Alphabetophile

Michael Hofmann

  • Attrib. and Other Stories by Eley Williams
    Influx, 169 pp, £9.99, March 2017, ISBN 978 1 910312 16 2
  • Frit by Eley Williams
    Sad, 35 pp, £6.00, April 2017

Before I embarked on Eley Williams, of whom I had read nothing and knew nothing, I flipped through Attrib., her first book of stories. Even on first flip, I got a sense of something I sometimes find in things I like and that seem good to me, something that subliminally distinguishes writing that is careful and alive: a kind of alphabetical justice, to give this sheepish and probably disreputable thing a name in public. The letters in her words seemed to be drawn from adjacent parts of the alphabet. They had thought about themselves and one another. There was something collusive about them. They backed up one another’s story. They had demanded to be consulted, and come to their own unconventional arrangements. It all makes for alphabetophile writing. In the reader, it produces a kind of constructive estrangement from words. Think William Gass, Lydia Davis or Anne Carson, and you won’t be too wrong.

Now I feel like someone who thinks there’s a shower on the way, and then it rains for ten days straight. Williams is just full of alphabets. The first story is even called ‘The Alphabet’, and near its end offers descriptions of all 26 letters: ‘P is cuckoo-spit on the length of a chive, cooling in the dew-dawn … Pentecostal or horrified upthrust arms in Y as we finally discover the serpent Z: a cruel child has broken the spine of an S.’ Williams is spooked by things not said or nearly said or also said or almost mis-said. ‘Aphaeresis’ and ‘apocope’, the terms for the loss of a sound at the beginning and the end of words, put in appearances. Words are like landmines, or is it mobiles? Her title story, ‘Attrib.’, effectively doubles as ‘@rib’: it wasn’t a surprise to find an actual rib in it (left over from the preceding day’s Chinese takeaway); the speaker is a sound designer, adding sound effects to museum headphone commentary on Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam and Creation of Eve. There are words like ‘baffle’ (as noun and as verb), ‘foley’ (or folie?), ‘aphasia’ (or aphrodisiac?), ‘discreet’ or ‘discrete’, ‘syrinx’ and ‘larynx’, the ‘boggling’ and ‘bruxing’ of pet rats, ‘pâté’ and ‘pate’. A speaker in another story, who has seen one fly off, wonders about the sizing of wigs: ‘I feel the sides of my own head, cupping my skull’s brow and crown and arch and I am not sure whether mine would be a Small, Medium, Large, extra large. Or would it be measured as an A, a B, C, D, Double D, a Gamma Minus?’ Of the 17 stories, 12 have one-word titles, often with anxious spills of subtitles or alternates. One is called ‘Bs’, and one ‘And Back Again’. One is ‘Spines’, the next is ‘Spins’. One is ‘Rosette’, one is ‘Scutiform’. One is ‘The Alphabet’, one is ‘Alight at the Next’. One is ‘Smote’, and one is ‘Bulk’. The word ‘Timbuktu’ is praised for having ‘just the right mix of spiked and undulating letters to imply travel’. The hinges on the cat-flap say ‘Pyongyang’. A hedgehog is ‘a small apostrophe in the water’. Williams’s two epigraphs, both taken from Johnson’s Dictionary, are definitions of the word ‘attribute’ and the word ‘trolmydames’; the one comes with two, the other has none. ‘Of this word I know not the meaning,’ the harmless drudge renamed here as ‘Big Sam’ says. ‘Trolmydames’. It appears in a prose scene in The Winter’s Tale; ‘trou-madame’ has been conjectured, a game of boules or Ur-golf, with nine holes. A troll; a tribute.

