Undergraduate Review

Volume 11 | Issue 1 Article 5

1998

Alphabetical Africa's Relationship Between
Language and Meaning
Asra Syed '00
Illinois Wesleyan University

Recommended Citation
Syed '00, Asra (1998) "Alphabetical Africa's Relationship Between Language and Meaning," Undergraduate Review: Vol.
11: Iss. 1, Article 5.
Available at: http://digitalcommons.iwu.edu/rev/vol11/iss1/5

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. In Published by Digital Commons @ IWU. Or as Richard Martin puts it.. is in itselfthreatening" (235). I'm not really concerned with language. I'm principally concerned with meaning." Walter Abish asserts almost exactly the opposite of what he does with language in his first novel. 94. enables people in all circumstances to cope with a changing world. 1960. Alphabetical Africa." Art and Antiques February 1993 vIS: Alphabetical Africa's Relationship Between Language and Meaning : A Man of His Time Boston: Beacon Press. muna.divorcing language from meaning." Woman's 19/5ummer 1993 v14: 43-6. Language is not a barrier. d'esprit in Daumier's Caricatures. (72) In this conclusion of his short piece entitled "Access. by Asra Syed eDaumier London: Yale University Press.iew Syed '00: Alphabetical Africa's Relationship Between Language and Meaning ring/Summer 1993 v14: 44.1976. it also llllier and His World Evanston: Northwestern pennits them to engage in all sorts of . 1998 1 .. activities without unduly antagonizing everyone in their immediate vicinity . nistic Echo in Daumier' s Penelope?" Art gust 1984 v27: 38-47. "The irony of the author of Alphabetical Africa asserting the superiority of meaning over mere language. The American Heritage Dictionary Boston: 1Company. 1979. Language ier London: Oresko Books. Irawings NY: Thomas Yoselhoff. or ofeven suggesting the possibility of .1968. As a writer..

"] language necessary to achieve that meaning. 5 Review Alphabetical Africa Abish certainly has a meaning he is concentrated on but only serves to further it. "I've understanding. (1). while Abish asserts in "Access" that he concerns himself with African dictionary. controls the story Abish is telling... concealed so much. They say. 11. yet he says. After c So. the story. or if they merely reflect upon themselves and their own is still uncovering Africa" (56). a comical unreliable in other ways as well. Vol. The second paragr chasing after her -> the narrator of the story being one of them . of references to its connection with the Faced with a history he seems unable world outside of language and of its narrator does the only thing he knows how­ dealings and relationships with politics.its shortcoming in its inability to c structure. Abish seems to be commenting on language and taking it a step then its power in its ability to get rid of Africa further by getting down to the root of language with the alphabet. but he does still tell a story. and these critics assert that avant-garde just how simple it is to get rid of what he does literature involves itself with language to the point that the story is lost. both the sh. 1 [1998]. "If I am ever asked how I could era: colonialism. only has words beginning with the letter A. tell a story. (135) once. affi their adventures in Africa. "Abish's is a story of lapses of memory.and "Author apprehends Alva anatomically. j to some critics who argue whether or not avant-garde novels actually do discovered that people are patient. I began erasing a few phr. Not deliberate lapses" (11 imperialism struggling with the inadequacy of its communication media" also said.. for the narrator eJ getting across.. According to James Peterson. Abish 's Alphabetical Africa is susceptible have distorted so much. I bought an eraser. dissecting language to figure it out. Yet. of the novel. for the las relationship of the two. actually by removing.edu/rev/vol11/iss1/5 2 - --~. which is the only time it can have important element of the concept ofthe Imperi all the letters in the alphabet. He says. With the removal of Africa. __---------------. contains words only beginning with the letters A and B text. "in distress http://digitalcommons. explaining that the narrator accurately d It also tells a story of imperialism. moreover. I can't be depended upon for exact genre of avant-garde literature. but he does not neglect the functions and barriers of Africa requires patience" (55). Art. In fact. With this language . as a novel in the reporter. us that the old Africa has been replaced with' Abish wrote Alphabetical Africa within a strict structure where capacity oflanguage is such that one letter of the first chapter. "I have not made any concessions. and exploitation. and then secures the power to erase the African traditic the next chapter.. it concerns itself with the Africa that was once there is gone. Alphabetical Africa is a on discovering Africa. but then. anI through which that story is told and. and then again tells us. It was easy. and then commenting on it. . A. Also. Iss. The novel approaches this theme of inadequacy of communication. (20). the narrator later say eradication ofAfrican tradition through language and lack of anymore" (33). the men by contradicting himself.iwu. I've seen or done" (40). In this way. "Books about Africa are de capable only of reproducing that system narrator claims he doesn't have to be reliable 1 and .. It then goes backwards from Z to A in such Alphabetical Africa. The mirrator language. colonial exploitation and the assume.. this story lin and so forth until it gets to the chapter Z. . B. This fonn Despite this power the narrator has. language. a notion of discourse as being full nothing written about Africa is reliable. through Alphabetical Africa deals with both meaning of a story and the language keeps mentioning how Africa is shrinking. a way that the text constructs and then deconstructs itself. Undergraduate The Undergiaduate Review. but that he can't be reI combination ofboth Yet he's not apologizing for his inaccurated~ the notion of textual discourse as nothing he really doesn't think he has any reason to h more than the product of a system that is later in the novel. The most si and political story of a sexual and sensual woman named Alva. meaning rather than language. As Anthony Schirato explains.

