Wednesday, March 18, 2015

8th Canadian Challenge - 15th review - The End of the Alphabet

I cannot recall exactly when I came across C.S. Richardson's The End of the Alphabet.  It was probably suggested by Amazon at one point or another.

I think the best comparison is that the author was trying to achieve the whimsy of the Griffin and Sabine books (alphabetical lists all over the place) but combining with a story that tugs at the heart-strings.  For we learn within the first 5 pages that the main character Ambrose Zephyr has a fatal disease that gives him only a month to live.  So he drags his wife, Zipper, off to the places that mean the most to him, her or the two of them together.  Obviously, this has to be done in alphabetical order.

In another somewhat quirky, somewhat manipulative gambit, Richardson ties this obsession to letters and even type sets to the fact that Ambrose's father worked for a newspaper (though as a copywriter not as a typesetter).  After his father died, Ambrose stopped reading the papers altogether.

There is something to be said for this, and I have slowly started cutting newsfeeds from my life.  However, my work does depend to some extent on monitoring infrastructure spending, which is inevitably tied up with state and national politics.  What I really do need to do is stop looking at comment sections.  The comments in the Guardian used to be higher quality, but they have been invaded by all kinds of trolls (oddly enough a lot of pro-Putin trolls).  I'd say the only comments even remotely worth reading now are those on the NYTimes website.  But certainly scrolling through an average article just reminds me how divided I am from most of humanity and makes me feel like a smug but powerless Mencken.  Not a great feeling and one that should not be indulged.


I found the book moving at times, but still resented how manipulative it all felt.  And the book sort of cheats at the end.  For instance, a huge sandstorm prevents the couple from reaching Haifa and then they end up going on to Istanbul without doubling back, and the whole project is abandoned shortly after that.  I am sure that Zipper was pleased that Ambrose relented and reshuffled Paris to come up much earlier in their itinerary (putting it under E for Eiffel), so that they did have one more trip to Paris as a couple.  To a certain extent, one can appreciate that Richardson is showing how whimsy falters in the face of real-world problems or that monomaniacal travel plans are probably better not undertaken by the sick.

That last point certainly resonates with me, considering I had to cancel long-standing plans to travel to New York.  No amount of will power would have made it worth trying to walk through museums for hours on end.  While Ambrose and Zipper do tour a few museums early in the tour (though Ambrose wanted to see the Rijksmuseum by himself and spent quite a bit of time in front of Rembrandt's The Night Watch), their idea of vacationing involves a lot more time in cafes and relaxing than takes place on my vacations.

Rembrandt, The Company of Frans Banning Cocq and Willem van Ruytenburch, aka The Night Watch, 1642

(The Night Watch is an incredible painting, and you pretty much do need to see it in person to really absorb it.  I do hope that I'll be able to arrange a trip to Europe to see this and some other old favorites before I am too old to enjoy it.)

So I am not entirely convinced that Richardson has given us enough on this couple for us to really care about them, that is to say, he has taken short cuts and made his book sentimental.  On the other hand, I was able to read it in an afternoon when I wasn't feeling all that great, and there is something to be said for that as well.

A couple of other tie-ins with travel and health as long as I am on the subject.  I just read the book of poems Letters to Borges by the writer/poet Stephen Kuusisto.  Many of the better poems are imaginary letters to Borges written from various locations in Europe or North America.  Apparently, Kuusisto did travel to all or most of these locations.  It's really impossible for me to tell what I would have done had I lost my vision early in life, but at this point, having seen and taken in so much, I doubt that I would travel extensively if I went blind.  Certainly, I would not do it for pleasure, since as I recently related, my idea of a vacation trip is spending nearly all of it in art museums, and there would be no reward in doing that as a blind person.  I imagine I would mostly hunker down and focus far more on music and learning to read Braille and so forth.  Again, everyone's reaction to such a loss is very personal.

So I guess this concludes a somewhat shaggy review of Richardson's The End of the Alphabet.  It has some pleasures but mostly leaves you hungering for more -- more plot, more characterization, more cities on the itinerary but mostly it made me long to get back to the real, not imagined, Europe for myself.

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