CS Richardson, The End of the Alphabet

CS Richardson, like Chip Kidd, but also completely unlike Chip Kidd, is a book designer who's moved into writing novels. Richardson's acclaimed 2007 novel The End of the Alphabet is this month's book club selection, which explains my otherwise inexplicable escape from recent trawling through retro science fiction and logging novels.

Now, I was underwhelmed by Kidd's The Cheese Monkeys, to put it mildly, and in retrospect the warning signs were there in Kidd's reviews. Conceptually interesting, but unnecessary, is how I thought of it. Nick Bantock's books are more interesting than that, though maybe I just think that because they're warmer of heart than Kidd's intellectual (?) exercise, but I was a little anxious about The End of the Alphabet.

Now, bear in mind that this novel's an international bestseller, puffed in the blurbs section by USA Today, the Globe & Mail, and People magazine. Bear in mind, also, that it won the 2008 Commonwealth Writer's Prize for Best First Novel (Canada and the Caribbean region). People have said publicly, in other words, that This Is Good Stuff.

To my eyes there are two ways to read this novel, and I think I'm unable, perhaps congenitally, to avoid reading it both ways at once.

It's a delicate, restrained portrait of a suddenly dying man and his lovely wife, who understands what he needs but is mostly destroyed by losing her husband. As People puts it, "a compelling look at an enviable marriage--one that just happens to be coming to an end." He gets a 30-day life expectancy, and wants to visit a different place for each letter in the alphabet. She wants to be home, to feel at home, to hold tight to him at home, and the novel depicts their struggles to get what they want and yet to let the other's desire be met as well. Full of compromise and quiet drama, melancholy and courage, the financially secure upper-middle-class Brit hasn't been rendered so lovely in print since ... wait, have they ever been lovingly rendered in print before? (Kidding. I assume that they have, even if I don't read that sort of thing very much.)

It's also boring and twee and self-indulgent, a coded lament for the tattered ruins of collective capitalist egotism that shouldn't be stomached. Ambrose Zephyr travels obsessively following his diagnosis, abandons his family and friends, and burns up his wife's energies to live out the life's goal of his juvenilia, to visit places from A to Z, for no other purpose than simply to do it. Of course USA Today and People loved the book: those particular journalistic lights spend much of their energy bemoaning the decay of Right Values while also celebrating the borrowing of bijoux from Harry Winston and the best $500 shoe for this season. There's a deadline for our lives, and for our society: doing the same thing we've always done, more intensely, is no way to effect change.

It's both these things and neither of them. It's good enough, I guess, and I'm glad for Richardson both that he has found a readership and that readers have found something to keep them rewardingly teary-eyed. But I don't get it. I really don't.


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