two-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
31-Nov-Dec-2007
By: 
David Plante
user_rating: 
0

A-ABCDuring a summer outing, college professor Gerard Chauvin, his wife Peggy, and their six-year-old son Harry explore an old, abandoned house. While Gerard becomes fascinated by the strange writing he finds on a scrap of paper in the fireplace, Harry wanders off and falls to his death through some rotten floorboards. In the weeks that follow, a devastated Gerard becomes obsessed with that piece of paper—which, he discovers, lists the letters of the Sanskrit alphabet over and over—and with the origins of the alphabet. Convinced that he will find solace in this knowledge, he joins a small group of other grieving parents and travels to England, Greece, and Syria to find the genesis of the written word—and enlightenment.
Pantheon. 272 pages. $23. ISBN: 037542461X

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"[A] luminous and unsentimentally consoling fictional addition to our consideration of the survivors’ lot. … Throughout this quest, the ghosts of the phonetic pilgrims’ lost loved ones hover around and it is one of the strengths of Plante’s beautifully controlled prose that the reality and unreality of these specters is altogether unresolved." Tim Rutten

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"David Plante’s beautiful, otherworldly new novel is that improbable creation, a metaphysical page-turner reminiscent of other books around which literary cults have arisen: A.S. Byatt’s Possession and John Fowles’s The Magus both come to mind. … Readers in search of an intricately plotted, neatly ordered novel that disgorges camera-ready truths and platitudes should seek it elsewhere." Elizabeth Hand

NY Times Book Review 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Although Plante handles this theme with subtle intelligence, he does so by subordinating characters to ideas. Gerard and his associates are sketched lightly, in a curiously functional language that seems primarily interested in conveying information." Siddhartha Deb

San Francisco Chronicle 2 of 5 Stars
"Simply put, it seems like an idea for a novel about grief and loss rather than a breathing vision of people suffering real losses. Hovering uneasily between realism and fable, and laden with information delivered in lectures, the novel never chooses a register to inhabit, nor does it manage to blend these ingredients in a way that might convincingly convey such agony to an outsider." Jesse Berrett

New York Sun 1 of 5 Stars
"The author forgoes any accurate depiction of the interior lives of his characters and any subtleties in the writing. … ABC is often listless, dull, incomprehensible, and borders at times on the absurdly pretentious." Mischa Berlinski

Critical Summary

How does a parent carry on after the death of a child? And why do critics differ so greatly in their opinions of veteran author David Plante’s latest work? While some appreciated Plante’s simple, unadorned writing, others found it oddly flat and perfunctory, reducing character descriptions and settings to "labels on cans" (New York Times Book Review). The novel’s middle section, in which the history of the alphabet is explored in a series of lectures given by a Cambridge professor, drains the plot of its forward momentum. Some heartrending moments depict a parent’s unspeakable grief, and the nearly universal ideas behind Gerard’s quest are intriguing enough. However, critics largely found that these points of interest were not enough to carry the novel.