Devised by Comma Press and Literature Across Frontiers, Gimbal is a literary app like no other. Combining the fruits of the LAF’s ‘Tramlines’ project and the best of Comma’s ‘Reading the City’ commissions, the app aims to pair readers with short stories (in text and audio formats) by leading international authors. The Literateur asked three of its writers to road test the app and see what all the fuss is about…
Underground: Central Line, London
The Gimbal app, created by Comma Press, has the ability to transform the humdrum banality and stresses of commuting into an altogether more pleasant experience. Designed for the iPhone, Gimbal enables users to access a host of short stories for their reading pleasure, conveniently arranged into categories including location, genre, journey length and mode of transport. In addition, the recently updated new version of the app allows users to download audio versions of the short stories, automatically add bookmarks (extremely useful when you’re on the go) and access ten new stories.
I gave Gimbal a spin while on my way to Liverpool Street Station during rush hour. Contorting my face away from a fellow commuter’s armpit, I whipped out my iPhone, opened the app and decided to choose a short story by location. I was then offered the choice of Europe, Asia, North America, the Middle East or North Africa. I chose North America, and settled on the quirkily named ‘Watermelon’ by Arnon Grunberg.
The story humorously describes the experience of a native New Yorker on the way to a barbeque, bearing the gift of an impossibly oversized watermelon. The fruit is so heavy that he is forced to roll it along the pavement and, as the journey unfolds, Grunberg’s descriptions of various people’s reactions act as a delightfully dry, at times mischievous exploration of the New York stereotype.
Because I was underground, I was unable to download the audio version of the story. However, this feature comes highly recommended: as the story unfolds, the screen topographically displays the streets described by the author, and the listener is able to follow the protagonist’s journey as they travel from location to location.
Another fantastic feature – this time accessible when reading the stories – is the handy icon that appears in the margin beside certain locations in the tale. When clicked on, these provide written information and sometimes photographs of the area being described, allowing readers to become yet more immersed in the story.
The only problem posed by Gimbal is its somewhat clunky navigability. In order to return to the app’s homepage, you must revert through the many previous screens. However, at worst this was a mild irritation, and certainly did not detract from my overall impression of the app as a wonderful form of escapism from the daily grind, allowing users to explore faraway places through a convenient medium that is seamlessly synergised with modern life.
At Home: Liverpool
It’s raining outside and I have a story set in Blackpool; maybe the two things aren’t related. ‘The Other Man’ is, by turns, a sensual then sinister piece of short fiction by Jean Sprackland which grips you with its mystery and its relentless forward thrust. It’s the story that Gimbal threw up to me, a new app with a very smart interface that offers to take you on a literary journey through a series of different choices. It feels fresh and interesting, it feels usable (which many literary apps don’t) and it’s certainly something that I’d return to on long train journeys (none of them to Blackpool, alas).
It’s raining outside but the app feels like it has the power to transport me. Much of the writing world, particularly the literary world, with its seriousness and backs as straight as Blackpool Tower, doesn’t seem to take new technology too seriously. They’ll give us an eBook, but oftentimes the podcasts of literary magazines sound like two people talking into empty bulbs connected by a loose piece of electrical wire from either end of a busy promenade. This app feels like it takes literature seriously as well as taking new technology seriously. It feels useful. It feels exciting.
On foot: Herne Hill to Kennington Station, London
Forty/fifty minutes are sufficient for a trip to Beijing, Oxford or Istanbul, according to the Gimbal app. I opted for the latter, downloaded Jana Šrámková’s ‘Possibility I’ and set off on my morning walk to work.
Šrámková’s story, translated from the Czech by Alexandra Bücher, follows a young girl’s visit to Istanbul and her journey through the city. Her luggage is typical of every affected Interrailer: a battered vintage suitcase, a Moleskine diary, a few forlorn philosophies. Her attacks of existentialism are scarcely soothed by the story’s aggressively intrusive narrator. She shadows her character, reverses her actions (even her direction of travel), defends her, protects her, reassures her, contradicts her – and, for quite a time, loses all trace of her.
The story seems custom-built for a mobile app. Taking place largely on a T1 tram ride through the Turkish city, Šrámková’s piece is obsessed with navigation, transportation, route-finding: stasis is the enemy, “lack of movement made [the girl’s suitcase] shabby”. As I walked through the backstreets of south London, I kept one eye on my iPod screen, on the map that accompanies the story and the little blue blob that traced the girl’s route: across Galata Bridge, past Sirkeci Station, alongside the Grand Bazaar (simultaneously sidestepping tubs of fish-heads as I weaved through Brixton Market). Indeed, at times, the story more closely resembles a Lonely Planet tour than a work of fiction. If you choose to read along, you can open illustrated summaries of the city’s key sights from the side of the screen: Topkapi Palace, Taksim Square, Istiklal Avenue, Istanbul Modern. These digital footnotes are not uninteresting, often instructive, but – I’ll admit – sometimes distracting and unnecessary.
Gimbal offers an accessible, versatile and entertaining way of absorbing short stories, a welcome companion for weary commuters and psychogeographers alike. I’m not convinced that all of the selected stories would survive outside of the app – nonetheless, it is rich and varied in content, and should be commended for showcasing so many translated stories on a digital platform. Yet again, Comma Press proves itself to be a serious pioneer of short fiction publishing.
You can download the Gimbal to your iPhone through the App Store or via the Gimbal website.