Molly Peacock’s Paradise, Piece by Piece (1998) reconstructs the poet’s life using fragments of memory and experience, in orderly lines of text. The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delany Begins Her Life’s Work at 72 (2010) is a biography, sumptuously illustrated. Both books consider women’s work and creativity (among other things).
In many ways, Alphabetique feels like a union of these earlier works. It takes as its subject, the biography of the alphabet, but not just their familiar outward forms but their intimate under-sides, strikingly illustrated with a series of collages by Kara Kosaka.
Reaching beyond the author’s oeuvre, there are glimpses of Dr. Suess in the vein of “Big I, Little I, what begins with I?”
Here is part of Molly Peacock’s answer in Alphabetique:
“It was independence itself she helped her patients aim for, though Dr. I expressed this indirectly. She vowed to ease the irrational, inspire the irritable, illumine the ill, and lead them all into images of themselves, pictures they could draw internally. Dr. I thought all her patients were intrepid, even the timid ones. She understood that ichors of being flowed up and down the cores of every last one of them.”
These short narratives are playful (perhaps best enjoyed in short bursts of reading, so as they don’t become a blur of cleverness) but also acute observations of behaviour.
“U loved being useful. He was a guy who could clean an eavestrough of a Saturday morning and plough through handyman chores faster than a vacuum cleaner. He was neat, too. Always swept up the sawdust from the drill, wiped up the gunk from the old plumbing he coaxed into another year, and kept his beautiful wooden worktable oiled. The table was the pièce de résistance of his workshop off the garage, a utopia of neatly racked hardware and tools. It stood in the center, huge and ready as a canvas for the next project.”
These are not portraits conceived of in isolation, in some make-believe world that might be indexed in The Dictionary of Imagined Places. These letters inhabit a world that readers will immediately recognize and, possibly, relate to their own personal experiences.
“…her new heroines would be exceedingly vigorous and mature despite pesky ailments like heart trouble. She chose two. One came from the afterlife: Diana Vreeland (who mounted a dozen costume exhibits extraordinaires before her heart failed at eighty-six). Among the still living, she took as a heroine the spirited Diana Athill, celebrated editor and memoirist, keeping up her elucidating correspondence at ninety-six.”
(Not surprising to find contemplation of the creative life for female artists, feminism and the identification of heroines molding independent and spirited existences, when so much of Molly Peacock’s writing considers these themes.)
“Because both Diana A. and Diana V. advised the wearing of makeup in advanced age, X decided to make a short excursion of her own to an exclusive makeup counter, one of those exorbitant places that, to her, was both exhilarating and exhausting.”
Repetition and rhythm, delicacy and deliberation: Alphabetique can tickle and toy with readers’ expectations of prose, and that is largely because the work began as lyric rather than narrative. The author’s note explains the work’s transformation over time.
“The first notes of the tales began as poems. Then they transformed into stories, as if from space to time, with the radiant guidance of editor Lara Hinchberger. When the tales became formed in their imagery, CS Richardson, art director and author of the inspired abecedarian novel, The End of the Alphabet, stepped in with a brilliant layout. He then encouraged the visual poems of Kara Kosaka….”
But although the whimsical flavour lingers, strength lies at the heart of this work, inside its central core.
“T wasn’t a journalist, or a historian, or a meteorologist—she just recorded what happened in her diary. It was a self-portrait, really. Locked inside her central core. They’d have to chop her down to get at it.
Even if you’ve never wondered what the letter T’s diary might contain, Alphabetique might make you wonder why you’ve never wondered about wondering it before.