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The End of the Alphabet

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Sunday, Nov 18, 2007
by Elizabeth Fox
A flawed run through the alphabet; author C.S. Richardson delivers an intriguing symbolism, yet doesn't derive much from it.
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.

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