Saturday, June 25, 2011

Novels and poems and word play, oh my!

There are lots of ways in which books can be creative. Authors can use unique writing styles, innovative plot, unusual characters, and so on. I'd like to concentrate here on literature that uses unusual forms of word play, resulting in books that are tough to write and interesting, although at times a real challenge, to read.

First up: the lipogramatic book. A lipogram is a work that eliminates a particular letter of the alphabet from use. The most famous example of such a book, and the first such work in English, is "Gadsby" by Ernest Vincent Wright, a 50,000 word novel written in 1939. It avoids all use of the letter 'e'. In fact, to make certain that he didn't inadvertently use a word with an 'e' in it, Wright taped over the letter on his keyboard. Another example of an 'e'-less novel is the 300-page "La Disparition" (The Disappearance"), written in French by Georges Perec in 1969 and translated into English in 1994 by Gilbert Adair with the title "A Void."  Perec also wrote a novel in 1972 that contained ONLY the vowel 'e' called "Les Revenentes" .

It's a difficult feat to write a novel without using a single 'e', since it's the most frequently used letter, found in 12.7% of all English words, and in about 35% of the most common English words. Imagine trying to write a novel without using words such as "the" and "are" or verbs ending in "ed," and you can imagine not only how difficult it would be to create, but also how awkward the resultant phrasing would be. I've never read either of the above-mentioned English books, but I'd be interested to read the first few pages.

As a side note, Wikipedia mentions a review of Perec's novel in The Times (of London) by Philip Howard, which is itself written as a lipogram: "This is a story chock-full of plots and sub-plots, of loops within loops, of trails in pursuit of trails, all of which allow its author an opportunity to display his customary virtuosity as an avant-gardist magician, acrobat and clown." Interesting! Oops... that word has an 'e'. I mean fascinating!

A similar, but less constrained book that I have actually read is "Ella Minnow Pea; a Progressively Lipogramatic Epistolary Fable" by Mark Dunn. It's a political satire about a government that bans usage of letters of the alphabet, one by one, and recommends substitute words and spellings. The story is told through letters (the epistolary kind rather than the alphabetic kind) written between Ella and her family and friends as they try to adhere to the changing letter ban, with humorous results. Incidentally, say the name of the title character out loud. Her name should suggest something familiar to you.

The last letter in the story, where Ella imagines the banning of almost all the letters that are left in the skimpy alphabet, looks like this:
Letter to me
Onlee 24 owers remain.
Tiles plop, 8 tiles plomp, plomp all in one nite.
Tee ent is near.
So lon A!
So lon E! (Nise to no ewe.)
So lon I!
So lon R! (Are ewe lonesome tonite?)
So lon S!
So lon T!
So lon W!
So lon O twin. (Remnant-twin is all alone now)
Now onlee 5 remain at 12 o'time. Onlee 5. Onlee 5 remain.
Wear is tat paint?
Not only is this book a lipogram, but the plot also concerns the hunt for the shortest sentence that uses every letter of the alphabet at least once. We all know the old standby "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog" (containing 35 letters), but this story goes three letters better: "Pack my box with five dozen liquor jugs" (which contains only 32 letters). Besides this clever novel, Mark Dunn also wrote "Ibid," a novel written entirely in footnotes for a document that the reader cannot see. While I didn't feel it had the impact of "Ella Minnow Pea," it was still an interesting read. I can't wait to see what innovative form of novel Dunn will come up with next.

The second unusual form is the palindromic novel. A palindrome is a phrase that reads the same backwards and forwards. A few famous examples are "A man, a plan, a canal, Panama" and "Madam, I'm Adam." As hard as it is for me to imagine an entire novel written as one huge palindrome, it has actually been done. One of the most famous is "Dr Awkward & Olson in Oslo" by Lawrence Levine, written in 1986. It consists of an amazing 167 pages and 31,954 words. Note that the title is a pair of palindromes. The novel starts with "Tacit, I hate gas (aroma of evil)," and ends with "live foam or a sage Tahiti cat." Yuck. I think I'll pass on that one!

Our prolific Georges Perec (see lipogramatic novels above) has also written a palindromic novel in French. It's called "Grand Palindrome,"  is 5,556 letters in length, and was written in 1969. Not as impressive as the efforts of Levine, but I have to give him credit for accepting so many writing challenges.

Next we come to stories and poems written in homophonic tranformation, where words translated into phonetically similar alternatives (which appear to be meaningless jibberish) can be pronounced out loud to produce meaningful sentences out of thin air. In 1940, Howard L. Chace wrote a nursery rhyme collection called "Anguish Languish" ("English Language"), which rewrote familiar children's verse in homophonic transformation. An example is "Marry Hatter Ladle Limb" which translates to "Mary Had a Little Lamb."  Another example is the story of "Ladle Rat Rotten Hut" (Little Red Riding Hood), which begins:
Wants pawn term dare worsted ladle gull hoe lift wetter murder inner ladle cordage honor itch offer lodge, dock, florist. Disk ladle gull orphan worry putty ladle rat cluck wetter ladle rat hut, an fur disk raisin pimple colder Ladle Rat Rotten Hut.
Read it out loud a few times and it should become fairly clear what it says. Whew!

In a similar vein, I remember reading the children's book "CDB" ("See the Bee") by Caldecott-winning author William Steig not long after it was republished in 2000. Simply by using individual letters to be read out loud, along with helpful illustrations, Steig creates meaningful sentences. Examples include I N-V U (illustrated by one boy watching another licking a lollipop), "I M A U-M B-N," (where a boy talks to a dog), and the tougher "O-L H" (picturing a decrepit elderly man sagging in a chair). Kids can have X-L-N fun figuring these sentences out.

Enough for today. I'll continue in a day or two with more unusual uses of word play in books. Stay tuned...


1 comment:

  1. Very interesting! You can "Look Inside" Gadsby on to see what a book with no E's looks like. These gimmicky books are fun, but not what we'd call great writing....