For the "constrained literature" discussion group I've been hosting, I've just read Walter Abish's Alphabetical Africa. (I began it once before, but this was my first full trip through it.)
It's a strange book, written under a tight (and, so far as I know, a unique) Oulipian constraint. The first half of the book consists of 26 chapters, labeled A through Z. The first chapter contains only words beginning with A; the second contains words beginning with A and B; the third words beginning with A, B and C; and so on up until Z, in which any word may appear. The second half of the book, also 26 chapters long, reverses the process. The chapters are labeled Z through A; Z uses any words; Y uses any words save those beginning with Z; X uses any words save those beginning with Y or Z, and so on back through the final chapter, A, which again uses only words beginning with A.
To give you a sense of how this works in practice, here's the first paragraph of the first chapter A:
Ages ago, Alex, Allen and Alva arrived at Antibes, and Alva allowing all, allowing anyone, against Alex's admonition, against Allen's angry assertion: another African amusement . . . anyhow, as all argued, an awesome African army assembled and arduously advanced against an African anthill, assiduously annihilating ant after ant, and afterward, Alex astonishingly accuses Albert as also accepting Africa's antipodal ant annexation. Albert argumentatively answers at another apartment. Answers: ants are Ameisen. Ants are Ameisen?Here's the opening of the first chapter I:
I haven't been here before. I had hoped I could hire a car, but I can't drive. I have been awfully busy finishing a book about Alva. First I contemplated doing a book about another character, and another country. Bit by bit I have assembled Africa. Although I hate hot climates I chose Africa. Desire is always alive in hot climates I have been informed. I brought a gun along, and a calendar. It is August here. Bright beautiful August. I used to draw Alva. Her face, her hands, her breasts. But I am an amateur artist. I didn't bring any drawings along. I am alone.And here's the opening of the first chapter S:
Summarizing Africa: I can speak more freely. I find fewer and fewer impediments. Soon I'll reach my destination. Soon I'll also complete my documentation and my book. Daily Africa is shrinking from extreme heat and fatigue, as rebels in bush battle African armies led by foreigners. Orders are passed in fifteen magnificent click languages. It is no surprise really if most soldiers are missing.You get the idea. At times particularly in the early chapters, it reads somewhat more like poetry than like fiction. If you want to sample some more, here's the book in Google Books. And here is a fabulous review of the novel in twenty-six paragraphs using (the first half of) Abish's constraint in its writing.
If this sounds utterly silly and pointless to you, then you almost certainly won't like the actual book. It's a novel that requires the experimental-literature equivalent of a healthy willing suspension of disbelief: you need to go with the flow. If, on the other hand, it sounds cool, then you probably will like it, because it's good at what it is. While I personally found the first couple of chapters tough to get through, it picks up around chapter I, and becomes a very funny, engaging book (with arguably problematic politics). It's not the Great American Novel or anything, but it's probably the Great Alphabetical African Novel,* and that, while admittedly somewhat more limited, is still a lot of fun.
And it's a wild constraint after all. Imagine writing entire chapters with so limited a vocabulary! And yet somehow Abish manages to do it.
Except for the goofs.
Ah, yes: the famous errors of Abish's Alphabetical Africa. The Complete Review, which does its usual good job on Abish's book, found four errors. Reading through it, I found no less than twelve more -- and another two items that are arguably errors. Here's a complete list, combining all of them. (Update: This is now obsolete. An integrated, updated list can be found here.)
|G1, p. 15||premature I||Are Germans convincing in Africa?|
|K1, p. 27||premature N||...he could design a new colony...|
|N1, p. 35||premature S||...everything, even all sounds, heavy, dark...|
|O1, p. 38||premature P||...I promise her.|
|P1, p. 39||premature T [arguable]||...part-time only...|
|R1, p. 46||premature T [arguable]||After a bit of rough-and-tumble...|
|V1, p. 58||premature W||...from the eastern and western edges...|
|W1, p. 59||premature Y||...had we been here a hundred years ago...|
|V2, p. 87||belated W||The children are at school when the mailman arrives...|
|T2, p. 93||belated W||When Boyd discovered this...|
|T2, p. 94||belated W||...they meet men who are transplanting Africa.|
|T2, p. 95||belated W||...have come to terms with African emotions.|
|T2, p. 97||belated W||He walks as far as the gates of the consulate.|
|K2, p. 123||belated L||Like everything else...|
|k2, p. 123||belated L||...it conceals all hope for life by...|
|F2, p. 138||belated I||...boosted an innovative design...|
|C2, p. 146||belated I||After considering all alternatives, I capture a couple crocodiles.|
|C2, p. 147||belated I||After I cross a...|
(The ones from the Complete Review are the premature P on p. 38, and the final three listed. The arguable ones are the ones that are part of compound phrases: "Part-Time" in the first P chapter, and (even less convincing) "rough-and-tumble" in the first R chapter.)
(Update: Commentator Jonathan Arnold found an additional twenty-five (!!) errors which he kindly posted in the comments below. I will integrate them into this post when I have the time; in the meantime, definitely look in the comments to see a whole lot more. Update 2: The updated, integrated list of all known errata in Alphabetical Africa has now been posted here.)
