5.18.2011

Alphabetical Africa by Walter Abish

(**Please go here for an improved version of this review**)


Alphabetical Africa is one of the wittiest, most cleverly constructed books I've ever read.  Here's why:   The first chapter, "A,"only contains words that begin with the letter "a"; the second chapter, "B," only contains words beginning with either the letters "a" or "b"; and so on and so forth goes the rest of the novel, chapters C, D, E, F, G and on to chapter "Z".  Then, the novel starts erasing itself, so to speak, as it contracts from having access to the full gamut of the English alphabet in chapter "Z" back to hyper-restrictive chapter "A", filled with alliterative paragraphs like this:

"After air attack author assumes Alva's asexuality affected African army's ack-ack accuracy, an arguable assumption, anyhow, army advances, annilihating antelopes, alligators and ants.  Admirable attrition admits Ashanti admiral as author all alone autographs Ashanti atlas, authenticating anthill actions.  Actually, asks Alva, are all Ashanti alike."


Alphabetical Africa's self-restricted artifice helps make it one of the funniest "experimental" novels or "avant-garde" novels or whatever you want to call these unconventionally structured novels that Walter Abish and other Oulipo-type writers tend to produce; novels whose narratives employ radically unorthodox devices in communicating their contents to the reader.  Maybe I'm strange, but I think it's hysterical that the first person narrator of Alphabetical Africa can't appear until chapter "I" and then disappears after the apex of chapter "Z" has been reached and the novel, having incrementally lost access to the complete English language, segues from chapter "I" to chapter "H".  Bye bye first person narrator, and welcome back "author".

I'm aware that many folks might automatically turn their noses up at the label "avant garde" or "experimental" as it does regrettably tend to signify that the book labeled such is just so precious ...  so cutting edge, conceived by the artsy-fartsy pretentious highbrowed elect as "pushing fiction beyond heretofore preconceived limits to lofty new literary heights of visionary grandeur and artful excellence blah blah blah," or some blurbish bullshit like that; when in fact all the book has "accomplished" is come up with some cute, minutely original contrivances or gimmicks to coverup the fact of its fated (and deserved) remainder-pile-mediocrity, the focus of its promoters being on its supposed "innovaton" because solid, compelling storytelling, it lacks.

Not so, Alphabetical Africa.  Though "avant-garde" and "experimental" it is, it's nevertheless a novel experiment worth reading.  Worth reading twice or three times even just to figure out what Abish had to excise with his self-imposed letter limitations.  Even with the letter restrictions early on in the novel and at its conclusion, Abish's poetic prose constantly rings true, no matter how many letters are available to him.  The writing never sounds forced to fit its artifice.  No faux prose.  Genuine narration.  Pure poetry.  True, it's mildly uncomfortable, at least to this reader, reading non-stop alliteration for two and three pages at a shot, but you get used to it like watching sub-titles of a foreign film after awhile; you forget they're even there on the screen, caught up as you are in the drama of the film.  In the same way, what you have to interpret in Alphabetical Africa -- with its self-restricted artifice -- does not detract either, remarkably, from following an increasingly engrossing and funny plot.

What's it about?

About Africa.  Alphabets.  Angolans.  Animals.  Alligators.  Ants.  Antelopes.  Archaeologists.  Alva.  Alva's abduction.  Alex and Allen's arguments about Alva's abduction.  Who done it?!

And about a ... a Tanzanian transvestite too!

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