Alphabetter Juice, Vladimir Sorokin and Other Great Reads

Alphabetter Juice, Vladimir Sorokin and Other Great Reads

Fun with Words

If you think you know English, Alphabetter Juice might make you think again. In this follow-up to his 2008 book, Alphabet Juice, the writer and self-diagnosed hyperlexic Roy Blount Jr. riffs on a language that bounces, plods, jingles, and thuds like no other. It's a celebration of the quirky, idiomatic, cobbled-together words, phrases, and expressions we use every day (and some long forgotten), without giving their provenance, their aesthetics, or their sonicky-ness a second thought.

Sonicky: a term coined by the author to describe words that are not strictly imitative or onomatopoetic, like snap, crackle, and pop, but whose meanings are conveyed by both their sound and their movement.

Enough abstraction—it's not Blount's style. Say the words urge, throttle, and splotch aloud. Note how you form those words, how they contract and expand your throat, tense and relax your tongue, and shape your lips to not only create noises that sound like what they mean, but that actually manifest their meanings in their physical formation.

Doesn't urge simply feel like yearning desire, with its long, drawn-out beginning, strained-R in the middle, and semi-satisfying soft-G finish? Doesn't your tongue throttle when you say throttle? Doesn't splotch, as Blount writes, "explode from the mouth and make an unmissable mess of itself"?

A swift, fascinating read, Alphabetter Juice is not your fifth-grade grammar textbook. It never dwells too long on one thing, nor does it fit a single category. Its alphabetized entries, from A to Z, jump from "bigth" to "blab," from "robinhood" to "rumpsprung," in a mash of straightforward etymologies, linguistic analyses, personal anecdotes, definitions for neologisms, and doses of LOL humor throughout.

Much of that humor sneaks up on you, as in the entry sandwiched between Q-tip and quip—titled, "questions not to ask an author, with answers." One being: Q. "You can work anywhere, right?" A. "Not here, for instance."

A regular panelist on NPR's quiz show Wait, Wait… Don't Tell Me and a usage consultant for the American Heritage Dictionary, Blount comes from a tradition that includes Mark Twain, H.L. Mencken, and even David Foster Wallace. That is, people who take language seriously, but who aren't always too serious about it.

Like its predecessor, Alphabetter Juice is neither exhaustive nor predictable. The section on Q, for example, consists entirely of the three entries listed above. In G, Blount leads with possible origins of G-string, moves on to gag, and meanders through numerous other G words before he reaches gillie/girl, whose entry, in fact, winds up discussing salmon.

A few entries later, for gollywaddles, Blount recalls Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia's claim, in 2008, that the F-word is offensive "because it is associated with sexual or excretory activity… This is why people don't use gollywaddles instead."

"Poppycock," writes Blount. "What gives fuck its force is the combination of its meaning and its kinephonic value… Its rude, explosive soft-f-to-hard-k sound—soft f, uh, as in thrust, and k—and the way in which it surges through the oral apparatus make it a gratifying epithet to utter and often a frightening one to hear."

Bam.

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But Alphabetter Juice is more than a novelty act, a breezy tour of the twisty-turny English language for like-minded word nerds. Joining recent books like Roy Peter Clark's The Glamour of Grammar and Stanley Fish's How to Write a Sentence, Blount's comes at a critical time in the life of letters. As technology changes both how and what we read, it's also changing what passes for decent writing. See mediablur, p. 148.

In a February 2010 New York Times column, David Carr described the so-called "content farms" that "assemble facts into narratives that deliver information... The results would not be mistaken for literary journalism," he wrote, "but on the Web, pretty good—or even not terrible—is often good enough."

Not for Blount, Clark, or Fish. Those authors, and their books, make a collective case for thinking as you write, for taking care with your craft. As Blount puts it, "I don't even have any patience for not-terrible guacamole. The chunkier the better."

Sometimes a curmudgeon but never dull, Blount knows his audience: people who like to read, who like to think about language, and who probably like to write too. If you can't leave the house or pick up a newspaper without rolling your eyes at nonsensical malapropisms, grammatical quagmires, syntactical knots, or simple misspellings, you'll find a friend in Alphabetter Juice. You'll laugh, scratch your chin, and learn a great deal.

And you'll probably find yourself wondering about all the words, phrases, and expressions that Blount doesn't include. Maybe you'll investigate on your own, hazard your own hypotheses, or just appreciate how little you really know about English. At the very least, you'll anxiously await the next round of juice.

