It’s rare to find a work as seamless and fascinating as Lou Beach’s 420 Characters . The book is itself a little piece of art, a pocket-sized illustrated volume with a sturdy red cover and the number 420 embossed in gold on the front. Each ultra-short story within is told in 420 characters or less, the limit Facebook set on its status updates when Beach first started posting his stories to the site in 2009. (Facebook has since increased the character limit to 5,000.) When he began receiving positive feedback, Beach decided to compose a story every day, later converting the project into a constantly updated Facebook page, Twitter feed, web site, and, eventually, printed book. In any form, his stories retain at their core a deep understanding of how to tell a tale.
Beach has enjoyed a long career as an illustrator, for publications including Wired, The New York Times,Time magazine, and (once, in 2004) City Paper, and he’s designed album covers for the likes of Blink 182, the Carpenters, and the Police, among many others. The 420 project is his first foray into writing, an adventure he hopes will lead to short stories of a more traditional length and, eventually, a novel—“if I’ve got one in me,” he says in a recent phone interview withCity Paper.
“I’m going to be 65 in a couple months, and I’ve been making art for a long, long time,” Beach continues. “But the urge to create narratives comes from the same place for both. The pictures that I make hopefully tell a story, and there’s characters and a scene whether it’s an editorial illustration or my own personal work, which I show in galleries. They spring from the same need or urge to tell a story.”
The written pieces in 420 are reminiscent of Stephen Crane poems, tight little masterpieces toeing the line between poetry and prose while telling a complete story, often possessing a kicker that changes everything in a phrase or even a word. One such piece, in its entirety, reads:
I looked down at the spots on the pavement, where kids waiting for the bus had dropped wads of gum for years. The sun had seared them black, fried them flat. This concrete constellation held a secret that I knew could be unlocked. I went home and returned with a jar of paint and brush, connected the dots. A pattern emerged. I will share it with you. Be on the #12 bus at midnight, corner of Wrigley & HubbaBubba.
Beach’s book also includes illustrations, standalone pictures that are a world unto themselves. Complex and disjointed, they are heavily populated surreal scenes in which one might see a man with too many eyes dotting his face or an image of a dog filling the outlined body of a bird. At first glance, they’re striking; upon further study, stories start to build themselves. Why did someone black out those letters? Who interrupted this strange celebration, and what were they celebrating?
420 can be gobbled up all at once or enjoyed slowly, one nibble at a time. But what makes it doubly fun is that his process is accessible on so many levels. His stories are posted to Facebook and Twitter every few days with little editing, opening them up to comment and criticism from his readers at the very stage his writing is at its most vulnerable. He’s not a writer handing down his words from tablets on high; he’s an artist exploring new ground and asking audiences to come along.
“I tend to write them in the kind of limbo space between waking and dreaming,” Beach says, “and then I get up and type them out and edit them quickly and just throw them up. There’s an improvisational quality to it, a bit of a performance in a way, you know, because there’s an audience: ‘Hello everybody on Facebook! Here’s a story for you.’”
The 420 project may carry extra meaning for those bibliophiles who fear all things digital. Beach’s stories originate online, and they can be appreciated there in full. But they may drive Facebook diehards and tweeps to Beach’s web sites, where both online stories and selections from the book can be read page by page, superimposed on a scanned 1890 copy of Glaucus, or, The Wonders of the Shore by Charles Kingsley (who, appropriately enough, was one of the earliest proponents of evolution, though not the digital sort). Once there, readers may appreciate the look of an old printed book so much that they’d like to feel one in their hands, and mosey over to Amazon or their favorite bookstore to purchase a hard copy, a physical piece of beauty possessing unique stories that can’t be found anywhere on the 420 web site. And those that start with the printed book may begin to follow Beach on Twitter, or like his Facebook page. All of these elements together create a beautifully unique sum that’s equally as enjoyable as its individual parts.