Alphabetical Africa by Walter Abish

Alphabetical AfricaAs much as I always love New Directions, it’s rare for me to actually read three of their titles in a row, as happened quite by chance with Robinson, Alphabetical Africa, and Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry. Though I’d call B.S. Johnson’s novel the most avant-garde in the bunch, Abish is no stylistic slouch, and Alphabetical Africa is, say, the most Oulipian.

The formal conceit of the novel is that the first chapter contains only words beginning in ‘a’, the second only words beginning in ‘a’ or ‘b’, and so n, until the middle of the book, when all words are available, and then, chapter-by-chapter, begin disappearing from its lexicon in the reverse of the order they entered it (FILO, for the geeks out there).

Even for those willing to accept the premise that one can write a reasonable novel omitting the more common letter in the language (c.f., Georges Perec, La Disparition), this probably seems like it must inevitably seem nonnaturalistic and extremely formal. There’s no doubt that Alphabetical Africa isn’t a typical novel, but it is a novel—it distinctly tells a story, and fairly clearly—and the strategies Abish uses to fulfill his constraints are varied and successful. It opens thus:

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…anyhow, as all argued, an awesome African army assembled and arduously advanced against an African anthill, assiduously annihilating ant after ant, and afterward, Alex astonishingly accuses Albert as also accepting Africa’s antipodal ant annexation. Albert argumentatively answers at another apartment. Answers: ants are Ameisen. Are ants Ameisen?

“Ameisen” is the German for “ants.” While far from natural speech, this is also impressively well put together considering the words all start with one letter, and that letter is one that prevents access to some of English’s most important (the, he, she, they, etc.). By the “G” chapter, even though we’re still missing all those, it sounds pretty normal:

Back at Angola, Alex and Allen are buying an expensive chart containing clear directions for finding certain gold amulets. Chart covers four acres. Contemplating chart both are attacked by African ants, forgetting gold amulets and Alva, both flee following African army’s flight also from a determined attack by fierce ants. Author despairs. Abandoned chart carried away by ants. Alex calls Allen: a fucking ant fleeing coward.

The language is still clipped, to deal with those pesky definite articles and personal pronouns, but again, impressively normal I think.

Beyond the formal experimentation, how much value is there in a novel like Alphabetical Africa? Well, as the narrator notes, “Africa is a favorite topic in literature, it gives license to so much excess…” And here, we could look on this entire exercise as excess: is it pure mental masturbation to write such a book? I personally take these works as experiments (as they are) in what language and literature can do. This one did something I thought was possible, but better than I thought possible. Did I mention there’s a real story here? It’s a thriller, by the way. A bizarre, avant-garde, obscene, sometimes ridiculous thriller. But probably more of a curio for me than anything else in the end.

3 comments to Alphabetical Africa by Walter Abish

  • I heard about this book after reading Life A Users Manual and wanted to read it. I haven’t tracked down a copy yet. I liked Perec’s A Void so I thought I might appreciate this one, and after reading your review my mind hasn’t changed. Like you, I am fascinated by what language can do, and look forward to testing the waters with this book myself. Thanks for the reminder!
    Sarah recently posted..Telling Tales of WomenMy Profile

  • Did you see Rise’s insane, inspired post on this book? It is full of diagrams.

    I remember finding myself paying so much attention to the letters on the page that the actual experience of reading became detached and bizarre. The words were both their usual selves but also vehicles for the delivery of first letters, as if the first letter was the only part of the word that really mattered. Odd odd odd.
    Amateur Reader (Tom) recently posted..Art is the most sublime and the most revolting thing simultaneously – Thomas Bernhard’s Viennese cultural historyMy Profile

  • Tom, no, I missed that! Great post.

    I was somewhat like you. There was something about this one for me where I thought Abish did very well at the experiment, made an interesting novel of the whole thing, but in the end it was still so formal for me, as a reader, that I didn’t ever feel like I was inside it in any way.

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