Visual novels 

Three Incestuous Sisters
Audrey Niffenegger
Indianapolis Art Center
June 1-July 22
Author/artist visit on June 1 at 5 p.m.

If you are one of the legions of fans of Audrey Niffenegger’s best-selling The Time Traveler’s Wife, you are likely to have a blissful memory of being completely absorbed in it — on a beach, on an airplane or curled up at home in your reading chair, as lost to the real world as Henry, the time-traveling husband. The book grew from the title, which floated into her mind one day, Niffenegger said. “It told me the man was a time traveler — and that got me to thinking what it would be like to be the wife of a time traveler.”

The 500-word novel that emerged some four years later explored the effects of the Chrono-Displacement Disorder, a fictional condition that causes Henry to find himself all too frequently misplaced in time, along with the very human issues of love, loss, longing, destiny versus free will and the sheer strangeness of life.

The book was completely different from anything Niffenegger had done before. She is first a visual artist, the author of two visual novels — (literally) big, beautiful books, whose very few words are there only to guide readers through the visual narrative. Talking about difference between a visual novel and one made only of words, she explained that it’s virtually impossible to create a fully rounded character in images. “Pictures don’t give you dialogue,” she said. “They don’t give you the names of things. You see exactly what something looks like, but you don’t know what it smells like or sounds like. Any emotion has to be registered with a facial expression or a gesture.”

One of the 10 original hand-printed, leather-bound copies of the author’s most recent visual novel, Three Incestuous Sisters, will be on exhibit at the Indianapolis Art Center June 1-July 22, along with the aquatint images and the hand type set text, a visual storybook on the walls. The series of elegant images unfolds like a play or, as the author says, “a silent film made from Japanese prints.”

Walking through the Three Incestuous Sisters, fans of Niffenegger’s “word novel” may be struck, as I was, by the image of the red-haired sister, Clothilde, who looks exactly like the picture I have in my mind of Clare, the main character of The Time Traveler’s Wife.

Coincidence? Not at all. The artist was working on both books at the same time. “At the very beginning, they were kind of the same character,” she said. “The general visual idea of what Claire would look like definitely came from Clothilde!”

Audrey Niffenegger will visit Indianapolis for the opening of the exhibit on Friday, June 1. Sponsored by Printworks Gallery, Chicago, she will give a lecture at 5 p.m. A walk-through of the exhibit, booksigning and reception will follow.

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