Return Trip to Alphabetical Africa by Walter Abish

(**note to my literally single-digits of regular and loyal readers out there, wherever you reside on this rotating orb of ours we share: the following is a revision, not an entirely new review, of an earlier, more linguistically- and alphabetically-challenged piece on Alphabetical Africa, originally posted in May 2011**)

Alphabetical Africa is one of the wittiest, most cleverly constructed novels 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 retreats from chapter "Z" -- the only chapter in the book where Walter Abish is "allowed" to use words beginning with every letter in the alphabet -- and backwards on through the incrementally reduced availability of letters in chapters Y, W, V, U, T, and so on, culminating where the novel began in the most hyper-restrictive chapter of the book, chapter "A", replete with paragraphs like the following nugget of alliterative awesomeness:

"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 artifice is also artful. It's purposeful self-limits help make it one of the funniest "experimental" 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 structural or organizational devices in communicating their unusual message to the reader.  The structure, in fact, becomes, in whole or in part, the message being communicated, along with the story, and gives the novel a certain texture and depth, a sort of funky, surreal feel like a 3D drawing by Escher, that more conventionally styled novels can only dream of invoking.  Maybe I'm strange, but I think it's hysterical that the first person narrator of Alphabetical Africa can't appear in his novel until chapter "I" and then must disappear after the apex of chapter "Z" has been reached and the novel, having lost access to the complete English alphabet pertaining to the first letters of words, backtracks from chapter "I" to chapter "H", where it's goodbye to the "I" first person narrator, and welcome back, "author".

I'm aware that many readers might automatically turn their noses up at the label "avant garde" or "experimental," as it does, regrettably, tend to signify that the book labeled as such is just so precious ...  so cutting edge, conceived by the artsy-fartsy, pretentious, so highbrowed you can barely see their foreheads, hoity-toity, just plain stuck-up, literati-elect as (can you hear them like I do?) "pushing fiction beyond heretofore preconceived limits to lofty new horizons in literature; of such visionary grandeur and excellence, blah blah blah," or some other blurbish bullshit like that denoting next to nothing; when in fact all the book has "accomplished" is come up with some cutesy, minutely original contrivance or gimmick to coverup the fact of its fated (and deserved) remainder-pile-mediocrity, the sole foci of its promoters having been its supposed "innovaton" because solid, compelling storytelling and writing, it completely lacks.  House of Leaves, for instance, has taken a ton of abuse for allegedly being a hollow shell of a novel whose shallowness is disguised by its carnival of textual formatting, though I disagree vehemently (as I digress) and believe the artifice of House of Leaves only enhances its uniquely imaginative artistry ....

The artifice of Alphabetical Africa works brilliantly too.  Though, yes, "avant-garde" and "experimental" it is, it's nevertheless a novel experiment worth reading.  It's worth reading twice or three times too just to figure out what words Abish had to excise or replace with synonyms because of his letter limitations.  Not to mention the many "mistakes" he made in the writing, when he included words that began with, say, the letter "w" in chapter "D".  Were the mistakes made by Abish -- or his editors -- made on purpose?  I don't know.  Even so, occasional imperfections considered, the novel's a fascinating riot to read.  Abish's poetic prose rings true no matter how much, or how little, of the alphabet he has at his disposal.  His writing never sounds like he had to force it to fit inside the mould of his self-imposed artifice.  True, it's mildly uncomfortable at first, at least to this reader, reading non-stop alliteration for two and three pages at a spell, but you get used to it eventually, and it feels natural, like watching sub-titles of some gorgeous foreign film and becoming so entranced by the movie that you no longer even notice the subtitles on the screen.  Life is Beautiful was like that for me.

So what's Alphabetical Africa about already?

About Africa.  Alphabets.  Angolans.  Animals.  Alligators.  Ants.  Antelopes.  Archaeologists.  Alva.  Alva's abduction.  Alex and Allen's articulate arguments about Alva's awful abduction.   As in who done the dirty deed?  Though (ooops) see how I just violated my impromptu, Walter Abish-inspired, self-imposed, seemingly unending "a" alliteration?  It's hard trying to emulate, or pay homage, to Alphabetical Africa!  So I'll just keep on praising it to anybody who'll listen.  Did I mention there's this Tanzanian transvestite traveling through Alphabetical Africa's tremendous text too?