TEN THOUSAND STORIES
An Ever-Changing Tale of Tragic Happenings
By Matthew Swanson
Illustrated by Robbi Behr
Open “Ten Thousand Stories” to its first page of text and you’ll read the following:
“Hello Reader: Congratulations! You have just purchased the last book you’ll ever need. The ten illustrated stories that follow have each been cleverly divided into four horizontal strips. By flipping these interchangeable panels, you can create ten thousand unique stories and ten thousand matching illustrations, making this book just the thing with which to entertain guests while you finish making dinner.”
That, in fact, is an accurate description of the book written by Matthew Swanson and illustrated by Robbi Behr. What it merely hints at, however, is the creative zaniness of this “husband/wife, taskmaster/procrastinator duo.” Not even this introduction escapes their playfulness, for this page of welcome has, in fact, been ruthlessly “edited” by someone with a red pen, who has struck through the printed phrases and scribbled in new ones. Thus, the Scarlet Redactor — as I will call him or, more likely, her — has changed the opening lines to read:
“Hello Sucker!! Congratulations! You have just wasted $20, or slightly less if you found this book in the bargain bin. The ten illustrated stories that follow are poorly written and certain to disappoint.”
The pictures, however, are another matter. They are now described as “ten thousand breathtaking illustrations.” While the Redactor dismisses Swanson as “a homely monkey at a typewriter,” the book’s illustrator has become “lingerie model Robbi Behr,” and “the alluring and mysterious Robbi.” Even Swanson’s phrase “Robbi and I” is x-ed out and replaced with “Robbi and her strapping stable boy, Eduardo.” Hmmm.
The format of “Ten Thousand Stories” is essentially that pioneered by French polymath Raymond Queneau in his famous “One Hundred Million Million Poems.” Queneau composed 10 sonnets, each line on a separate strip, so that the reader could mix and match lines at will. To read every combination would take millions of years. Just so, to enjoy every one of Swanson’s 10,000 stories and to study Behr’s corresponding Rube Goldberg-like illustrations would certainly take a good many dinner parties.
Happily, the 10 basic stories — the templates for all the subsequent combinations — are offered uncut in an appendix. Just the titles suggest their frisky, dadaist quality: “The Sordid Aftermath of Drunken Karaoke,” “The Exquisite Torment of Maternal Deception,” “The Uncanny Allure of Cheerful Livestock,” “The Temporary Blessings of Suggestive Lederhosen” as well as six others equally unsettling. All of them relate tales of desperate yearning, lost hopes, sexual transgression and broken hearts and bodies. This same slightly macabre Edward Gorey/Lemony Snicket style comes through in the new narratives that result by haphazardly shuffling the strips. Here, for example, is one I have just this minute created, bearing the title “The Awful Philosophy of Repressed Lovers.” A slash indicates the beginning of a new strip of type:
“Millicent stood proudly at her counter in the mall, folding cabled sweaters for the holiday display. Her/ preoccupation with the Kingdom Beyond was nearly crippling; probing moral dilemmas interfered with the basic movements of day-to-day life. This/ penchant for bad judgment, throughout years and countless disappointments, engendered inner hostility that smoldered unrecognized until it was far too late. The/ sweet thrills of transgression outweighed the throbbing dull pain of the welts on the forehead, chin, and rib cage.”
On the right-hand page facing this disturbing and suggestive story — clearly revealing Swanson’s sick mind — are the resulting four-part, mixed-and-matched pictures by the equally imaginative Behr. The interconnected combination of a knitting woman wearing a medical mask, a headless kneeling nun, two hairy hands holding pistols and a mustachioed gentleman in jockey shorts might give even Salvador Dal
While “Ten Thousand Stories” is, by its subject matter, intended for grown-ups, Swanson and Behr may be best known for the children’s titles they publish under their own imprint, Bobbledy Books. These are available through subscription and arrive in garishly bright envelopes of green and brown, inscribed with the words “Read Write Draw Sing.” Inside, one finds wonderfully imaginative paperbacks such as “The Girl With Frogs in Her Ears.” Because little Vera has “frogs in her ears,” she can’t quite make out what anyone says, so when the mayor of her town shouts, “We are looking for someone to conquer the big-headed ogre of Eggplant Mountain using only a toothbrush and a bent playing card,” she simply gives a deaf little nod. Vera’s thrilling adventure leads to the discovery of a new friend.
Along with Bobbledy Books, Swanson and Behr — who live in Chestertown, Md. — also publish the more adult line called Idiots’ Books. These tend to be “poetic, naughty or weird.” I first became aware of this imprint when I noticed a tiny paperback with the striking title, “The Baby is Disappointing,” (later followed by “Babies Ruin Everything” and the menacing “Baby Apocalypse”). In the most recent offering, “Man and the Mountain,” a little figure follows a piece of string as it loops up and through the pages of the book. The ambitious “Avoid Disappointment and Future Regret” turns out to be a partly tongue-in-cheek guide to achieving happiness. By contrast, “Stranded in Strange Waters” presents a series of bizarre parables or prose poems, somewhat like those generated in “Ten Thousand Stories.” One begins: “Our wigs have not been powdered adequately, and so we are unhappy as we wait for our grapefruit.”
What draws me to the various books of Swanson and Behr — there are more than 50 — is their never-ending exuberance and flair for mischief. The couple gently mock themselves, their writing and their art, not to mention literature, history, technology and politics, and yet their deep love for each other, their children and their crazy work always shines through. Buy a copy of “Ten Thousand Stories” or subscribe to Bobbledy Books or Idiots’ Books, and you’ll see what I mean.
Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.