James King’s Étienne’s Alphabet
Cormorant Books, 2010

Stephen Chambers has been charged with the task of presenting Étienne Morneau’s memoir. (I Googled him, but he is fictional; I fell for it book, spine, and thinker.)

Morneau, himself, before he died, had tried for six months to write a conventional autobiography,  but he was unsuccessful. He knew that he had failed; there was more to tell than he’d assembled in those five pages.

“Today, on my thirty-fifth birthday, I have decided to make entries in the form of a dictionary in the hopes of capturing reflections of myself. Only in this way will I be able to bring my own life into focus.”

It’s in this way, in what Chambers describes as an “unconventional autobiography” with a “mosaic-like quality”, that Étienne Morneau’s life takes shape for the reader.

There are two aspects of this which are particularly wonderful.

First, each letter in the alphabet is described before the entries in that portion of the “dictionary” are presented.

“V: the two lines begin apart and then conjoin. There is a tranquil beauty to this shape, giving the illusion that all difficulties, no matter how great, can be resolved.”

Out of context, these segments are often amusing and clever — they are perfect bits to read aloud upon discovery to the person sharing the reader’s room — but in the context of Étienne’s story, they also provide a thematic overview of the words which will follow.

And, second, what begins as a sense of isolated observations and considerations, becomes a broader understanding of an individual who would have been rather difficult to know (because among other things he is an INTROVERT) in real life, although, for all his eccentricities, Étienne did long to connect with other people.

‘Only connect,’ E.M. Forster advised. Easier said than done. Isn’t life really a series of disconnects.”


These are some of the words that appear with definitions in  Étienne’s alphabet, but readers get to know more about Étienne in segments which don’t appear to be openly about him.

For instance, there are segments devoted to music, books, and art which he enjoyed, which offer clues about his personality and passions. But although readers know from Stephen Chambers’ introduction that it is Étienne’s art which has brought him to the public eye following his death, although art is a vitally important force in his life, there is no segment titled ART.

Instead, the passage below appears. (I know it’s long, but if you’re reading this, you’re probably one of those people he’s talking about, who “read all the time”, so I think you’ll appreciate it.)

I cannot say I have ever been a happy person, but I have certainly been able to take great pleasure in some things. Some books thrill me – so do many paintings and films. These fabrications overcome me with a momentary sense that everything is right with the world. Or that everything could be made right with the world. The illusion does not last long. Maybe that’s why some people read all the time or frequent museums or see every movie they can? I guess there is within many of us a sanguine streak, one that survives despite all the obstacles thrown in the way.”

Furthermore, there are segments titled for other people who are important to him, which reveal his emotional intensity, giving the reader insight to parts of Étienne that people who worked at the bank with him would never have had.

One of these individual’s names appears very early in the catalogue, but the reader doesn’t learn, until much later, the true significance of this entry. Étienne’s Alphabet rewards the patient reader handsomely.

And, by the time that early entry is understood, the reader’s emotional connection with Étienne is that much more developed; flipping back to re-read that individual’s entry makes for a very different feeling now that Étienne has taken shape. And, in the meantime, so much else has happened.



Note: This is the second of the five posts that focus on the titles nominated for the 2011 Toronto Book Award. The others have/will appear/ed on October 6, 10, 11, and 12, with something fun for the 13th, the date on which the prize is to be announced.

Toronto-ness in Étienne’s Alphabet: Jarvis Street; The Coliseum (now Ricoh Coliseum); The St. James clock tower; 46 Yonge Street; Bloor Street Viaduct; side-street off Roncesvalles; O’Keefe Centre; Queen Streetcar; Toronto Public Library; Harbord Street; Art Gallery of Ontario; Royal Ontario Museum (particularly the basement, Egypt exhibit)

Companion Reads:
Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table (1975)
Jean McKay’s Exploded View (2001)
Sarah Salway’s Something Beginning With (2004)