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Walter Abish: An Amazingly Awesome and August and Artful Alphabetical Africa

The Next Writer Up in My Series Spotlighting the Writers from Contemporary Novelists

2. Walter Abish (1931 - )

Listen to how Jerome Klinkowitz describes Abish's first novel, Alphabetical Africa, a book I've decided I'm just going to have to break down and order online as people don't seem to part with it -- at least in the second hand shops I haunt in SoCal. The book sounds like it had to have been an excruciatingly tedious to construct:

Alphabetical Africa (New Directions Book)

"...a tour de force demonstration of how words can refer to their own artificiality at the same time they operate as linguistic signifiers.

"The first chapter is titled 'A,' and every word therein begins with that letter ('Ages ago, Alex, Allen and Alva arrived at Antibes, and Alva allowing all, allowing anyone, against Alex's admonition, against Allen's angry assertion: another African amusement,' etc.).

"The second chapter, 'B,' adds words beginning with the letter B, and so forth until the book expands to its full linguistic possibilities. Such a self-apparent structure makes the reader painfully aware of the words themselves, and of how an artificial discipline of language determines just what reality may transpire.

"For example, a character named Herman can't appear until chapter 'H'; the first person narrator must keep his comments to himself until chapter 'I'; and the characters cannot travel to Jedda until chapter 'J.' By chapter 'Z' the full exercise of language may have lulled the reader into complacency. But the book is only half done, for the 27th chapter is titled 'Z' once more, followed by 'Y,' 'X,' and so forth back through the now-contracting alphabet.

"Familiar persons, places, and things are lost at each receding chapter as the book's mimetic action literally effaces itself in one's hands, until at the end one is left with the solemn toiling at the minimally expressive letter A.

"Like breathing in and then breathing out, the reader has experienced the expansion and contraction, the life and death of a work of fiction. At no point can one suspend disbelief and sink into the pantomine of suspended disbelief, for at all times attention is riveted to the self-conscious making and unmaking of the physical book."

Has anybody read it? Might make a nice Oulipo read for 2012.

Walter Abish's published works up to 1981:

Alphabetical Africa (1974)
Minds Meet (1975, story collection)
In the Future Perfect (1977, story collection)
How German Is It (1980)

How German Is It = Wie Deutsch Ist Es: A Novel


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