to be again, and so on, representing eternity within time as it were. Anyway, within the play-of-opposites is life as we experience it. A reliable ethics is rendered questionable, we can never know exactly what to do or how to live and what’s right and wrong oftentimes seems a moving target. We perceive this struggle, this predicament, this play-of-opposites both within and without – within our psyche and tangibly in the world-of-action, so to say.

But R.V. was quickly and accurately dismissive of attempting to incorporate in any obvious manner the taijitu because, as she related in so many words, it always somehow appropriated the idea of the book cover. Again, we begin with intuitions and the associated images that affect us and, if the work is to be at all original, it does better to imply and intimate and symbolize – in this case the novel symbolizes the symbol – it symbolizes, or attempts to symbolize without doing so directly, the essence of our experience itself verily symbolized by the taijitu. And around and around we go, I suppose, trying to get at the thing we’re trying to get at whenever we create, whenever we operate as artist-craftsmen. Myth is metaphor, a discussion I address elsewhere in detail.

Red and green, then, within the realm of the technicalities of color, are understood as opposites. Yellow and blue are another example. Not being a visual artist nor a color scientist (if there is such a thing) I’m hardly the one to explain why certain colors are considered opposites and perhaps it’s a worthy study in itself but suffice it to say that it was, again, R.V.’s brilliant and uncanny inspiration to incorporate the play-of-opposites in the manner of Vixy’s lip contrasting and aptly other-worldly lip color. It isn’t in the book. But it seems like it is. At least to me. R.V. evokes and invokes in a very subtle and exciting manner, as visual artists are wont to do, something unexpected, unforeseen yet remarkably apt about the novel. If a subtlety like this is lost on folks, if it amounts to something of an inside joke, well, so be it: it’s striking and I like it. Vixy is from a far-future Earth, after all, and who knows what type of cosmetology trends would apply in her time?

Which brings us finally to Vixy’s duotone complexion. Her half white, half bronzed face. Is she a black woman wearing a mask? Is she wearing a mask at all? What type of mask, one wonders, would allow us to see her lips and nostrils, unless it were some futuristic textile technology? Depending upon the particular printed iteration of the book cover, namely the particular inking – darker or lighter, more brown or more blue toned – expressed by whatever particular print-on-demand (POD) system is employed to render a copy, she appears variously a tanned Caucasian, a Native American, a Native Canadian (Haida, for example) or an African-American. Her hair could be a cropped so-called afro or merely a vague graphically generalized intimation of a hairstyle. The collar of her garment could well be of any era or culture. Her hand may be gloved or merely in shadow. Is any of this resolved within the novel?

Yes. It is. Which is to say, no, Vixy isn’t wearing a mask. Remember first that the book was written in 2015, edited into its final version in 2019 and published at the end of January 2020, prior to newsworthy so-called pandemic concerns. Moreover and more to the point it was R.V.’s intention, as we discussed when she first forwarded the image to me, simply to render Vixy’s face literally half in shadow and half in light, ostensibly shadowed by the curled book cover and alternately brightened by Five’s eyebeams. In that sense alone it is a fun, again pulpy style hyperbole or exaggeration of the drama implied within. In another sense, I think R.V. does well to play with perspective in this way.

But I admit that I had immediately recognized not shadow and light but indeed a veil. In 1881 Egypt, after all, Vixy is oftentimes wearing a veil, a so-called niqab as it is referred to in Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Yemen and of course Egypt and elsewhere. Women’s veils and face and head coverings, of course, whether they symbolize religious or cultural orthodoxy or indeed its opposite – the freedom of women (and men) to wear what they please and worship as they see fit – have been a contentious topic worldwide aside from the current epidemiological concerns involving masks of all types. And in the novel Vixy at first fights against the veil for all the obvious reasons a modern Western woman would – it’s bothersome if nothing else, physically irritating until a person perhaps gets used to it and otherwise a frustrating, contrived affectation and hindrance.

Until Vixy herself learns of its power. Or powers. That is, she learns how it serves to enhance and encourage the allure and expressivity of a woman’s eyes. And at the mastabas she learns the protection it affords her in the presence of leering or inquisitive or otherwise unknown men and circumstances – she has a newfound capability to hide (or at least remain less conspicuous) in plain sight. It even supports her mandate, so often transgressed of course in the story, to leave no trace.

The image of Vixy’s light and dark aspect, then, while it was intended by R.V. as an innocently pedestrian but nonetheless graphically striking, hence successful affectation became instantly loaded with larger or I might say mythological implications. R.V., surprised when I saw a veil where there wasn’t one, immediately obliged my interpretation by offering to modify the image to make it more obviously veil-like. No, it’s great just the way it is, I replied – if folks like me see a veil and others see a shadow-and-light thing, it all works, let’s leave it. So we did. And I’m so glad for it. Because I’m convinced all these layers of meaning, all the depth of interpretation for me only enhances the power of the cover’s mythology and its ability to advance the mythology of the novel. It’s a dynamic synergy. In short, the book cover is a story in itself – it contains its own obvious and likewise mysterious narrative – and what more could an author want when it comes to a book cover but to have everything working together.

That I’m suspicious that many of the “clicks” the novel receives on the various platforms where it appears for sale, especially within my Amazon advertising campaigns where it gets almost all its attention has to do with, for better or worse, the Covid confusion. Confusion? Yes and I’ll leave it at that. I’m not going to voice my opinion on this odd cultural phenomenon except to say that for whatever reason it seems to have become too much a political agenda thing. Meanwhile, if it gets folks to click on the image of the novel, to read the blurb and, heaven help me, to help inspire them to purchase the book or sign up for a giveaway, what have you, hurray, I’m all for it.

Alternatively, for every reader who may think, gosh, that cover kind of fooled me into thinking Time Crime was about people with green tears and crazy cosmetics or high-tech masks or people of color and I’m bummed out that it was only, well, black tears and shadow and light and Vixy with a tan from hanging out in the Egyptian desert, well, so be it. I’m all for letting the images do their thing or not, the mythology is wholehearted and authentic but nobody has to agree with me or have their expectations satisfied. No harm, no foul, no apologies. I can only hold to the faith that perhaps the story will carry the day and stand on its own two legs and sell some copies and get read and liked. And endure the test of TIME, too.

[1] From wikipedia.org, “Taijitu,” retrieved 11.1.2020: A taijitu (simplified Chinese: 太极图; traditional Chinese: 太極圖; pinyin: tàijítú; Wade–Giles: t’ai⁴chi²t’u²) is a symbol or diagram (图 tú) in Chinese philosophy representing Taiji (太极 tàijí “great pole” or “supreme ultimate”) in both its monist (wuji) and its dualist (yin and yang) aspects. Such a diagram was first introduced by Song Dynasty philosopher Zhou Dunyi (周敦頤 1017–1073) in his Taijitu shuo 太極圖說.