Pry Is a Novella-Meets–iPad App That You Touch

Danny Cannizzaro and Samantha Gorman
Danny Cannizzaro and Samantha Gorman
Photo by Danny Liao

Pry isn't your daddy's e-book. Samantha Gorman and Danny Cannizzaro's iPad app-novella takes modernism's maxim "form follows function" to its logical end point and then throws it off a cliff.

"The form is the function," Gorman says.

Gorman and Cannizzaro comprise the fledgling art collective Tender Claws. Based in Los Feliz, the two 30-year-olds released Pry — "a book to watch and a film to touch" — Oct. 3 in the iTunes App Store.

Part 1's five chapters (Part 2 will be released as a free update) are multimedia dreamscapes that tell the story of James, a demolition consultant six years out from his return from the first Gulf War. He's slowly going blind, and he's an unreliable narrator; those factors affect the way the story unfolds. The narrative is fragmented, the visuals atmospheric: Charlie Kaufman by way of an acid trip.

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Pry is greater than the sum of its parts. Multimedia content isn't just embedded and integrated. It incorporates the iPad's haptic gestures: the pinch, the drag and the pry.

Chapter 1 opens with two lines of white text on a black background. Readers can pry — yes, that word again — those open into four lines of still-coherent text. Repeat the gesture above and below any line: Text expands until it reveals video footage, delving deeper into the main character's psyche.

Each chapter is different. One has text that reads like Braille: Drag a finger along the words, and a voice reads them aloud. Another features text that expands almost infinitely in all directions. There's a real back-and-forth between reader and creator.

As to the creators, she's waifish and delicate; his incongruous, smoldering gaze is capped by a shock of mad-scientist hair — maybe the only outward indication of the creative insanity brewing beneath the surface.

In an academic's twist on the meet-cute, Gorman and Cannizzaro met two months before finishing their undergrad studies at Brown University in 2006. Cannizzaro was a student assistant at the multimedia lab Gorman frequented.

After that, she played a conceptual Meg Ryan to his experimental Tom Hanks. He came on board to consult on her undergrad thesis, and they collaborated on Division of Human Curves, which takes the form of a website chronicling the real-life remodeling of a Curves gym into a Brooklyn art gallery.

Cannizzaro's background is in visual art. After studying illustration, he went on to win a $25,000 mtvU Digital Incubator grant for multiplatform animation, then art-directed projects for clients including Google, Facebook and Kanye West.

With Gorman's background in writing for digital platforms and the sudden proliferation of personal tablets, a project like Pry was a natural next step.

The team started developing its digital novel during a decidedly unplugged residency at the MacDowell Colony in rural New Hampshire. The country's oldest artists' colony, MacDowell has yielded 61 Pulitzer Prizes and such heavy hitters as Thornton Wilder's Our Town, Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring.

They kept working on the project even as Cannizzaro completed an MFA in fine art at UC San Diego and Gorman began pursuing her Ph.D. in the interdivisional Media Arts + Practice (iMAP) program at USC's School of Cinematic Arts. There, Gorman has been able to draw on resources and support from an encouraging staff.

"Many digital books, you read the text and then maybe you hit a button for video. That's much less interesting and engaging," says Mary Sweeney, an associate film professor at USC.

As a director, writer, editor and producer with a long collaborative history with David Lynch, Sweeney was uniquely qualified to provide guidance.

"They found a kindred spirit in me," she says, noting her editorial and production experience and affinity for using dreams in a narrative. (Mulholland Drive, anyone?) "They're both very talented and it's a powerful collaboration."

Unlike Pry, conventional e-books are basically regular books transposed onto digital platforms, retaining familiar features such as the page turn. (Think Kindle.) That's skeuomorphic design, a concept long favored at Apple.

"Early adopters weren't confident in people's digital literacy," Cannizzaro explains. That's why developers can be so wedded to the familiar: From the trash bin to the notepad, everything on your computer has a real-life corollary.

But that limits what is possible in digital design, which is exactly what Gorman and Cannizzaro moved away from with Pry.

"Reading is experienced at the reader's pace," Gorman notes, while "video is experienced at the director's pace." Pry blends the two; the reader ultimately guides himself through the piece, but the director's hand is just out of sight, curating the read: video expertly placed at key junctures, timed to play back at just the right moment if you toggle back to the text.

"It's like a z-axis of reading," Cannizzaro says. "Dig deeper and you're rewarded."

There's a delicate alchemy to the text, equal parts algorithm and dedication to precision kerning. That it's also a good read is a testament to Gorman's nimble prose.

Time Warner's Future of Storytelling Contest named Pry runner-up for a $10,000 prize on Oct. 1 (it lost to the team behind the "Turn Down for What" music video).

"With Sam's experimental-poetry background, you know, you're doing good if you have a readership of more than three," Cannizzaro says. "This is definitely more mainstream."

But anyone seeing their project as either the future of reading or the death knell for old-fashioned books should fear not: It's neither. Says Gorman,"The book isn't going anywhere, nor should it."

Instead, this is the extension of a kind of narrative that has existed in the analog world for a long time. "Ergodic literature" is a term coined by Norwegian video game and electronic literature scholar Espen Aarseth to describe text that requires more of readers than simply moving the eye from left to right between page turns. The rules for reading often are embedded within the text itself.

Examples go back to the 2nd century BCE, with the I Ching, and continue through contemporary examples such as 2000's New York Times best-seller House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski and last year's S. by Doug Dorst and J.J. Abrams.

These require not only that you read but that you also figure out how to read the content within. The only difference with Pry is that the tools are evolving — which expands the possibilities, even as it further blurs the lines between things like literature and video.

"What Pry does is expand the field of the book," says Vanessa Place, a prominent conceptual poet who is also both Gorman's occasional collaborator and a defense attorney. "As a conceptual writer ... I want to be made to think through, not just think about. This is new reading, though it's reading we know how to do. As much as photography altered the landscape of landscapes, digital forms and their writings open narrative to other kinds of telling."

Gorman and Cannizzaro are confident in their work. For now, they're also exploring their invention called Tumball, a competitive, two-person sport played with real tumbleweeds and leaf blowers. It was a finalist at the IndieCade International Festival of Independent Games in Culver City last year, refereeing 120 very enthusiastic players.

Pry may not have the same mass appeal, but its creators have big dreams for it.

"We're hoping that no matter the response, it will start a discussion about what it means to write for this platform," Gorman says.


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