but then. rre it out. but merely stating it. "I've had a few lapses. He tells us age. the men by cont{adicting himself. or th language to the point that the story is lost. yet he says. as he says the product of a system that is later in the novel. for the last few words of the novel tell us that the old Africa has been replaced with "another Africa" (152). moreover. and by the end of the novel. "If I am ever asked how I could erase history. as a novel in the reporter. forgotten so much. language. Also. It was easy. With the removal of Africa. ld relationships with politics. which is the only time it can have important element of the concept ofthe Imperialist impulse in let. "Understanding not neglect the functions and barriers of Africa requires patience" (55). for. In this way. 1998 3 .. After carefully choosing an East iserts in "Access" that he concerns himself with African dictionary. I can answer at n. of the novel. this story line shows language as an the chapter Z. and exploitation. explaining that the narrator accurately depicts Alva. for the narrator explains. concealed so much. They say about me: Has a longing. lrrator of the story being one of them . the told and. This same narrator has hthe inadequacy of its communication media" also said. This form Despite this power the narrator has. "in distress. and then commenting on it. and.its shortcoming in its inability to depict Africa accurately and . the :ide of language and of its narrator does the only thing he knows how . "facts can Published by Digital Commons @ IWU. . He says. Yet. I've seen or done" (40). I can't be depended upon for exact descriptions and details. "My memory isn't accurate ition through language and lack of anymore" (33). The second paragraph of the novel ends. "I have not made any concessions. a comical unreliable in other ways as well. but he does still tell a story. The most significant way he does this is ual and sensual woman named Alva. and these critics assert that avant-garde just how simple it is to get rid of what he doesn't understand by using.and "Author apprehends Alva anatomically. The narrator tells the reader he is working urato explains. He y reflect upon themselves and their own is still uncovering Africa" (56). Not deliberate lapses" (114). the author with both meaning of a story and the language keeps mentioning how Africa is shrinking. oftextual discourse as nothing he really doesn't think he has any reason to be apologetic.dew Syed '00: Alphabetical Africa's Relationship Between Language and Meaning Syed certainly has a meaning he is concentrated on but only serves to further it. actually by removing. It then goes backwards from Z to A in such Alphabetical Africa. is words beginning with the letter A. Abish's Alphabetical Africa is susceptible have distorted so much." he later tells us.serve as part of the plot the root oflanguage with the alphabet. affirmatively and also accurately" (1). The ~y of reproducing that system narrator claims he doesn't have to be reliable by using the justification that Ition ofdiscourse as being full nothing written about Africa is reliable. Yet he's not apologizing for his inaccurate depiction.manipulate it with language. colonial exploitation and the assume. In fact. it concerns itsel f with the Africa that was once there is gone. "Abish's is a story of lapses of memory. With this language . and then secures the power to erase the African tradition and end Africa in the I1S words only beginning with the letters A and B text.es to its connection with the Faced with a history he seems unable to understand or depict. but that he can't be relied on to depict it accurately. he still shows himself to be telling. The lbetical Africa within a strict structure where capacity oflanguage is such that one letter ofthe alphabet. I have not invented anything ~s this theme of inadequacy ofcommunication. throughout the novel.. both the shortcomings and the power of cts and then deconstructs itself. the story. and then again tells us. the narrator later says. Alphabetical Africa is a on discovering Africa. "Books about Africa are deceptive at best" (133). a few to James Peterson. we are to ofimperialism.. (135) once. "But I am an unreliable eve that meaning. I bought an eraser. I ture. But I have ~hether or not avant-garde novels actually do discovered that people are patient. the letter A.e commenting on language and taking it a step then its power in its ability to get rid of Africa . I began erasing a few phrases" (114-5).

