Message in a Bottle
American Stories

The twentieth century will be American. American thought will dominate it. American progress will give it color and direction. American deeds will make it illustrious.

—Senator Albert Beveridge (1862-1927)

The quotation above comes from a toast made to ring in the then-new century. Strong stuff—patriotism shading over into jingoism. And prescient, as history shows. John Dos Passos cites the remark in the opening pages of his epic U.S.A. trilogy, probably the greatest literature produced by the Lost Generation. Yes, better than Hemingway, Fitzgerald, et al.,  though that’s a subject for another time.

imageI remembered the reference as soon as I happened across the latest book by Mark Dunn, and happen across it I did. It’s rare that something like this, a new work by an author I’ve read and enjoyed before, doesn’t show up on my radar until I see it for sale on the shelf. American Decameron was hard to miss at that point—it has a bold red-white-and-blue patterned cover reminiscent of a quilt from Gee’s Bend, and it’s not exactly small. As its title suggests, it’s something of a riff on Boccaccio’s medieval classic Decameron, in which ten characters spend ten days trading stories, one hundred tales in total.

The project here is grand enough to suit the distinguished former senator from Indiana. Dunn has composed one hundred stories of his own, each taking place in a different year of the twentieth century (he correctly starts with 1901 and finishes with 2000) and set in a different location. Every state in the union has its moment in the sun (Washingtonians will take particular interest when two ladies of a certain age observe a dance marathon in a ballroom along the old Seattle-Tacoma Hi Way) and so do some international sites visited by Americans:

A girl in Galveston is born on the eve of a great storm and the dawn of the 20th century. Survivors of the Lusitania are accidentally reunited in the North Atlantic. A member of the Bonus Army finds himself face to face with General MacArthur. A failed writer attempts to end his life on the Golden Gate Bridge until an unexpected heroine comes to his rescue, and on the doorstep of a new millennium, as the clock strikes twelve, the stage is set for a stunning denouement as the American century converges upon itself in a Greenwich nursing home, tying together all of the previous tales and the last one hundred years.

Dunn’s goal is obviously to paint a completely comprehensive portrait of our country, or at least come as close as anyone can. The scope may sound daunting, but the book really isn’t. Other than the first and last stories, which are intended to open and close the volume, the tales can be read piecemeal, in any order, and the prevailing tone is breezy, with occasional gusts of bawdiness in tribute to Boccaccio’s original.

It’s only fitting that such a formally ambitious literary work is actually a populist achievement. When you assemble such a disparate group of voices so artfully, you get a chorus instead of a cacophony. That’s how democracy works.

—James

The Quick Brown Fox Meets the Messengers of Animosity

I was reading an interesting history about a group of experimental writers and ran across a passing reference to one of those odd sentences that contain every letter of the alphabet at least once. The French equivalent of “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” is apparently:

Portez ce vieux whisky au juge blond qui fume.

In other words, “Bring this old whisky to the blond judge who smokes.” Where we English speakers are content to test our typewriters with something that sounds like a Mother Goose rhyme, trust the French to surround even this humble practice with an air of decadent sophistication.  

These sentences and others like them are called “pangrams,” and I’m not the first to be distracted by them. Author Mark Dunn wrote an entire novel under their inspiration. In Ella Minnow Pea (say the title out loud for the pun to fully register) his eponymous heroine lives on the island of Nollop, named after the fictional creator of the memorable pangram about the speedy fox and the sleepy dog. A crisis develops as the letters in the famous phrase begin to fall off a commemorative statue and the superstitious town council responds with oppression. In thrall to their founder, they progressively forbid the use of each missing letter, and so Ella’s communication with the outside world is escalatingly constrained as she’s forced to eschew the use of more and more of the alphabet. The loss of Z is no great burden, but as the vowels begin to drop, life becomes increasingly difficult, as does Dunn’s job as a writer, since he labors under the same restrictions his narrator does. What seems to have begun as pure silliness turns out to have some serious overtones regarding the balance between the law and free expression. Common sense eventually wins the day, fortunately for all, and all twenty-six letters are eventually restored. The book is a great technical achievement, full of amusing paraphrase and creative misspellings, but the real triumph is that it’s an eminently readable and entertaining fable. 

The true challenge of pangrams is brevity, of course. It’s easy to include the entire alphabet in a really lengthy sentence, but it gets harder and harder as you whittle down the word count. A perfect pangram would contain no more letters than there are in whatever alphabet you’re using. To my knowledge, there’s no 26-letter pangram in English that doesn’t resort to abbreviation (as in “Mr. Jock, TV quiz PhD, bags few lynx”) and even the 27-letter versions require generous interpretation to make sense (my favorite is “Big fjords vex quick waltz nymph.” You’d think dancing nature spirits would enjoy the Scandinavian landscape, but I guess they’re intimidated by it). After thinking more about it, though, I realized that you can publish an entire book that’s only twenty-six letters long, and many have.

Abecedaries are used to teach children to read, and quite a few consist of nothing more than a printed image of each letter alongside a picture of something that starts with the same initial. Not long on plot, but kids seem to like them. Now, to be fair, many of these are slightly wordier than that, along the lines of “A is for Apple / B is for Ball.” The ones I like best employ a less traditional vocabulary set, though. The classic example is Edward Gorey’s Gashlycrumb Tinies, which depicts a parade of tormented tots expiring in humorously horrific fashion: “A is for Amy, who fell down the stairs / B is for Basil, assaulted by bears …” Not surprisingly, it’s not actually all that kid-friendly. 

There are some alphabet books that take a fresh approach without inducing nightmares. Among my favorites is A Zeal of Zebras, which puts its own spin on the usual zoological catalog. Instead of using the names of individual animals, it uses the names we give them collectively. So we find inside such poetic treats as an “Aurora of polar bears” and a “Caravan of camels.” Simply gorgeous design, too, on almost-poster-sized pages.

The animal kingdom is a great wellspring of alphabetical ideas, but as an urbanite, I’m attracted to books that show off the things my kids and I encounter on a daily basis. C is for City by Orli Zuravicky and Giuseppe Castellano fits the bill: “D is for Dump Truck. E is for Envelope. F is for food, like French toast or cantaloupe.” Catchy.

             

I don’t entirely neglect either the natural world or tradition. My first recommendation for infant gift-giving is always Alison Jay’s ABC. The subjects of her illustrations aren’t uncommon—D is for dog, J is for jack-in-the-box, O is for owl, etc.—but her treatment of them is uncommonly beautiful. The pictures have a balanced, timeless feel, with contemporary drawings overlaid by a cracked, antique glaze, as though they’re printed on porcelain. Tiny details on one letter’s page refer to images on another, such that there’s an unspoken story unspooling behind the scenes, and these help keep interest high for growing readers (and their parents). 

While I’ve gone on at considerable length already, I can’t leave you without mentioning one more alphabetical oddity. Digging around for pangrams in other languages, I found one that trumps the rest. The Javanese alphabet, twenty letters long, is itself a perfect pangram. 

     

Printed in order, changing only the spacing, it is in fact a poem from another age:

Hana caraka
Data sawala
Padha jayanya
Maga bathanga

In English it might read, “There were two messengers / They had animosity. / Equally powerful in fight, / Here are the corpses.” Morbid but fascinating, and evidence, perhaps, that the Javanese language was invented by some ancient incarnation of Edward Gorey. 

—James

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