Thursday, October 01, 2015

A Startling Omission

Not long ago, I took a look at a most unusual book, Gadsby. In crafting this oddity, Gadsby's author laid out a conspicuously difficult task: to draft a work of fiction without using that most common symbol any child would know from his "ABC"s -- that traditionally found twixt "d" and "f." It sounds absurd, but Gadsby runs almost sixty thousand words without a solitary intrusion by that taboo symbol.

In a harsh bit of irony, I can only supply this author's patronymic whilst complying with his own lipogrammatic constraint -- so "Wright" must satisfy. My hat's off to Wright for consummating his wild vision. I must say, mimicking his form for just a fraction of Gadsby's duration is profoundly taxing. If you doubt it, an introduction pinpoints many pitfalls you'd indubitably avoid if you took on this particular orthographic proposition. (That introduction also proclaims his motivation for doing it at all: it was a goal that critics thought no author could attain.)

Lots of fun follows from Wright's dizzying syntactical contortions. You'll find substitutions for broadly known sayings, such as "music hath charms to calm a wild bosom." Also built in: a handful of playful fourth-wall violations, noting how normal word options can't apply in this book. For illustrations, Wright taunts you for many paragraphs about throngs of animals that can't crop up in his fictional city's zoo; and portrays unions of holy matrimony (you'll find as many in this book as in a humorous play by Stratford-upon-Avon's famous Bard!), highlighting just how many contraband words usually crop up in chronicling such an occasion.

What isn't so stimulating is Gadsby's plotting, or that is to say, its total lack of anything you might distinguish as a plot. Wright arrays this book as fiction, but it drifts around akin to random scribblings in a diary. This author roughly follows Gadsby's administration as mayor of Branton Hills -- a city which blossoms in his guardianship. But Gadsby's story has no arc. Affairs don't climax in any substantial way. No significant antagonists or hardships pop up. (Wright so quickly whisks away small intrusions involving war and alcoholism that no impact sticks around.) Basically, Gadsby wants things for his town, and his plucky Youth Organization aids him in making it so. Branton Hills grows ad infinitum. Yawn.

Wright's book is also simply too florid. It first hit around World War II, and favors an archaic approach to yarn-spinning. Winding thoughts carry on too long, with run-on construction. (Though mayhap it's a natural instinct Wright has to show off his virtuosity with lipograms. I admit, I am drawn to do it too!) Still, with as much difficulty as is intrinsic to crafting thoughts without that most common symbol, you'd think succinct wording a short cut worth a king's ransom. (Gadsby also contains a sprinkling of musty chauvinism against womankind, but that too is unsurprising for its day.)

Gadbsy is truly a triumph of linguistics... but as a work of fiction, it's all but bankrupt. From his own introduction, I doubt that Wright would contradict my analysis. This book is a curiosity that warrants a C-. Hunt it down out of fascination, not for satisfaction.

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