Wednesday, April 23, 2014

A Bit of Silliness

This is a book review I wrote for my library's staff bulletin a few years back. I also posted it as a review on Amazon, minus the references to working in a library.

The book is Gadsby, a novel that never uses the letter 'e'. The book is often mentioned in 'Believe It or Not' type columns. I first read about it in The Giant Book of Fantastic Facts, a book with which I was besotted in my childhood. (My father said, "I never would have bought you that book if I knew you were going to form your whole view of the world from it".)

When I grew up, and when the invention of the internet meant that nothing was too obscure to be tracked down any more, I bought the book on Amazon and read it. Well....I read half of it. Really, the gimmick wears thin pretty quickly, despite what I say in my review.

When I was a kid, I would have thought that only a killjoy could possibly think that writing a book without using the letter 'e' was a silly thing to do. Now I'm older and grumpier and I'm not so sure. But here is the review for what it's worth-- I decided to uphold the spirit of the book and dispense with the letter 'e' while writing it. It caused a bit of a stir in the library.

A Review of Gadsby (1938) by Ernest Vincent Wright (a novel that never uses the letter “e”)

Gadsby is a triumph of circumlocution. Its author has wrought a story (and not a short story, but a fifty-thousand word-long yarn) in which that most common atom of any word is strictly out of play. Wright actually had to jam a button on his typing apparatus to avoid slipping up and using this ubiquitous symbol. His work stands as a glory to man’s spirit, that spirit that looks for difficult things to do simply for fun or satisfaction. Isn’t that why folk climb mountains, nations shoot astronauts into orbit, and many try to finish Prousts’s most famous work?

But what of Wright’s story, in its own right? It’s a bit of an oddity, not much akin to your standard thrilling horror or action romp. It’s about a bustling and philanthropic chap of “about fifty”, Gadsby, who hits on a plan to “doll up” his snoozy town, Branton Hills, through co-opting its kids’ skills and, so to say, “oomph”. It all has a boy-scoutish air about it. Gadsby (who is soon mayor of Branton Hills) again and again draws cash from his town’s rich folk to fund his various plans: a zoo, a radio station, a night-school, a library and what our author must call “a film-show” to maintain his “odd yarn’s strict orthography”. (Is Gadsby a sly satirical spoof of socialism and rampant municipal outlay, a cryptic dig at FDR and his ilk? Who knows?)

I didn’t mind Gadsby’s almost total lack of risk, hazard or conflict. Art, it is always said, should know no dogma. But how many fictions can do without animosity, fighting, iniquity, pain, agony, fatality? Why can our yarns not focus on happy and normal things, on ordinary triumphs and small stumbling blocks? That, and not Gadsby’s “strict orthography”, may stand as its signal triumph.

But mayhap you think such a book must grow boring, as soon as its gimmick stops amusing. Is Gadsby just a curio? Not so, in truth. Bring to mind, if you will, how a handicap or a difficulty may turn out an actual spur to imagination, to flair and to art—much as that Islamic ban on picturing humans or animals brought about such wondrous abstract art and calligraphy . Gadsby’s writing has a roundabout, piquant, unorthodox flavour. It is in its own class; no book is similar to it. How many authors strain for originality! What a small fraction of all books can truly claim that trait! But Gadsby can, and not just for its famous gimmick.

Librarians will find a particular paragraph worth noting: “But to whom could Youth look for so big an outlay as a library building would cost? Books also cost; librarians and janitors draw pay. So, with light, warmth, and all-round comforts, it was a task to stump a full-grown politician, to say nothing of a plain, ordinary townsman and a bunch of kids”. Do you grin knowingly, oh worthy library staff? I fancy you do!

I wind up with a quotation that shows Wright’s quirky mind, as fits a man who would think up and follow through on such a notion as this book. Location, Branton Hill’s zoo: “A boy grinningly ‘got a girl’s goat’ by wanting to kiss a fifty-foot anaconda; causing Lucy to say, haughtily, that ‘No boy, wanting to kiss such horrid, wriggly things can kiss us Branton Hills girls.’ (Good for you, Lucy! I’d pass up a sixty-foot anaconda, any day, for you!)”


  1. Bravo! No doubt it is tricky to sustain writing in that way for so long! And to sift out stowaways! Six paragraphs looks hard work as it is; what must fifty thousand words ask of an author? A similar work of Gallic origin is 'La Disparition' by G*org*s P*r*c, who probably won much acclaim from his companions at Oulipo (a group of wordsmiths who sought to work with such constraints as this). In my first class at uni, our task was a translation of this book’s first paragraph. For half an hour’s toil, our fruit (two words or so) was pitiful. (What an introduction to scholarly pursuit!).

    In fact a translation (‘A Void’) was brought out by a poor soul (bring him an award!), just prior to 2000 A.D.

    That said – all that work, only to find that your own baptism has caught you out! Authors who try this sort of thing (including you!) probably find much to say about that.

  2. Ha ha ha! Bravo to you, too! I must say that a handful of contributors on Amazon took a stab at this, following my original synopsis, but didn't do it half as adroitly as you did!

    It hadn't so much as struck my mind that an author's own Mum and Dad might disarm such a book's goal, by violating its taboo in naming him! But...say, is a fiction author invalidating his fiction by his own actuality? I think not! And so by analogy...

    Knowing all I do of today's 'scholarship', your task in that class is no shock to my mind!

    What is actually stunning, is that Wright did this without any 'find' function, as Microsoft Word grants us today!

  3. What an unusual way of discussing a story. I applaud your work.