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Alphabetique: 26 Characteristic Fictions

by Kara Kosaka; Molly Peacock; illus.

By the Book: Stories and Pictures

by Diane Schoemperlen

Although most widely known for her novels and short-story collections, Diane Schoemperlen won the Governor General’s Literary Award for fiction in 1998 for Forms of Devotion: Stories and Pictures, in which prose and found images worked together to make a third thing that even today probably doesn’t have a name. She returns to this hybrid genre in By the Book: Stories and Pictures, which quotes Octavio Paz’s dictum that today’s great works of literature are “totalities of fragments, constructions always in motion by the same law of complementary opposition that rules the particles in physics.”

By The Book (Diane Schoemperlen)The book comprises seven pieces made from so-called found prose extracted from delightfully cockamamie old self-help books and combined with visual collages pieced together from the pages of those and similarly obsolete works. Schoemperlen adds to and comments on both words and images, enriching them by creative manipulation.

For example, the main story, taking up a quarter of the book, has its origins in a turn-of-the-20th-century bilingual manual for Italians immigrating to the U.S. Schoemperlen turns this into a narrative of a man named Alessandro and his difficulties, emotional and otherwise, in making a home for himself in the New World. The accompanying collages, like those throughout the book, are meant to look quaintly linear, sometimes resembling the dense interior pages of a period newspaper, the kind that used to be set in eight-point Caslon.

The texts Schoemperlen uses in the half-dozen other stories draw on books with such titles as The Commonly Occurring Plants of Canada (published in 1897) and Ontario Public School Hygiene (1925). She latches on to their earnest absurdities, sometimes rearranging elements to make epigrams and aphorisms. Her wit, however, is just the glaze on her serious intentions. One need not squint to see that between the lines Schoemperlen is using history to ridicule our own societal certainties or even to protest Canada’s increasing authoritarianism. In every case, she looks for fresh ways of pushing the boundaries of Canadian fiction. She is an original.

And so is the poet Molly Peacock, who also loves to mix the literary and visual arts. That much became obvious in 2010 when she published The Paper Garden, her much-praised memoir/biography combo about an 18th-century Anglo-Irish gentlewoman who, late in life, began making almost unimaginably intricate collages of plants and flowers (creations that can be found in the British Museum).

Alphabetique (Molly Peacock)Now comes a second Peacock title that approaches the subject of creativity itself in an ingeniously oblique manner. Alphabetique: 26 Characteristic Fictions is an adult version of the “alphabet books” used to teach children their letters. Each letter of the English alphabet is given a “life story” that, as the reader slowly discovers, is a moral tale or gloss on a social situation or problem. The letter “d,” for example, is a deer who grows up to be upper-case D, who “always felt, somehow or other, double. He was an upright line, but then again, he was a curve. When he looked in the mirror straight on, he saw the dapper features of the diplomat he was.
But sideways, if he took off his horn-rim glasses, he imagined he could be mistaken for a Dame. He always saw both sides to everything.” He is, of course, a metaphor for gender uncertainty, and the little tale shows how he resolves this.

“L,” a Norma Desmond–type character, is a fast-fading one-time movie star with three dead ex-husbands and a phantom lover. She has spent her days poolside in Hollywood as “time lounged on.” The reader comes to know what the character herself does not: that ageing and the loss of desire are changes to be accommodated rather than contested.

These tales open with deliberately shameful bursts of alliteration. The story of the letter “F” begins this way: “A flute would flare – then fifteen-year-old F would flounce onstage, positively fetching in her French-fashioned gown.” Whereas “M loved the little house she shared with her mum, its magnolias and mansard roof.”

Peacock’s texts work perfectly with the 26 full-page illustrations by Vancouver artist and designer Kara Kosaka. These are varied, lush, and colourful, each one created to match the mood, rather than the hidden message, of the different storylets. Kosaka’s deer named D is particularly endearing (even without his eyeglasses).