I’ve just completed a series of stories called Missing letters. Together they make up an alphabet of lipograms, a lipogram being a piece of writing composed entirely without a particular letter (or group of letters). I’m relieved to have finished the series, but also feeling the need to pat myself on the back for seeing it through. And I thought it might be interesting now that I’ve finished to write about the experience of writing lipograms.
While I was working on the first in the series, I came across an article by Jonathan Franzen in which he contended the following:
‘My work represents an active campaign against the values I dislike: sentimentality, weak narrative, overly lyrical prose, solipsism, self-indulgence, misogyny and other parochialisms, sterile game-playing, overt didacticism, moral simplicity, unnecessary difficulty, informational fetishes, and so on. Indeed, much of what might be called actual “influence” is negative: I don’t want to be like this writer or that writer.’
Obviously there are some items in that list that most if not all of us would choose to sign up to, but others – well, ouch. I can’t help feeling Franzen is being just a touch prescriptive about how we all should write. He himself is guilty of at least a couple of the items with that very statement, let alone the essay as a whole. Don’t get me wrong, I loved The corrections, but ‘negative’ is the word. We all come to writing from different places with differing intentions, motives, and, yes, abilities. It’s not hard to imagine that Franzen has no time for the Oulipians. That’s authors like Georges Perec, Italo Calvino and Harry Matthews, who provided themselves with constraints which inspired the works they then went on to create. Perec it was who wrote La Disparition entirely without the letter ‘e’; not the first lipogrammatic novel, but probably the most famous, along with Ernest Vincent Wright’s novel Gadsby. Perec’s masterpiece, Life A User’s Manual, written with a full complement of letters, has a complex set of structural constraints based on a chess knight’s tour around a 10 x 10 grid, the squares of which represent rooms in flats in a Parisian apartment block. What the constraint serves to render is a beautiful book full of very human stories, some simple and sorrowful, others humorously fantastical or extreme. Life A User’s Manual or Calvino’s Invisible cities are just two answers to Franzen’s reductive critique.
Perec thrived on the challenges he set himself. You can impose rules on yourself and deliver something which you might not have achieved in any other way. When Franzen dies and is honoured with a sinecure in literary heaven, perhaps he’ll seek out Perec to debate the issue. And Perec might wave a Gauloise in his face and say that it’s not a trick for trick’s sake. Likewise, though my stories might have been written another way with a different set of rules or a complete set of twenty-six letters, the resulting fiction still has depth of meaning. Playing a game doesn’t necessarily make the way the work unfolds any less emotionally true.
Would my stories have been better for being written unencumbered? The point is that they might not exist but for the constraint. From the choice of title onwards, the constraint shaped the stories and the stories fought the constraint. There are scores of different ways of saying roughly the same thing, and each of them has its own nuances. You choose the nuance which most closely resembles the truth of the fiction you have in your head. The constraint has also served to make me think that much harder about how to avoid the ease and restraint of clichés.
While Perec was the background inspiration for these 27 pieces of mine (I wrote a second story for U, suggested to do so by how the first unfolded), the immediate inspiration came from being reminded of and reading a more recent novel, Mark Dunn’s Ella Minnow Pea. Forbiddingly subtitled ‘a progressively lipogrammatic epistolary fable’, in fact it is as whimsical as it is clever in following the troubles of islanders who successively lose the use of letters of the alphabet, as a result of the irrational authoritarianism of the island’s elders. The islanders themselves battle back as flexibly as Dunn negotiates the ever-increasing constraint, and in so doing he reinvents the English language:
‘Such a beguiling sight – your long auburn tresses falling as cataract in shimmering filamentous pool upon the table top, gathering in swirl upon your note paper – obscuring? framing? your toil.’
I can’t make such claims for myself, of course, but the commoner the letter, the more I found I had to bend the language, and come up with alternative ways of saying what I wanted to say, which often turned out to be better than the sentence I might otherwise have written. Each letter presented a different challenge. For some, conjunctions and definite articles were out; for others, participles and past tenses. Every grammatical construct was at one point or another unavailable to me. But language, like water, can find a way around each obstacle it faces. And there is definitely a creative tension between the story-telling and the being one fork short of a full picnic set.
How Perec managed in the age before computers and word processors, I will never know. When I had finished a draft of a story, I habitually ran a ‘Find’ search on the letter which was supposed to be missing, only to discover there were often tens of the little blighters highlighted in fluorescent yellow. S was the only story where none of the letter in question got through the net of my finished draft. I guess it tends to stand out in a sentence.
‘I’m always interested to see, reading these, whether I’m aware of the missing letter — whether I’m noticing the writerly things you’re doing (not unlike tumbling) or whether I’m too caught up in the narrative to be conscious on that level. Often it’s a mixture of both, but I got too caught up in this one to think for a moment about who, what, wildcats, etc.’
The set of 27 is far from perfect. I only slowly realised that the lipograms were becoming predominantly fictional, and so a few are riddles or non-fiction, and maybe one of these days I’ll have another pass at those letters. Probably some of the narratives need a little more room to breathe, and perhaps if they were appearing in book form rather than here, they would get that.
My favourites? That’s hard. Ironically the last letter of the alphabet is possibly the best story, about a woman leaving a relationship as a result of an ant invasion – but that too would not have come into being but for the suggestion of the missing letter. Combining Perec and Calvino in the two-headed Hydra for U – imagining first an alien poaching and eating her eggs in The reader [u] and then a talking horse in The horseshoe [u] – gave me most satisfaction and fun. On one occasion a single lipogram wasn’t enough to contain a character’s story so she returned in another – I [b]’s anthropologist is a lone survivor on another planet, until she meets her end in We [r]. Another memorialised a pub in my home town – The Cupola House [q] – which sadly burnt down last year. There was a lot of life and death in these stories.
But in the end I think I’d plump for the playful love story that is CK & U [F]. That’s what it all probably comes down to. That I am playing with letters, with words. Perhaps it’s what I like to do most of all. Jonathan Franzen too, I suspect.
And now? I’m not sure what the writing future holds in store. But I am looking forward to being able to use the alphabet’s full range, without constantly double-checking myself for a letter which should be missing.
Image of Carington Bowles’ The comical hotch-potch, or the alphabet turn’d posture-master, 1782 via Granger Art on Demand.