October 25, 2007


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ABC: A Novel by David Plante (Pantheon Books, 2007, 272 pages)
Reviewed by Amy Diaz adiaz@hippopress.com

David Planteís new novel, ABC, is the story of Gerard Chauvin, a professor of French-Canadian descent who teaches at a small college here in Manchester. His young son is killed in a sudden accident, and Gerardís way of dealing with this is to withdraw from the world and enter into an obsession with the alphabet and its origins. Specifically, he wants to know who put the letters in their current order. He abandons his wife and job to pursue this quest, and along the way forms a small band of strangers he finds in the same situation ó they have all experienced traumatic losses and then become intrigued by the same question. The alphabet is, of course, a rather obvious symbol for the unquestioned order of the universe; what the characters really want to discover is why things must be the way they are, in general, and why their loved ones died, in particular. Their mission takes them around the world, to England, Greece, Egypt, and beyond. This description of the plot is somewhat misleading, though: it makes ABC sound like it should be full of action and plot twists and secrets, something along the lines of The Da Vinci Code, but it isnít that at all. Itís slow and hazy and surreal. The writing is beautiful, and the window into Gerardís psyche is compelling, but the plot suffers in the service of these elements.

The first chapter, the one that ends with the death of Gerardís son, is the weakest part of the book. It should have been written with stark realism, in a way that would make the reader feel the change that Harryís death causes in Gerard. Instead, it felt contrived and belabored, and I just wanted Plante to get on with it already and get to the aftermath of the death, which was clearly what he actually wanted to write about. The dialogue, never a particular strength of this novel, is just ridiculous in the first chapter; I canít imagine any of the lines actually coming out of a real personís mouth. The dialogue doesnít really get more realistic as the book goes on, but the overall atmosphere becomes more intentionally surreal, so the speeches arenít as jarring.

Plante brings up so many different themes and issues that itís hard for the reader to find satisfaction on any front. In addition to the obvious theme of loss and the issue of the alphabet itself, the novel deals with terrorism, Chechnya, and drug use, and themes of class, pretension, identity, and religion recur throughout the book. The Chechen section is particularly odd ó it feels tacked on, and its purpose is unclear, unless itís just there to show that there is an element of personal loss in what we usually think of as ďbig world issues.Ē And that doesnít really seem necessary here.

More problematically, though, the central questions are lost in the mix and never really answered. But perhaps thatís the point. The characters, after all, are using the question of the alphabet as a way of expressing the questions in their own lives, so when it comes down to it, the alphabet is a passing obsession for them, rather than a real interest. My curiosity, however, was aroused by the academic questions raised, and so I was frustrated that Plante did not delve into them more deeply. And the charactersí crises werenít really resolved, either. The alphabet plays a part in the conclusion of the book, but it is simply repeated rather than explained. This repetition, from a Greek teenager who is somehow also Gerardís dead son, seems to bring Gerard a form of closure: the novel ends with the words ďgrief expands into phenomenal love,Ē and Iím glad that Gerard feels that way, but I canít quite figure out how ABC ó either the novel or the alphabet itself ó got him there. B- óKatherine Welsh