Alphabetical Africa limits itself with system to show the possibility ofdeficiency i the number of letters that begin words allowed in each specific chapter. "I am and have for some time and the plot of the story through his own "all been intrigued by the idea of fiction exploring itself . Viewing a story through the eyes of a narrator is a description in chapter A than in the later cm typical means of writing a text. an the narrator often plays a double role. because of the conspicuous obstacles. he was manipulating his reader through don't realize exists or have altogether forg() http://digitalcommons. can always be altered" (125). Abish explains why he With this recognition ofthe mistake: does this. second chapter P. "Alex and Allen alone arrive in Abid. and then to see the degree to which the form. Abish explains why he often uses Abish's novel. In the makes the reader distrustful through his confused description of Queen writes. For example. italics added). Within that context Eventually syntax and semantics emerge. The narrator describes Quat by amusements" (2. Undergraduate The Undergraduate ReviewReview. Abish places these delib<. in anything "mistake" at least seven other times in the be the narrator says about any of the characters. Vol. where he incorrectly uses The reader is forced to question other aspects of the language and acknowledges it five lines later. saying. and more generally. In other words. I decided to write a book in which own system as an example. alphabetical appraisal" (Abish 1-2). "A c plot relationship as well. language while manipulating its rules. are no self-inflicted limitations or obvious res Abish comments on literature. adjusted or altered. way of recognizing that his novel is all a con and the reader has to question why Abish. he forces the reader to question the wrong word the first time to make a point. This was a 1 using phrases such as "Her name has been omitted" and "He's not a make. Again the inaccuracy deconstructs that very system. He could very easily have gotten am German" (44. in the same context.which Peterson fallibility oflanguage and literature. With the using "at" the second time. saying. the last words ofb fashioned by the form. . With his almost. undermined that very meaning" language that is missing too. my distrust became a determining factor upon which the flow of the subtraction ofletters." This unreliability of the narrator also sentences is twisted.Abish still successfully mal unreliable narrators in his writing by saying.(152). make the reader not only question th<. "I was fascinated to discover the extent to which a his reader question everything about langua~ system could impose upon the contents of a work a meaning that was language. Abish declares t1 narrator's admittance of his mistakes. of the narrator manifests this distrust of which Abish speaks. a role Abish shows just how much he can do witho in which what he sees. I have given him another name" (44). "As an author again attempts an agonizing committed" (112). while at the same time changing his story Paradoxically. langual Abish explains that since he felt "a distrust of the understanding Abish deliberately shows another fall that is intrinsic to any communication. the plot seems more limited in logical sequence of events that might have been expected to follow" available.. There seems to be more interestin (Klinkowitz 95). Allen and Alva arrive at Ant: change his gender. as an author of a story. and how he sees it can isolate and also mar the Interestingly. and by distorting the literary technique. of certain letters of the alphabet" (Scharito 133). for perhaps the: (Klinkowitz 96). language to show the outcome of such maniI So we can never tell which facts he is telling us are true and which have while ''under the weight of the restricted voc been "changed. Iss. he insists on a rigid sy! narrative was largely predicated" (Klinkowitz 94). ." and "readability suffel reflects upon the story in another way and comments on another type of grammar" (Peterson 16) . frequently an unreliable one.edu/rev/vol11/iss1/5 30 4 e. 11. the transvestite queen of Tanzania. can always be adjusted. jJ truth in what the narrator says about Quat. 5 always be changed. Abish shows that while he cat from what it otherwise would have been. 1 [1998]..iwu. Appropriately. italics added). Quat. he uses a v Queen Quat's gender by saying "Occasionally I make a mistake and system: "Alex. The narrator places a word in that doesn't belong. would recognition to draw attention to the fictive aJ have "a story line that expands and contracts depending on the availability language and literature. And then he explains this inconsistency in page where. Art.

