It didn’t take long for me to realize I was delving into something I hadn’t quite experienced in a work of fiction before in With or Without Angels. The uniqueness wasn’t easy for me to categorize, at first. I couldn’t, for example, confidently say it was a hybrid publication of genre A and genre B coming together to make something new and beautiful.
The writing was beautiful and did pull me in. However, all I could determine in the early pages of With or Without Angels was that there was something uncharted about the style of this book. I felt eager to find out what that was.
From a structural standpoint, Bruton’s work is unique. Though it is not a children’s tale or a picture book, there are eleven digitally collaged and enhanced photographs illustrating it. Our first-person narrator holds artistic ownership of them all.
He walks us through his creation of these photos and the artistic liberties he takes to create them in a way that is so convincing, it was hard to believe he didn’t really exist. Could this be an expository art book written with an engaging, first-person narrative? What part of this tiny story was nonfiction? And, tiny story it is.
Not in terms of content. The heart of With or Without Angels spans far and wide, a narrative touching on questions of our conceptions of time and space, how our relationships with these notions influence our perceptions of our identities and reality, and, ultimately, how we shape and hold on to memories.
The story summons questions about the “old” and “new” worlds in our lives and how they color our timelines. Far-reaching questions linger and fill this tiny tale in an all-consuming manner. Still, it’s surprisingly tiny. Though the body of it reads like a lengthy novel, it consists of forty-three pages in its digital form, including the prologue and epilogue.
The story is written in first person, from the perspective of an aging artist. A photographer, to be exact. He lives a cozy life with his loving wife. The story begins warmly, opening with him receiving news that he is now cancer-free.
His zest for life, observations of the beauty and wonder of the people around him and those close to his heart — as well as his belief in guardian angels — permeate his interior narrative and the conversations he has with his young assistant, Livvy.
Livvy helps him create the digitally collaged and enhanced photographs he embeds in this book. Our narrator’s photographs contain elements of illusion or details that the eye easily passes over.
His pictures reflect his budding obsessions concerning what is hidden, what is clear to the eye, what fades, what is created, what can be destroyed, and how our feelings about it all shape our perception of these realities.
Here is a glimpse into the kind of philosophizing and questioning from our narrator that pervades this book. As he creates a photograph with Livvy, he remarks on the memory they are making with each other while producing the image in question:
‘It is like we are making a memory,’ he says, ‘as long as memory is understood as something artificial and shifting — like pebbles on a beach or sand. No, not creating something new, but taking a memory that has become dull and making it bright again, brighter than it ever was before.’
Livvy brings up a blank page on the computer screen.
‘Actually, I am almost tempted to leave our picture blank and shiny,’ he says then. ‘There is almost enough in that.’
Sometimes, he feels acutely that he is alone in the world. It is something he has always felt. Like the moment after the umbilical cord is cut and the baby is, for the first time, separate from the mother. And all this, all his life and his work, has been a search for connection or reconnection.
But then, isn’t that the same for everyone?
We receive these obsessions with memory, what comes to pass, what remains, what we create and how we see things throughout the story, but especially toward the end, when he faces a returning cancer diagnosis.
Of all his obsessions in the story, the most prominent fixation guiding the narrative, the one responsible for all eleven of his photographs, is the painting Il Mundo Nuovo, “The New World,” painted by Italian painter Giandomenico Tiepolo in 1791.
The author begins with a rich description of the visuals of this painting in the prologue. Then, we meet our narrator who immediately recounts the time he first saw this painting at the Ca’ Rezzonico museum and the impression it left on him.
He implants himself in this painting, a fresco of an excited crowd huddling together to see something concealed from the viewers of the artwork. This painting also serves as a container for his questions about human connection, time, space, memory, what remains, and what fades. These obsessions pull the book forward and hook you with their universal appeal.
My suspicion that there was an element of nonfiction driving the story forward proved true. I found out in the epilogue that the featured photographs are the creations of the artist Alan Smith, who produced them while contending with a terminal illness shortly before he passed.
All of his pictures are inspired by Giandomenico Tiepolo’s fresco, Il Mundo Nuovo. The author, Alan Smith’s photography and how he spent his remaining days on this earth all came together to form the narrative. Ultimately, it’s a touching and fascinating read. For those looking for something unique, heart-centered, and thought-provoking, this book is for you.
With or Without Angels is set to be published by Fairlight Books on February 16th, 2023.