This kind of writing, where the mind is almost its own subject, where the place of narrative or character is mostly taken by the self-conscious or self-delighting mind, and where you yourself are put in mind of the quivery automatic graph-paper machines that register earthquakes or the humidity in museums (seismometers or hygrometers), is demanding to produce. You need to be clever and careful, and also to have copious arcane knowledge. The mind plays itself, is a performer, a mime, is Marcel Marceau, is so to speak professionally interesting, and has to be well-stocked therefore with nuggety obscurities. Here Williams can sometimes be a little predictable, a little foreknown, a little unenterprising. In this game, you don’t want to be told things you know; it’s one thing being told sauna or screaming or stripping words in Finnish or Rapa Nui or Bantu, another being given the origin (‘dent de lion’) of ‘dandelion’ and its French equivalent (‘pissenlit’). To mix a metaphor, the mind, to be the pièce de résistance, has to be off the beaten track.

Joseph Brodsky claimed to think that 90 per cent of love poetry was postcoital; Williams’s stories, with only one or two exceptions, come in the wake of break-ups. The lover – the bird or bard – has flown. The reader may very well think this is no bad thing. Williams’s leavers are all-rounders, shining, uncomplicated, confident, bossy creatures, ‘free to play or free to slack’, as Robert Lowell put it, the ‘or’ multiplying their already monstrous freedom. They are always to hand with a nicely turned ‘filthy joke’ or two, the correct plural of ‘crocus’ (I always thought it was ‘crocuses’ myself, but then I’m not like that), they are unencumbered by anxieties of time or place or style. Those who are left behind try to think of what might have been a good parting shot, or to find a suitably anonymous bin to chuck the departed’s silk pyjamas into. They are staring into the three holes of the telephone from which they have just received their marching orders, or trying to muster a kiss in a public museum in front of a distracting-to-the-point-of-disabling Bridget Riley. They are comically sensitive, comically complicated beings, specialists, often, hamstrung by their specialisations: an aphasic, a clinically interesting synaesthete, a worker in a natural history museum stumbling across a whale, an ortolan chef.

There is a gentleness, a lightness, a discretion too, about these stories. In all probability, they are about sex and the failure of living together, but you wouldn’t know it. During an ‘excellent’ game of hide and seek at a boy’s birthday party, the host and another boy hide in a closet. While waiting to be released, Stuart tries to talk Peter into stuffing as many marshmallows as possible down the side of his cheek, while still managing to sing the school song; another boy, Ryan, managed 14. No one dies, though I’m not quite sure why. In its harmless way, the thing seems perfectly scandalous. The two bs in the story ‘Bs’ are an early bird in the tree outside a lover’s window, ‘shouting at your house’, and a bee kept overnight in a – rinsed, of course – Nutella jar. ‘The bird and the bee,’ Williams says sweetly, ‘could set up, I think, a lovely B & B and serve their guests toast with honey and eggs.’ Tell me the birds and the bees are nowhere in it – even as a form of misdirection.

The poems in Frit, published more or less at the same time as Attrib. by another small press, are just as inventive and alphabetaceous, but a little wilder in their zany crossword-clue riffing and juggling than the stories:

There should at least be some small comfort
in translating the insects correctly –
multitudinous seas cicardanine? just not cricket?

a giddy gadfly caddis caddish
cockroach morning, Gregor?

(‘Miel Fou Morning’)

‘Untyping’ is an ode to Liquid Paper, I think the stuff is called. ‘Reticule’ is about the long, never treated or heated hair of a woman (Mary Babnik Brown – and it had to be blonde) being used for the crosshairs in bombers’ gunsights, and ends: ‘today the weather’s good and finds me poor and shorn –/unwarm, I wear these short days trippingly, or underwarned.’ Other things I’m not yet sure about. Gendering and markings are an issue. ‘Ecriture féminine’ appears in an unreproducible blizzard of different typefaces. Birds get into a lot of places: ‘300,000 birds yet still we get to call it murmuration’ (‘Slough’). And ‘frit’? It’s Margaret Thatcher’s Lincolnshire word for ‘scared’, or it’s a substance used in the making of porcelain. Or glass. Opaque, transparent; shaken or stirred – take your pick.