" This unreliability of the narrator also sentences is twisted.. while at the same time changing his story Paradoxically." and then d to question other aspects of the language and acknowledges it five lines later. Iffiction exploring itself . such as Z. he was manipulating his reader through don't realize exists or have altogether forgotten. l facts he is telling us are true and which have while "under the weight of the restricted vocabulary. he 1through his confused description of Queen writes. Abish declares that he purposefully used the s mistakes.which Peterson views as a negative aspect to iterature. second chapter P.Abish still successfully manages to express his thoughts vriting by saying. Again the inaccuracy deconstructs that very system. Abish purposefully makes this lyS about Quat. (152). ·how he sees it can isolate and also mar the Interestingly." and "readability suffers along with the rues of nother way and comments on another type of grammar" (Peterson 16) . he uses a word that works within the ying "Occasionally I make a mistake and system: "Alex. where there ext. Appropriately. For example. 1998 5 . and yet before this happens. he insists on a rigid system oflanguage. This is Abish' s egin words allowed in each specific chapter. In the last line of chapter one. language while manipulating its rules. way ofrecognizing that his novel is all a construct and using this on why Abish. and then he ~ated" (Klinkowitz 94). but the obstacles. and more generally. can always be altered" (125). "Alex and Allen alone arrive in Abidjan and await African n of Tanzania. saying. Abish shows that while he can accomplish so much in dd have been. where he incorrectly uses the word "quiet. With his almost methodical addition and mining factor upon which the flow of the subtraction ofletters. the grammar of the ·altered. ~uble role. And then he explains this inconsistency in page where. frequently an unreliable one. as an author of a story. The outcome is that. rre.F view Syed '00: Alphabetical Africa's Relationship Between Language and Meaning Syed ways be adjusted. Alphabetical Africa limits itself with system to show the possibility ofdeficiency in all language. a role Abish shows just how much he can do without these grammatical tools. undermined that very meaning" language that is missing too. language is still inherently fallible. including the letters ofthe the contents of a work a meaning that was language. "another alphabet" then to see the degree to which the form. Abish explains why he often uses Abish's novel. Allen and Alva arrive at Antibes" (3. and by distorting the literary technique. I decided to write a book in which own system as an example. Within that context Eventually syntax and semantics emerge. He could very easily have gotten around as he does on the next I. "A dreadful error has been lS an author again attempts an agonizing committed" (112). This was a mistake Abish didn't have to · name has been omitted" and "He's not a make. are no self-inflicted limitations or obvious restrictions oflanguage. language to show the outcome of such manipulation. With the using "at" the second time. Labet" (Scharito 133). "I am and have for some time and the plot of the story through his own "alphabet authority" (Abish 2). By ~ven him another name" (44). There seems to be more interesting plot development and a story through the eyes of a narrator is a description in chapter A than in the later chapters. he forces the reader to question the wrong word the first time to make a point. in the same context. italics added). for perhaps there is another language we lords. Abish makes scinated to discover the extent to which a his reader question everything about language. the last words of his novel. the plot seems more limited in the chapters with more letters that might have been expected to follow" available. The narrator describes Quat by amusements" (2. Abish places these deliberate "oversights" in his rigid lish 1-2). in anything "mistake" at least seven other times in the book. italics added). Abish explains why he With this recognition ofthe mistakes ofthe language. t since he felt "a distrust of the understanding Abish deliberately shows another fallibility in language by using his nunication. including once in the . he tis distrust of which Abish speaks.. right from the start. The narrator places a word in that doesn't belong. of the characters. And what could we do 31 Published by Digital Commons @ IWU. would recognition to draw attention to the fictive and constructed nature of all nds and contracts depending on the availability language and literature. make the reader not only question the language that is there.

