The wonder of the English alphabet is that, with fewer letters than appear in the word “antidisestablishmentarianism,” it is possible to write the Encyclopædia Britannica. This is powerful mojo, and explains why writers have long savoured individual letters the way one relishes the discrete ingredients of a gourmet meal.
Letters came into their own as the stars of tiny books designed to educate the young. We know about The Tragical Death of A, Apple Pie, evidently the oldest English alphabet book on record, because it was cited by cleric and satirist John Eachard in 1671: “A was an apple pie; B bit it; C cut it.” Tom Thumb’s Alphabet, which dates from the early 1700s (“Y was a Yeoman, and work’d for his bread; Z was one Zeno the Great, but he’s dead”), was frequently and promiscuously recycled, as in this version from the 1800s: “Y was a youth, that did not love school; Z was a zany, a poor harmless fool.”
Illustrators from Walter Crane and Kate Greenaway to Dr. Seuss, Gennady Spirin and Edward Gorey (“B is for Basil, assaulted by bears”) have relished the excuse for fanciful drawings, as did Toronto artist Barbara Klunder in her 2009 book The Animals’ Day: An Island Alphabet (“Kittens … have the cool knack of keeping a kayak from keeling over”). Humorists have used the ABCs for the fun of juxtaposing more adult subjects with the inherent innocence of alphabet books. Robert Benchley wrote in the Harvard Lampoon in 1912: “The letter G’s for Guzzling Gourmand, H for Heavy Man./ The Guzzler’ll soon be heavy if he guzzles when he can.”
More ominously, some works have trafficked in the absence of letters. New York writer Mark Dunn’s dystopian 2001 “epistolary fable” Ella Minnow Pea imagined an island nation southeast of Charleston, South Carolina, where everyone worships Nevin Nollop, “the author of the popular pangram sentence, ‘The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.’” When letters in the phrase start falling off the town’s cenotaph, the rulers forbid citizens to use any of those absent letters on pain of exile or worse. Those who write notes to friends must scramble for legal alternatives (“I loog 4 yew all aphternoon”).
In his 1969 novel La disparition, French writer Georges Perec avoided using the letter E—except, presumably, in the author’s credit. Calgary -professor Christian Bök wrote a 2009 tour de force, Eunoia, in chapters that each contained only one of the vowels. This was easier with some letters (“Goths who rob tombs confront old ghosts”) than with others (“Ubu unplugs flux”).
The delightful conceit of Molly Peacock’s new book, Alphabetique: 26 Characteristic Fictions, is that each vowel and consonant has a distinct personality, and that the transition from lower-case to upper-case letter echoes the joys and pains of growing to adulthood.
The catalogue naturally begins with A, who was unnoticed as a child but “grew up on long, slender legs to her point, becoming a capital of quiet beauty.” Her aunt has urged her to remember that “you’re special, you have two jobs to do, unlike the rest of us. You’re a letter, but you’re an article as well.”
Even as we sail past the inevitable wisecrack (“You’re the genuine article”), a pregnant A and her husband THE are climbing the Alps, where they pass the time by wondering what to call their child. No sooner have they decided than we are briskly on to B, calmly eating “buttered bread, burnt bacon, and blackberries from a little bowl,” while being immersed in a world of fonts and social cliques where having or not having a serif is, as with Oblio’s lack of a point in Harry Nilsson’s The Point!, a big deal.
Peacock, a much-published poet living in Toronto, made a splash in 2010 with The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delany Begins Her Life’s Work at 72. Both a reflection on Peacock’s own life and an exploration of that of Mary Granville Pendarves Delany, who began at 72 in the late 18th century to create intricate images of flowers from cut paper, the book benefited from beautiful reproductions of Delany’s work. This time round, it is Vancouver-area illustrator Kara Kosaka whose clever, colourful collages (this alliteration is catching) imagine a U floating in a clockwork dream and, under I, butterflies whose bodies are lower-case Is. The images simultaneously ground Peacock’s flights of fancy—hey, these letters are real—and, echoing the photorealism of the best dreams, mirror the unbridled imagination of the stories.
Peacock occasionally strays from the traditional rules of the alphabet-book format. There is no N in the N chapter, but rather a chamber trio of NO (a violin), NOT (a viola) and NEVER (a cello). The chapter on X does indeed star X, who has just undergone a quadruple bypass and is wondering how an X can mark her spot, but, apart from a mention of Xanadu, there is no dogged attempt to pile on words beginning with X. Peacock prefers the less showy exaggerate, excite and exile.
Being a poet, she has made P a poet, who, as his lover sleeps, composes a haiku involving a poppy, a penis and a peony. “After he calligraphed the puzzle of passion across the page, he woke the one in the pond of pink silk, and they proved it on the futon.” Sex insinuates itself into several chapters, although oddly enough not into S or X.
Throughout, Peacock delights in the sound of words, to the point that the interplay of labials and fricatives is on occasion more compelling than the narrative. Consider the tale of the regular S and the italic S, who meet while on military patrol and discover a shared memory of falling asleep to the sound of a dishwasher. “Instead of mollusks jostling in the undertow of a depth bomb, plates rattled in the swoosh of their dishwashers, S-curves of waves from the whirling sprinklers inside a kitchen appliance, the tide heated from the dials.” This is a book to be read aloud at the slightest provocation.
In a cute touch, some of the letters make return visits. In the chapter on T, in which T is a tree, A and THE wander by with their child in a stroller. In the chapter on Z, the letters make an appearance in reverse alphabetical order, with F “fainting next to a heavy-eyed E” in the wake of “Ns who had ztopped nudging and Ms who had ztopped merging.” The whole gang is together again, ready to take on the Encyclopædia Britannica, all those individual ztruggles at a ztandztill.