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by Elizabeth Fox

18 Nov 2007

The End of the Alphabet

The End of the Alphabet
by C.S. Richardson
Doubleday ($16.95)

By Elizabeth Fox

The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

From the moment you pick up C.S. Richardson’s The End of the Alphabet, there is little doubt that, at only 119 pages, it aspires to join Of Mice and Men on the list of short classic novels bursting with brilliant, heart-wrenching emotion.

To its credit, it does try pretty hard to get there. Its very concept sounds like “instant classic” material. Ambrose Zephyr, a 50-ish man leading a boring, contented life, discovers at his annual medical exam that he has an unspecified illness with no cure, and only 30 days, give or take, to live.

The news comes as a blow both to Ambrose and to his loving wife, Zipper. Attempting to come to terms with this loss of life and love, they try to satisfy Ambrose’s previously unfulfilled desire to travel by racing from one place to the next, each geographical location corresponding with successive letters of the alphabet. The names of characters, the printing career of Ambrose’s father, and the recurring appearances of books, typesetting blocks, and writing in general all highlight this alphabetical motif again and again.

Richardson’s inability to do anything with this symbolism, however, is representative of the book’s major flaw. Throughout, Richardson scatters many of the patterns, symbols, and motifs adored by literature buffs (I am one, so I can say it). In addition to the alphabet, he throws in Ambrose’s obsession with travel, the connection of the couple to Paris, Ambrose’s ability to see and smell through his imagination, and a smattering of other oft-repeated references. Yet intriguing as they are, Richardson is unable to tie these many quirky patterns into any kind of meaning. This is especially disappointing as his major topics—death, love, loss—are ripe for metaphor, symbolism, and literary analysis.

He also faces serious problems in his characterization of Ambrose and Zipper. The reader never gets much of a sense of them as people. By way of introduction, Richardson describes in detail what each of them likes and does not like, and then heads straight into the territory of vague action and generalized grief. The like/don’t like way of introducing characters worked in the French film “Amelie” because it was followed by action, reaction, confrontation and discourse—all things that informed further character development and produced complex personalities. Here, a few details do not a character make. The incomplete haziness of Ambrose and Zipper’s description means that, while their situation is infinitely pitiable, it’s hard to sympathize with them as the people experiencing it.

That said, though, there is a certain sweetness to Richardson’s novel. Perhaps it’s the many references it makes to an idyllic Paris, perhaps it’s the recollection it inspires of Mark Dunn’s wonderful Ella Minnow Pea, or perhaps it’s merely the book’s small size (an hour or two’s reading at most, and, ironically, nicely travel-size), but it does have an offbeat charm.

Richardson also infuses Ambrose and Zipper with certain endearing characteristics—he cannot stand Wuthering Heights, while it’s her favorite book; they disagree about where they first met—to provide a sketch, if not a full portrait, of an adorably eccentric couple. And while Ambrose’s death could not elicit tears from this cold-hearted reader, his last gift to Zipper brought on a sniffle or two.

So in the end, The End of the Alphabet is not a classic. Instead, it’s a flawed but sweet novel, more ordinary than extraordinary. But considering its premise—ordinary, flawed but sweet people in extraordinary circumstances—maybe that makes sense.

by Chris Barsanti

16 Nov 2007

So, the National Book Awards for 2007 have finally been decided on, giving us now very little time to scour through reviews of the winners in order to pretend as though we’ve read them (one has to have some conversational gambit, besides the price of Manhattan real estate and whether to donate to Clinton or Obama, to fall back on at all those fabulous cocktail soirees cluttering up the evening calendar, doesn’t one?). There are four winners—fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and kids’ stuff—and I can only honestly speak to two of them.

The winner for fiction was Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke, which I considered recently in a review elsewhere in the PopMatters voluminous book reviews section. According to myself, “This is a novel drunk on the power of language, which is a critic’s way of saying that it’s self-indulgent, madly so.” It’s also a critic’s way of having it both ways. For a real laceration of the book’s sloppy pretensions, read B.R. Myers’ contrarian review in the new Atlantic; he’s not entirely right but when he says about Johnson that “He is often called “a writer’s writer,” with the customary implication that this is far better than being a reader’s writer”, he’s far from wrong.

As for non-fiction, Tim Weiner’s massive, horrific CIA history Legacy of Ashes took home the gold, and it damn sure deserves it. I spent far too many words arguing just that in a PopMatters feature here. There were winners for poetry and books for kids, as well, but honestly, who has time for such things?

All of this is a way of skirting the biggest issue which seemed to arise from the festivities the other night, as reported by New York‘s Boris Kachka—in other words, why was that editor supposedly feeling up Christopher Hitchens?

by Nikki Tranter

13 Nov 2007

Just in from the New York Times:

Ira Levin, a mild-mannered playwright and novelist who liked nothing better than to give people the creeps — and who did so repeatedly, with best-selling novels like Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives and The Boys From Brazil—died on Monday at his home in Manhattan. He was 78.

by Nikki Tranter

13 Nov 2007

The AV Club’s recent report on the worst book-to-film adaptations has led to some pretty fierce discussion at my house. Happy as we are to see The Grinch get a ribbing, we’re not so sure The Hours, Bee Season, or the remake of All the King’s Men deserve such scorn. I remember all of those as engaging, even gripping in the case of The Hours, which I watched days after finishing the novel.

Stephen King’s The Shining, however, is more out of place than most here, tossed off as “lousy”, with easy dissings of Steven Weber’s acting talents and some TV-grade special effects served up in place of genuine anti-adaptation argument. AV reports:

King never cared for Jack Nicholson’s iconic performance in the earlier film, which he felt tipped off the character’s descent into madness too plainly, but Steven Weber (a.k.a. that guy from Wings) was no one’s idea of an upgrade.

Except, of course, King himself. And anyone who’s read the book and knows Jack Torrance as an everyday family man, something Weber does far more convincingly that schticky Nicholson. The miniseries forgoes scares, true, but Kubrick’s version was hardly frightening and just as laborious. Garris’s film ran four hours, Kubrick’s felt that way.

On the whole, though, AV has it pretty much spot on. Much could be added—perhaps Re:Print will put its own list together. Any suggestions?


by Nikki Tranter

11 Nov 2007

“He was by nature bound to a style of excess. There were times when you would be fed-up with him, but if you could conceive of American culture of the past 50 years without Norman Mailer, you would find it a lot drearier.”



So says EL Doctorow or Norman Mailer, who died this past weekend in New York City. The best of the obits can be found in the Los Angeles Times. Elaine Woo dissects Mailer’s varied images, from wunderkind to genius, giant to buffoon.

The Guardian positions Mailer as “the pugilist who wrote the story of America”, the Village Voice credits its co-founder, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution digs up a host of literary types to praise Mailer up, down, and sideways. John Mark Eberhart at the Kansas City Star remembers Mailer from the perspective of a fan rather than a colleague or simple observer.

I took [Ancient Evenings] home. The suffering began. This book was a photonegative of [The Executioner’s] Song, dull instead of fascinating, leaden instead of lively. Certainly the writing was good. Mailer just didn’t convince me to care about the story. Through the years, that would be my experience with Mailer; to read him was to be alternately vexed and dazzled.

It’s impossible, though, to know just what to think of Mailer, egocentric Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author who head-butted Gore Vidal and stabbed a lover at a party, based on these all-too-nice retrospectives. Check out the real Mailer for yourself over at Wired for Books. Don Swaim’s hour-long 1991 interview is most revealing.


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