"Inep1 concealed manner. Abish. New YorIo replace the knowledge acquired through committing an act. explains the gaps by comparing them to the vanishing points in a to his reader. while books can· not because of poor writing style on the author's part. Art. At the beginning of the text. Iss. For inst exhausted as (deleted) before even closing a door. "Like everything else. (140-1) of the book. Abish does this in a the chapter on a humorous note. (deleted) but Alva's cries aren't answered.and its serious topic. Eventually. for my conduct" (87). Undergraduate Review. Appealing humorous and shows that. Abish comments on langu (deleted) depart after breaking down Alva's appreciates it and demands the same from his (deleted) . . Abish questions the role oflanguage. but a result of the cannot provide practical experience. simply an architectural contrivance. for instance . and with more appreciation for it. http://digitalcommons. where the narrator compares books to References knives. this time with more ofa critical a postcard ofa palace the narrator sends Shirley: "Vanishing points are language. 11. such as the act of killing someone. experience doesn't Klinkowitz. after another and interesting language is how he makes it so (deleted) emerges as a depleted and enervated afterall. In m what words are missing and what those words could add to the reading of structure of his text. Both As a writer. he consciously shows detected. but near the end of the novel. he also has an immense interest in Ethiopian architect embraces and (deleted) enters shows the reader that he finds amusement in h abruptly by compelling Alva (deleted) all games and having fun with language. In question the narrator again.. and despite a With this wit. coincidentally a former from his reader. : unreliability of the narrator. Abish also presents deliberate gaps in the language that he an assailant flashes a knife" (123). 1 [1998]. but confronted by another "He had made a killing here" (32). because invariably all are burdened t what he has been doing with gaps in the text: confusing it for a knife" (124). this chapter serve1 chapter A. 5 The Undergraduate Review with that other alphabet. when discussing the murder of the jeweler Nic as Alva calls Alex. he seem the text and the interpretation oflanguage. Abish is Si and (deleted) as ever (deleted) expands and inherent fallibility oflanguage and all its imper contortion after contortion demonstrates an . however· missing words due to the alphabetical constraints he has because of his how to "accurately direct a knife into another self-imposed structure. Abish shows that while 1 certain experience expresses astonishment as an limitations. Abish uses these purposeful silences and constructed gaps in the text to show the natural limits oflanguage. Alphabetical Africa. there is still a comic side to it. Alphabetical Africa is explosive conclusion. It's a simp appendage (deleted) drops (deleted). Abish makes his readers ask themselves. "Walter Abish: An Intervi 93-100. In that come easily at first. In addition does use and makes the reader question what is missing there as well." With that in mind. the reader is forced to question importance and complexity of language.iwu. He says. Certainly books don't de~ same manner. the reader also has to interpret much of the text when it falls short and when it is misleading or because the reader is to assume that certain words are purposefully those same questions and that same story. Vol. he shows his reader that he or sh~ Just as the reader had to interpret the novel for him or herself due to the granted. He compares the two saying that the knowledge of books cannot Abish.edu/rev/vol11/iss1/5 32 6 ... saying. while Abish has a v (deleted) as an entire (deleted) carefully caressing book. he ~ missing or "(deleted). but with his questions oflitera architect. Walter. the reader assumes that the awkwardness of the grammar is books and language because. Alva enters a dark apartment. a writer. Another criticism Abish has ofthe limitations oflanguage is discussed in the second chapter K. Jerome. but to me they are also an appropriate explanation.

