Thursday, September 10, 2009

Review: Cruciverbalism in stories: a feature on Ben Segal's '78 Stories'

In the introduction of Life: A User's Manual, Georges Perec's narrator writes, 'despite appearances, puzzling is not a solitary game: every move the puzzler makes, the puzzle-maker has made before; every piece the puzzler picks up, and picks up again, and studies and strokes, every combination he tries, and tries a second time, every blunder and every insight, each hope and each discouragement have all been designed, calculated, and decided by the other.'

Ben Segal's 78 Stories: A Crossword Novella is a bit of an anomaly. Perhaps it's in the name. For something entitled 78 Stories one would think that storytelling is of pinnacle importance. But when one sees the layout of said book, one quickly realises that that's not the case.

Because 78 Stories is a giant crossword/cross-story puzzle. Instead of letters within each box there's a little snippet of a story contained. And each of these snippets is connected by an 'across' line/clue and a 'down' line/clue - meaning that the snippet is actually a part of two perhaps similar, perhaps disjointed, perhaps parallel, perhaps non-intersecting stories. In fact the wonderful thing about this 'book' - Can one even call it that? The author seems to think so. - is that you can't pinpoint any character or any idea because the structure inhibits that; it's part of something grander than itself. As if it's resisting reading. Which then makes the puzzle even more irresistible. A vicious cycle. And a very postmodern one, without the inherent snobbery and ego inherent in that labelling.

Following in the footsteps of Georges Perec's Life: A User's Manual, a fiction that uses the idea of the standard jigsaw puzzle to piece together the lives of the residents of an apartment block in Paris, and in the veins of Vladimir Nabokov's masterpiece Pale Fire, which constructs and deconstructs a poem through commentary, which is then deconstructed by the reader's inherent belief in the narrator's insanity, Segal's 78 Stories project is attempting a bold project for a first book. In order to create stories that use the same sentences and character names as as this novella needs, the author has to be precise without being too specific, needs to think out everything mathematically before putting any description to paper.

Unfortunately this means that most of the sentences are of the same equation: subject, verb, then the rest of the predicate. Variation would otherwise lock certain boxes (snippets) into being too specific, unable to be pliable and mould itself to the across and down 'clues'. It's a work that continuously has you wondering about the preparation and the revisions that had to go into this book, the countless hours that were spent working and reworking the descriptions so that each across and down snippet fit precisely where it was supposed to.

Sometimes it's the story of a church mouse Carl who has fallen in love with Paul, the man whose house he's invaded. Getting so angry seeing Paul with his girlfriend Carl gnaws into the girlfriend's car tires in order to kill her. And it works. Sometimes it's about a waiter named Paul who watches a crossword puzzle solver die in his café and, after his patron dies, he nonchalantly picks up the puzzle and brings it to the kitchen, perhaps perturbed because he won't be receiving a tip from the dead man. Sometimes it's about Sandra whose repetitive pictures are disapproved by her boyfriend Paul's brother Joseph, which sets Sandra off on a missive writing scheme.

It's not just the fact that these stories are physically attached that brings them together. Uncannily Segal is able to create 180 degree symmetry, where the stories in the upper left corner of the puzzle (about the death of a crossword solver in a café) echo those in the bottom right (about the death of a man after being mauled by a bear). The unrequited love of Carl the church mouse in the upper right is echoed by the painful rejection of Sandra in the bottom left. Etc.

To give a short excerpt of the writing, of the trenchant and biting tone Segal has: in this selection Sandra, the repetitive picture drawer, and Paul, a man who works for a paper obsessed with the Mayan long count which claims the end of the world in 2012, decide to get married:

They agreed to wed on the 16th of December, 2012. That gave them enough time to annul the commitment if the world didn't end on the 21st. It even built in a little extra time in case the Mayans were off by a few hours in their predictions. Neither Paul nor Sandra was even sure they wanted to cancel the marriage in the event that the earth was ok.
In a way, 78 Stories is like watching the process of writing unfold before your eyes. We see names and stories appear and reappear, and it makes the reader wonder whether these are in fact separate stories or intertwining ones, or - more fascinatingly - if they are false starts of each other, if they're the winding routes that the narrator attempted to explore. For that would explain the reuse of characters' names and plot devices, but in slightly modified tones and registers. It's like experiencing a sort of askew déjà vu. Each box builds upon the one above it and the one to its left, and yet remains distinct and alone. And as the aforementioned Perec quote reminds us, all of your feelings, your preoccupations, your amusement brilliantly has all been conceived by the author - which in turn tells us that this is not a project we're embarking on alone. Are we puppets? Or fellow travellers? Either way the author's creativity is looking at us through the puzzle, within the puzzle, watching us unfold the stories as the stories unfold us.

Looking at Segal's writing projects, it appears he's interested in riding the boundary of the short story and the narrative prose poem (some people I guess refer to this as flash fiction, but I think Segal is doing something more than giving us a quick shudder of life). His work is replete with sympathy, humour, and insight, all compacted within a couple hundred words, revealing the inane and ridiculous behaviour of human nature, the subtle nuances of people's desires and actions. It's absolutely fascinating to encounter and experience.
Thanks to publisher for providing a review copy.


Kari said...

How do people come up with these ideas?? That is a creative gift that I most definitely lack.

I think it'd be interesting to see how much you could say in such a small space.

Have you ever seen that documentary on crosswords? It's called Wordplay.

Salvatore said...

I haven't seen the documentary. It'll be placed on my Netflix queue. It's probably something I'd like.

Scribner also released a relatively disappointing crosswords book, From Square One, recently. It was also supposed to be in the 'shape' of a crossword, but I don't think that was very apparent, or very successful for that matter.

This was definitely a novella I enjoyed. And the way it's laid out, it feels like you're holding a newspaper. Bonus points for that.