With a huge, blood-red vicious-looking bowie knife blazing across it, the cover of Patrick Ness’s The Knife of Never Letting Go leaves you in no doubt that this is going to be edgy sort of book. But it’s the type that really gets you: the font looks like it’s been given a loaded gun, intravenously fed a triple espresso and pushed on to a fourth-storey window ledge. It is practically disintegrating with adrenalin and anxiety – which is pretty much how the reader feels on every one of the 1634 pages that follow.
The Chaos Walking trilogy, of which Knife is the first part, is set on a planet recently colonized by humans. In this primitive society, the men are afflicted by what’s known as ‘Noise’. This means that their thoughts can be heard by anyone, and they, too, can hear animals. For Ness, Noise “isn’t that far off what it’s like to be constantly buried in texts and messaging and emails and mobile phones and on and on… that’s what the book’s really about, information overload.”
With no privacy, and no way to control their thoughts, the men have become accustomed to the unfiltered babble of the Noise – either that, or gone mad. Ness worked closely with his designer at Walker Books figuring out how to design the type such that it was clear to the reader what was Noise, and what was regular speech. The unobtrusive Fairfield typeface used for the main text is peppered with other typefaces: a childish handwriting-like font for some of the men’s Noise, a thick, barely legible scrawl for the animals – crocodiles saying ‘flesh, feast, tooth’, or squirrels taunting the dog with ‘come on, whirler, whirler, whirler’.
But its not just the typeface that changes. Ness uses a lot of styling in all three of the books. The pages are littered with suddenly capitalised words, with italics and m-dashes, short lines of half-finished thoughts, and lots and lots of dialogue. This makes for a racy, pacy read – but it also means that you can hear the thing in your head really loud and clear. At one point, in book three, there’s a war raging. The first bomb goes off – BOOM! – in 20pt type. The second ‘boom’ is about twice the size, and the third – a real humdinger – takes up an entire line. There’s an even bigger BOOM in book two that falls off the edge of the page. You can practically feel the aftershocks.
When a spaceship crash lands nearby, Todd gets to meet the sole survivor, a young girl called Viola. She is the first person he’s ever met without Noise. “I wonder what it must be like to have no Noise, to come form a place with no Noise. What does it mean? What kind of a place is it? Is it wonderful? Is it terrible?” And then he realises, “Just cuz I can’t hear any Noise from her don’t mean she can’t hear every word of mine.”
In book two, Ness makes another interesting type decision. Todd’s narrative continues in Fairfield, but the parts of the book narrated by Viola are set in Optima – a slightly thicker, more rounded, somehow more female font. The Mayor – the dictatorial thought-controlling villain of the piece – has thoughts, or noise, that has nothing of Viola’s gentle curves or subtle serifs: it comes in uninflected hard capitals that seem to brook no argument.
Of course, it’s not that unusual to have stories told in different typefaces: there are any number of books told in alternate voices, where each chapter is assigned a different font so you know, without thinking about it, who is speaking. Ness takes this to a new level in Book Three, where the narrative alternates between Todd, Viola and the Spackle – a member of the indigenous aliens (if that makes sense) against whom the humans are pitted.
Ness and his designer must have searched long and hard for a typeface to assign to the Spackle. Some form of letters that would convey a primitive species, yet one with its own highly evolved tribal society, one that was more aligned to the natural world than the tightly controlled civilized one: a type that could stand as diametrically opposite the Mayor’s regimented capitalizations. They managed – but only just.
Using fancy fonts or unorthodox type sizes or formatting is frequently employed as a lazy shortcut. It’s the reason most publishers stipulate standard formatting for authors to submit their work. Just because a story it set in childish-looking type doesn’t mean that it is suitable for children – in fact, I know one children’s publisher who rejects manuscripts that use Comic Sans on principle without even reading them and there’s nothing that screams ‘amateur’ louder than a manuscript full of gimmicky typefaces.
There are very good reasons why you’re reading this article in Capitolium News if you’ve got the paper in front of you, or Georgia if you’re reading on screen. Legibility and clarity are the name of the game. But, as Jim Williams, author of Type Matters! reminds us, “Fonts are the clothes that word wear” and we read in them an ‘emotional tone’ just as quickly and as unconsciously as we judge a person by the clothes that she wears.
“Messing around with typefaces doesn’t always work, so we tried to make sure it was not cartoonish or silly,” says Patrick Ness. The reason that the fonts add to, rather than detract from, the story he tells is the centrality of the idea Noise: that silent persistent clamour that goes on every minute of the day in the privacy of our own skulls. Without the creative use of fonts to help us, silent readers, ‘hear’ the story, I’m not sure Chaos Walking could have been written at all.
First published in The Hindu Business Line, 14.2.16