"Inept assailants are easily rthe end of the novel. the reader is forced to question importance and complexity oflanguage. because invariably all are burdened by a book. "Like everything else. while Abish has a very serious purpose for this $ an entire (deleted) carefully caressing book. and yet it's :(deleted) drops (deleted). 'S a dark apartment. With the structure . experience doesn't Klinkowitz. frequently :h gaps in the text: confusing it for a knife" (124). they ~ style on the author's part. Published by Digital Commons @ IWU. New York: New Directions. saying.. Alphabetical Africa is still a very amusing book. this time with more of a critical and conscious view of Tator sends Shirley: "Vanishing points are language. In that come easily at first. "Walter Abish: An Interview. Abish. he shows his reader that he or she cannot take language for terpret the novel for him or herself due to the granted. Both As a writer. but with his questions of literature. he consciously shows detected. In the end. Abish ends the beginning of the text. Abish uses these purposeful silences ~ text to show the natural limits oflanguage. lIs Alex. Walter. a writer. In question the narrator again. Abish does this in a the chapter on a humorous note. criticizes it and yet he lepart after breaking down Alva's appreciates it and demands the same from his reader.and its serious topic. Abish is saying that. however practical the knowledge of lphabetical constraints he has because of his how to "accurately direct a knife into another body" may be. 1998 33 7 ~------------------------------". its function in plot. he gives language back .with the d what those words could add to the reading of structure of his text. even with the ~) as ever (deleted) expands and inherent fallibility oflanguage and all its imperfections . It's a simple play on words.purposeful or not after contortion demonstrates an . when discussing the murder of the jeweler Nicholas. where the narrator compares books to References wo saying that the knowledge of books cannot Abish. coincidentally a former from his reader.---- . (140-1) of the book. In addition to making the reader lder question what is missing there as well. there is still a comic side to it. and despite a With this wit." Fiction International: 93-100. Abish is. in the first chapter M. but confronted by another "He had made a killing here" (32). he shows his reader the th that in mind. ltrivance. Appealing humorous and shows that. but a result of the cannot provide practical experience. and yet with mme that certain words are purposefully those same questions and that same story. for instance . the reader also has to interpret much of the text when it falls short and when it is misleading or restrictive. but to me they are also an appropriate t" (87). In many ways . Certainly books don't describe intense excitement as resents deliberate gaps in the language that he an assailant flashes a knife" (123). and with more appreciation for it. Abish shows that while he questions language and its >erience expresses astonishment as an limitations. Abish questions the role oflanguage.. For instance.. Alphabetical Africa. as (deleted) before even closing a door. how and :. he also has an immense interest in and appreciation for it. He architect embraces and (deleted) enters shows the reader that he finds amusement in language by playing word f compelling Alva (deleted) all games and having fun with language. \bishhas ofthe limitations oflanguage is apter K. he says about him. Syed '00: Alphabetical Africa's Relationship Between Language and Meaning Syed view bish makes his readers ask themselves.by comparing them to the vanishing points in a to his reader. after another and interesting language is how he makes it so. such as'the act 'S. while books can provide knowledge. Jerome.~~. this chapter serves to show a deficiency in nes that the awkwardness of the grammar is books and language because. mt Alva's cries aren't answered. ~merges as a depleted and enervated afterall.~. Abish comments on language. ::onclusion. Eventually. he seems to take language away on oflanguage. uired through committing an act. 1974.

Anthony." American Studies 17. "A d committed" (112). James. sentences is twisted. the plot seems more limited in 1 Fiction 33. This was a r make. he uses a v. For example. saying." and "readability suffer grammar" (Peterson 16) ." Wide Abish's novel.iwu. 5 The Undergraduate Review language to show the outcome of such manip Martin. "Alex and Allen alone arrive in Abidj amusements" (2.language.2: 229-241. make the reader not only question the language that is missing too. With his almost I subtraction of letters. He could very easily have gotten arOl page where.2 (1992): 133-144.edu/rev/vol11/iss1/5 34 8 . available. the last words ofb. system: "Alex. 1 [1998]. in the same context. "Comic Politics and Politics of the Comic: Walter Abish shows just how much he can do WithOl Abish's Alphabetical Africa. Abish declares th wrong word the first time to make a point. With this recognition of the mistake: his reader question everything about langua. he insists on a rigid sys deconstructs that very system. langua~ Abish deliberately shows another fall own system as an example. places a word in that doesn't belong. "Walter Abish's Fictions: Perfect Unfamiliarity.§ . Art. Allen and Alva arrive at Anti using "at" the second time. for perhaps the don't realize exists or have altogether forgo http://digitalcommons. A "mistake" at least seven other times in the bo second chapter P. Undergraduate Review. Iss.which Peterson Peterson. There seems to be more interestin. In the I writes.Abish still successfully maI Angle 7. Familiar while ''under the weight of the restricted VOC1 Imperfection.3 (1985): 14-23. "The Artful Mathematicians of Avant-Garde. Abish shows that while hecaIl language while manipulating its rules. Abish places these delibe system to show the possibility ofdeficiency i way of recognizing that his novel is all a com recognition to draw attention to the fictive at language and literature. acknowledges it five lines later. description in chapter A than in the later cha are no self-inflicted limitations or obvious res Paradoxically. aIle Schirato. and the plot of the story through his own "alp Eventually syntax and semantics emerge. Richard. 11. Vol. (152). where he incorrectly uses . Appropriately." Critique: Studies in Contemporary Interestingly. italics added).