David Alm, Contributor

The Nastiest Painter Around

Chicago-born Joan Mitchell is arguably as powerful a modernist painter, if not more so, than many more famous Abstract Expressionists, such as Clyfford Still, Hans Hofmann, and Adolph Gottlieb. Yet shortly before Mitchell died in 1992, a documentary filmmaker hawking a Mitchell-related project had to explain to potential funders that she was not planning a screen portrait of singer Joni Mitchell. In a new book, Patricia Albers explains her continuing relative obscurity. Albers, author of a highly detailed 2002 biography of Italian photographer Tina Modotti from the University of California Press, implies that the leading reason is that in her time, Mitchell was one of the nastiest people in the arts world, a milieu not typically known for its kindliness and personal warmth.

In earliest prep school days, as a privileged heiress, Mitchell uncharitably dished on a female classmate with large lips: "Can you imagine kissing her? It would be like kissing a wet toilet seat!" As an adult, Mitchell was notorious for saying the meaning things imaginable, especially when drunk, and she was drunk a great deal of the time. Violently objecting to the way female artists were grouped together and segregated from the "real" artists, all males, Mitchell once grunted about her work: "Not bad for a lady painter." This bitterly ironic phrase, which provides the subtitle of Albers' book, calls for the further addendum about Mitchell: "That was no lady, that was a painter!" Mitchell especially disdained women artists, talented or not, whom she deemed insufficiently macho, boozing, and brawling. She was capable of civility with such refined contemporaries as Helen Frankenthaler, but privately referred to the latter as "that Kotex painter." You did not have to be an artist to win Mitchell's ire, as Albers details: A "former sex partner who crossed paths with Joan at the theater one night was heartily greeted, 'Oh boy! You were shitty in bed.'" In this way, Mitchell's conversation was constantly marked by "casual cruelty," as when she asked one young acquaintance who was burdened with an ailing parent, "So how's your fucking mother and her fucking cancer?"

Using conversation as a two-fisted joust was a defense developed early on, as daughter of a wealthy physician who responded to his daughter's announcement that she would like to be a painter by declaring: "How can you be an artist? You can't draw!" Undeterred, Mitchell embraced art and athleticism, becoming a prizewinning pairs skater as a teenager, a rare and unrepeated sign of cooperative ability in someone whose fierce loner status characterizes her life. Yet she married publisher Barney Rosset in 1949, and would later endure a lengthy abusive relationship with the overrated Canadian painter Jean-Paul Riopelle, with time out for a brief, aptly sad fling with the writer Samuel Beckett, who escaped by pleading depression-induced impotence.

Despite these relationships, Mitchell's enduring solitude was in part due to her choice to live in France, for the last decades of her life in the dreamy town of Vétheuil, near Giverny. Her choice couple of acres, which contained a house once used by Claude Monet, were pricey even in the 1950s (which teaches us that it helps for an artist to be an heiress, even an antisocial one). Mitchell's Vétheuil garden indubitably fueled her passion for colors, which resulted in almost overwhelmingly emotional canvases, such as the late series " La Grande Vallée," with mighty brushstrokes adding up to dazzling evocations of nature. Albers tries to explain Mitchell's color sense neurologically, by noting that the artist was born with Synesthesia, the condition in which people perceive letters, numbers, or musical notes as inherently colored. Yet few synesthesiacs are as triumphantly assertive expressers of color in art as Mitchell was.

Admirers of her talent, and her ownership of choice real estate, flocked to visit Mitchell's home, and were often enlisted as temporary slaves or battered with the oddest questions, reflecting whatever the painter's current idée-fixe might be. In the late 1980s, one young architect who was a family friend of Mitchell told me that during one recent visit, the painter, who worked nights with classical music blaring on her phonograph, insisted repeatedly that the German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, whose lieder recordings she obsessed over, must be gay. In reality, Fischer-Dieskau married repeatedly and fathered children, but in her own mind, Mitchell discerned something about the singer's ethereally tender high notes which she identified with homosexuality, and harangued her guest, who himself happened to be gay, about the subject during his entire visit. Such relentlessly expressed intuitions were clearly part of her personal makeup and her creativity. These could be distinctly more accurate than her Fischer-Dieskau allegations, as when Mitchell declared about the visiting, liquid-eyed poet Paul Auster: "He must be a phony with eyes like that." Mitchell's apparently tipsy ravings could also transform into canny practicality, as when she swindled the French customs service for years by claiming that her finished paintings being shipped to her New York dealer were mere incomplete sketches, to avoid paying duties. (She was finally caught and had to pay around a million dollars in back taxes.) Or when she opined, perceptively enough, about Manhattan during a late visit: "This is the most backbiting, high-pressure, unsupportive place I can imagine."

