The Pickle Index Is a Delightfully Weird, App-Driven Novel Like No Other
The Pickle Index tells the tale of an incompetent circus troupe that sets out to rescue its ringmaster, Zloty Kornblatt, from a dystopian, brine-obsessed government. If that doesn’t pique your interest, maybe this will: The Pickle Index is a paperback. But it’s also a beautifully illustrated, hardcover set of two volumes that tell the story in tandem. Oh, and it’s also an app. Not an e-book, mind you—an app, where a user’s “Citizenship Quotient” points are allocated based on how often you upload actual pickle recipes. Confused? Good. That’s kind of the point.
The fact is, The Pickle Index is not a traditional novel, nor is it a conventional app. When Eli Horowitz and Russell Quinn set out to create the multimedia storytelling experience, they made a conscious decision to eschew hallmarks of design like accessibility and ease of use. Instead, they provide multiple entry-points into an intricate and immersive world. In doing so, they’ve reimagined what a digital literary experience can be.
A Literary App That’s Not an e-Book
To understand The Pickle Index, it helps to know a little about the people who created it. Horowitz and Quinn met when Quinn offered to design an app for McSweeney’s, the San Francisco publishing house known for experiential, whimsical, and occasionally twee book design. (Horowitz was the publisher of McSweeney’s at the time.) They saw a demand for books that transcend the forms associated with the printed word. People wanted a collection of short stories housed in a 3-D head, or a color-changing book jacket inspired by the Coors beer can. They saw the physical characteristics of book construction not as constraints, but opportunities for experimentation.
In 2012, Horowitz and Quinn decided to bring that ethos to app design with The Silent History-—the story of an alternate world in which seemingly healthy children are born with the inability to acquire, comprehend, or use language. An intriguing premise, sure, but what really set The Silent History apart was its telling. Serialized testimonies, delivered to and readable from the app, chronicled the epidemic’s progression. That narrative was supplemented by “field reports”—short stories, written by other users, that could only be accessed by visiting a specific location. The app, in essence, combined geocaching with storytelling.
The conceit was well received. The app won a 2013 Webby Award, was a finalist for the 2013 SXSW Interactive Awards, and was widely heralded as an exemplar of digital storytelling. WIRED called it “entirely revolutionary.” The publishing house Farrar, Straus and Giroux even turned it into a printed book—though Horowitz and Quinn stress that the story is intended first and foremost for digital consumption.
Multiple Pathways Into a World
With The Pickle Index, released November 3, Horowitz and Quinn again place an emphasis on creative, unconventional storytelling. The tale can be experienced in a variety of ways: a paperback novel, a two-volume hardcover set, and an app. Each is designed to be a standalone experience, but the combined effect is synergistic.
The paperback is a conventional book. Its 20 chapters, illustrated with black-and-white woodcuts, alternate between the perspective of the government and that of Flora Bialy, a young girl in the circus troupe.
The hardcover set splits the text across two books. Snacks contains the chapters told from Flora’s perspective, as entered into the national recipe of pickle recipes; News, tells the government’s side through reports from Destina’s local paper, The Daily Scrutinizer. Readers are advised to read the chapters in the order that they appear in the paperback: Day One from volume one, Day One from volume two, Day Two from volume on, Day Two from volume two, and so on. The twist is that each chapter opens with illustrations drawn from either Flora’s or the government’s perspective. This allows the reader to place two illustrations of the same vignette in conversation with each other, by aligning the artwork. “You’re trying to fit together two different illustrations, like a puzzle,” says Horowitz. “It resonates with the narrative, where no one has complete information.”
What the hardcover and paperback have in common, says Quinn, is they tell the story from the outside-in. “You’re a human in the real world, reading a story book,” he says—which, of course, is the way we typically relate to stories. But the app flips that experience by turning your phone or tablet into the titular Pickle Index—a government-sanctioned directory of recipes and communications from within the dystopian nation where the story is set. The app, then, enables the reader to experience the story from the inside-out, says Quinn, by “playing the part of a citizen and experiencing [the story] as it unfolds, in real time.”
An Intentionally Clunky Interface
The Pickle Index app is the most inspired aspect of the storytelling experience. It’s also the most frustrating, something Quinn says is intentional. “Imagine that this slightly crazy, very colorful government was trying to make an interface for a recipe-sharing network for its country,” he says. “They would hire an internal team to design this ‘cool app’ as a propaganda tool,” but it would probably look and function in weird and unexpected ways. The app that Quinn and his team designed is meant to look like something government bureaucrats would create: There’s an unwieldy recipe-submission portal; an inscrutable map; and a rotating loading-cube reminiscent of Apple’s spinning beach ball.
The app, in other words, is kludgy by design. Most of us have grown accustomed to apps being a breeze to master. But the core story in The Pickle Index is hidden within a thicket of material: Strange Q&As between squabbling lieutenants trapped in a submarine; fictional daily news alerts; a Citizenship Quotient point system that rates your pickle recipes. All of these experiences are buried within the app, and you must dig to find them. Horowitz believes the delayed gratification of the search enhances the user experience. “You’re poking around, endlessly wandering in the midst of boring stuff, and that challenge goes hand-in-hand with the thrill of discovery,” he says. Horowitz likens the experience to falling down an online rabbit hole: “If you stumble upon a hilarious Amazon review on your own, it’s a different experience than [having an article about] the craziest Amazon reviews shoved in your face.”
A Digital World, Designed for Bibliophiles
The Pickle Index app has another advantage over the print versions: It can control how the story reaches you over time and space. In The Silent History, certain field reports were accessible only when the user visited a specific location (one said to be in the Oval Office has yet to be read). Similarly, The Pickle Index app delivers just one chapter of Flora’s narrative per day. (Unless you develop the “magical superpower that lets you advance the story faster,” says Quinn.)
Horowitz says delivering information in a controlled way can enhance the storytelling experience—whether it’s in an app, on TV, or a VR headset. With streaming services like Netflix, he says, “we’ve moved away from the rigid schedule where everyone watches once a week to this pure, freeform binging. But that’s not what people actually want—there’s a value to anticipation and cliffhangers and curiosity.” Horowitz’s philosophy is reflected in the Pickle Index app. Not only is it interactive, but the story it conveys is impossible to experience in one sitting. By controlling the release of the story, Horowitz and Quinn can tailor the reading experience to each user.
Finding the narrative in The Pickle Index isn’t intuitive. But maybe it shouldn’t be. “You sit down to read a print book, or play a videogame, and you expect that it’ll be a little confusing at first. You’re willing to give a moment to see how this world works,” Quinn says. But “when people read on apps, they’re in the frame of mind that they should know what to get out of the format, and how to do it right away.” When an app is not immediately usable, we often delete it right away—Imagine if we all dismissed Borges’ fiction or Kaminski’s paintings or Buñuel’s movies, because interacting with them wasn’t “friction-free.” The Pickle Index may not be on par with One Hundred Years of Solitude, but it does prove that challenging, interactive, multi-platform storytelling can be compelling, immersive, and fun.