There has been speculation that the known errors are deliberate, a breaking of the artistic constraint for aesthetic reasons. The Oulipo, the literary group most closely associated with constrained literature (although Abish himself has no connection to the group I'm aware of), has developed the notion of a "clinamen" (based on a term from Lucretius) for the notion of a deliberate violation of an artistic constraint for greater artistic purposes.
But I must admit I'm doubtful. Not just because I recall seeing an anecdote on the web where someone who met Abish asked him about the errors and got astonishment and a description of how hard he and his editor worked to prevent them (although I do). But because the errors don't feel like clinamen. They're too many; they're too random and uninteresting. They simply feel like... errors.
(The one way in which some (although not all) feel like clinamen is that there are obvious solutions. One of the criteria for an Oulipian clinamen is that there must be a way to "solve" the issue that does not involve breaking the constraint -- so that one is clearly doing it for reasons of aesthetic choice and not inability to find one's way out of the self-constructed maze. But this isn't true of all of them, at least for me (see below.))
So no: I think they're errors. And there are quite a lot -- in addition to the Complete Review's four, I found a dozen or more (depending on the arguable cases) in a single reading. And I wasn't really trying that hard -- I was just reading the book for the most part. So if there are 16 to 18... I bet there are more, too, that I didn't find.
Ah well. Even Abish nods. It's pretty close, right?
...Except, it seems to me, that most of these are quite readily fixable.
So in the spirit of the Age of Wiki, I offer freely, to one and all (particularly to Abish, in the unlikely event he should stumble upon this post), the following patches (to use the programming term) for Abish's novel:
|G1||Are Germans convincing in Africa?||Are Germans convincing around Africa?|
|K1||...he could design a new colony...|| ...he could design a cutting-edge colony...|
( ...he could design an advanced colony...)
|N1||...everything, even all sounds, heavy, dark...||..everything, even all noises, heavy, dark...|
|O1||...I promise her.||...I assure her.|
(...I guarantee her.)
|P1||...part-time only...||...half-day only...|
|R1||After a bit of rough-and-tumble...||After a bit of a fracas...|
|V1||...from the eastern and western edges...||...from the eastern and opposite edges|
(...from the eastern and far edges)
(...from the near and far edges...)
(...from the longitudinal edges...)
|W1||...had we been here a hundred years ago...||...had we been here a century ago...|
|V2||The children are at school when the mailman arrives...||The children are at school as the mailman arrives...|
|T2||When Boyd discovered this...||After Boyd discovered this...|
|T2||...they meet men who are transplanting Africa.||...they meet men engaged in transplanting Africa.|
|T2||...have come to terms with African emotions.||...have come to accept African emotions.|
(...have faced up to African emotions.)
(...have reconciled themselves to African emotions,)
[Here the fix has to be more specific as to meaning than the error-laden phrase.]
|T2||He walks as far as the gates of the consulate.||He goes as far as the gates of the consulate.|
(He strolls as far as the gates of the consulate.)
|K2||Like everything else...||As in everything else...|
|K2||...it conceals all hope for life by...||...it conceals all hope for continued existence by...|
|F2||...boosted an innovative design...||...boosted a creative design...|
(... boosted an advanced design...)
(...boosted an experimental design...)
|C2||After considering all alternatives, I capture a couple crocodiles.||After considering all alternatives, capture a couple crocodiles.|
(Capture a couple crocodiles after considering all alternatives.)
|C2||After I cross a...||After crossing a...|
Not all of those are of the same quality of course. Some I think are obviously right; some I'm not very happy with, although I can't come up with anything better.
Having offered these, I have several queries for my Noble Readers.
First, if you've read Alphabetical Africa and know of any errors that aren't on this list... please leave them in comments, and I'll add them to this table!
Second, can you think of a better patch for any of the errors that I've already found? Again, please leave suggestions in comments.
And finally: does anyone know Walter Abish, or know anyone who knows Walter Abish, or even know anyone who knows anyone at New Directions (his publisher)? It'd be great to see Alphabetical Africa 1.2 published, with all known errors removed & fixed. (Or, if these are indeed deliberate, to get confirmation of this fact.)
In the meantime, I offer them to any and all readers of Alphabetical Africa as an unauthorized erratum sheet. Feel free to mentally substitute (or even physically write in, if you buy it rather than get it from the library) these corrections for a smoother, error-free Alphabetical Africa experience.
* This gets at a separate issue, which I don't have time to go into -- a subfield in the study of literary (and more broadly artistic) constraint that I'd like to see someone delve into: there seems to me a distinction between constraints that one can imagine becoming a form, that is, a generalized practice (however obscure and marginal) with multiple works to its credit, and those that seem inexorably one-time works, constraints that are hard to imagine re-using without the results being hopelessly derivative (and which therefore will be used only in works that are formally and openly derivative, i.e. the aforementioned review of Abish's book written under (half) its constraints). The distinction would be, therefore, between (on the one hand) lipograms, which have a long (if not all that proud) history which predated Perec's novel (and which have also had an ongoing life beyond it, including multiple variations on the theme), and (on the other hand) something like Abish's constraint, which it seems to me hard to imagine replicating, not because of the technical challenge, but simply because of the overwhelming feeling that it's been done. (Where this border lies is, obviously, a point subject to dispute.)