Ultimately, Mitchell's rages and her art are inextricable, and Albers' dynamically written, insightful book is an enlightening, if sometimes harrowing, read. An unsparing look at a great artist and unsparing person.

Benjamin Ivry is author of biographies of Arthur Rimbaud, Maurice Ravel, and Francis Poulenc.

Russia's Wicked Satirist

It's revealing of Vladimir Sorokin that his most conventional book is probably The Queue, a 280-page novel written entirely in unattributed dialogue. The Queue, which tells the story of a band of late Soviet-era citizens waiting in line for an unknown product to go on sale, was Sorokin's first published novel—it first appeared in France—and his work has only gotten stranger from there. In Russia, Sorokin is infamous as a governmental critic and provocateur, but he is also one of the country's most laurelled writers, earning several high-profile awards. In what likely should be considered an honor, an ultranationalist group accused him of being a pornographer, burning copies of his novel Blue Bacon Fat, which features a sex scene between clones of Stalin and Khrushchev.

This spring, two Sorokin books, Day of the Oprichnik and Ice Trilogy, appeared in the U.S. for the first time, both translated by Jamey Gambrell. (NYRB Classics had published Ice, the middle volume of the trilogy, in 2007, but this marks the first American publication of the complete trilogy.) Day of the Oprichnik takes place in the year 2028, when Russia is ruled by a new tsar, whose edicts are enforced by a ruthless henchmen known as oprichniks. Ivan the Terrible established the original oprichniks in the 16th century, and their purpose in Sorokin's novel is much as the same as their seventeenth century forbears: stomp out all dissent and murder those who disobey the tsar. They roam the country with impunity—there are even special roads for the oprichniks' "Mercedov" cars—and are only hemmed in by the enormous wall that has been built around Russia, separating it from the rest of the world. When the oprichniks aren't crushing the state's enemies, they sing songs of praise to God and country, inject themselves with small intoxicating goldfish, and engage in orgiastic celebrations of their powers.

In a 2007 interview with Der Spiegel, Sorokin readily acknowledged that Day of the Oprichnik was "a book about the present," explaining that satire was the only tool sufficient for describing contemporary Russia. In Sorokin's view, violence has been "the sinister energy" of Russia, and it is evident in the state's power over citizens, particularly the habitual arrests of any oligarchs who dare to question the status quo.

The Ice Trilogy draws from the same wellspring of corruption, political violence, and dark history that informs Sorokin's other work, but it's not quite a satire, nor is it conveniently summarized as a parable. Rather, this sprawling, bizarre, polyphonic 700-page monster of a book seems like the sort of thing that one could only summon on some atavistic vision quest.

In brief: the Ice Trilogy is the story of the Brotherhood of the Light, a secret society that worships and draws power from a special form of ice deposited in Siberia during the Tunguska Event, which occurred when a meteoroid or comet exploded over central Siberia in 1908, flattening trees for 830 square miles. In the trilogy's first volume, Bro, an expedition to the Tunguska site results in a young man discovering the special ice, falling on it, and having his "heart" awakened, giving himself the name "Bro." In the subsequent books, Bro becomes the founding figure of the Brotherhood, helping to awaken the other prophesied "Brothers and Sisters of the Light" (there are 23,000 in total), who must one day gather together in order to join hands and turn into light. When that happens, the Earth will cease to exist. Maybe the universe too.

Sorokin's book is, simply put, an alternative vision of the universe, from Earth's formation to its eventual end. Along the way, Sorokin's book passes through many genres: historical adventure, new-age fantasy, pulpy crime thriller, Orwellian dystopia. The novel is not always cogent—more powerful members of the Brotherhood speak in a numbing, highly figurative style—but its manic alien energy makes it, at times, a lot of fun. Sorokin occasionally drops weighty pronouncements, such as that "Russia itself was one large metaphysical hole," but the book is more concerned with the particularities, and challenges, of the Brotherhood's quest to awaken and unite.

Jamey Gambrell's translation is good, but Sorokin has given her a mighty challenge. The Ice Trilogy is rife with slang and invented patois, and some of it comes through awkwardly, particularly the Brotherhood's speech, which is defined by an avalanche of italicized words. The book's dalliances with various styles is more of a curiosity than genuinely immersive, but the Brotherhood does come across as a sympathetic, if insane, band of antiheroes, despite their apocalyptic designs.

For those who make it past The Queue and Day of the Oprichnik, the Ice Trilogy is a worthy investment, and the second two volumes are far better than the first. But it is unlike any novel you're likely to have read; for some, this promise will be an enticement, a reason to enter into the wormhole of Sorokin's imagination, and see if humanity survives.

Jacob Silverman, Contributor

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