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July 16, 2007 | by  | in Features |
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Butterflies in Straitjackets

An experiential first novel from Wellington writer Jamie Waugh

When one thinks of a piece of driftwood, an image comes to mind of an adventurous tree branch floating with the tides, altering ever so slightly with each gentle kiss of the waves which carry it onto the shores of exotic beaches. The driftwood goes wherever the tides take it, and is all the better for it.

This is kind of the way Wellington author Jamie Waugh’s unique first novel, Butterflies and Straitjackets, entered the world. Eleven copies were printed, with one buried and kept safe. The other ten were sent out into the world, like the aforementioned wood to DRIFT, becoming living, growing pieces of art that people read and added illustrations, poems and comments to, passing it on to others who would do the same.

Open up a copy of the final published book and you will find a letter from Waugh, explaining the concept of DRIFT, the website, and an actual encouragement for the reader to email the author with their thoughts or comment on the book’s LiveJournal or MySpace pages. In this way, the reader is able to actually interact with the book, the author and other readers. Quite unlike the traditional mindset of reading a book and perhaps talking about it with your friends or book club, but otherwise just leaving it; a book that once read, is finished with.

I attended the official launch for Butterflies in Straitjackets at local fashion store Good As Gold on June 14, and this too was a special way to release a book. The invite was one of those paper contraptions from primary school days, that had the names of characters on each of its squares and quotes relating to them on the inside. Free bubbly and the new Steinlager beer flowed. Fashionable people, including the odd photographer or media person (nearly all friends or family of the author) were in attendance. But one question remained on everyone’s lips: where exactly was he? We had all gathered there on a cold weeknight to welcome Butterflies in Straightjackets formerly to the marketplace – yet after more than an hour or two, it appeared that the author hadn’t even bothered to turn up! So they decided to start without him. This was odd, I thought. There were concerned murmurs in the audience. I needn’t have worried – it was all just part of the spectacular planning.

First people spoke loving words about the book, then all attentions became focused on a large television screen. On this monitor, a computer graphic arranged to look just like Waugh popped up on the screen. The real world audience tittered in the background. The computer graphic Waugh thanked everyone for coming and gave a little speech – and then, all of a sudden, the inside door of Good As Gold opened and the real world Waugh appeared to finish his speech. Quick to peg onto the new virtual phenomena sweeping the globe, Waugh had simultaneously launched his book in Second Life (the world-within-a-world computer game that people are becoming addicted to) – a first for New Zealand, and maybe the world. In a continuation of this new media marketing mix, the launch integrated both the real life experience of a book launch and the hyper-real simulated experience of a mediated one.

Waugh enjoys this mixing of different types of media: “The book was made up of notes which were gathered over a long time, that kind of fitted into a structure,” he says. “I saw a lot of my friends who I felt could gain a lot from reading books, but I could see why they wouldn’t read and why they’d choose to watch a movie or some other type of entertainment instead. So I tried to write a book that initially was planned as a book where you could turn to any page and start from any page and walk away and take something from the book. So I’ve tried to sort of plan into it that at any point you can just go away for a little bit and take something with you.”

The novel has been independently published by a company called Whiteshoes Productions, who are a “collective of artists, writers, musicians and other like-minded individuals dedicated to ‘future art’ – art that looks at the world in different ways, or bends genres and accepted ways of doing things; art that influences and may not yet be accepted by the establishment.”

The actual story, Butterflies in Straitjackets, describes a journey. It’s about a splintering of a personality, of someone who is too confined, too constrained in his current life. Someone who needs to be free from something, which I think makes the title very fitting. It’s like reading pieces of someone’s life put down on paper. It’s a story with a message. “It goes to a lot of places, and functions on various levels,” says Waugh. “I call it an experiential novel because, more than in the traditional novel, the reader experiences what the characters do – they don’t just empathise. This is supposed to be more real than that.

Some people would see it just as an interesting story about meeting lots of amazing, interesting people that have something good to say. But I think it’s kind of hard to define.”

I enjoyed reading this book and I understand why the limited run is selling like hotcakes. However I had but one qualm – and this is with the way it is written. The story features case notes, written by one of the characters, that explain to you what is going on.

If you are a reasonably literate university-educated person, like me (and I’m sure many of you are, considering that this is a university magazine) then I suggest that you don’t read these. Instead, read the novel without the bits in bold – this is where its true beauty lies. If you get lost, by all means read the case notes, because that is what they are there for – to help you find your way – but if you already know where you are, having this explained to you can be annoying to say the least. Oscar Wilde once said that some authors seemed to him to be “spend[ing] their time in trying to explain their divinity away.” And we wouldn’t want that, would we?

Go on a journey with Jamie Waugh. I dare you.

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Comments (5)

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  1. Jazzman says:

    Great article, I have a review copy of the book at the moment, and was interested how you have dealt with Butterflies in Straitjackets, indeed a very unique piece of work, and nearly impossible to put in a box, which is great!
    I’m half way through, my second journey with Mr Waugh and it is even better than the first time round. This is what books can be.

  2. Jean-Michel says:

    It is a pretty great novel. Yes, yes.

  3. Traveller says:

    Great novel of our Generation – suddenly understood why I cant settle down – what I hate about my job and why – and like many Kiwis why I just want to drift rather that selling out my soul. Thanks Jamie you’ve taught me how to get off the roadmap and find myself.

  4. Tea Bag says:

    Just checked the butterflies website, apparently Jamie is off to India to research his next book, on my third time through BinSJ and it gets better each time so many levels, so much to think about, can’t wait to see where he is going to go with the next one. READ THIS BOOK IF IT IS THE LAST THING YOU DO!!! TeaBag, Aro

  5. Jilly says:

    i was really blown away by this book. i had never heard of it before, i was just in a store..cant even remember what the place was called and i saw it and i picked it up and for some reason i knew i needed to read it. feels like the book i have been waiting to read for years. love the way it is written and i feel this strange sense of accomplishment reading it…i feel kind of cheesy saying all that but in all honesty this is one of the best books i have ever read and im glad i found it and feel like i just want everyone else to read it too.

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