A Spell of Grief
By David Plante
Pantheon. 247 pp. $23
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. Plante is the author of a number of critically acclaimed novels, among them the "Francoeur" trilogy, and two volumes of memoirs, American Ghosts and Difficult Women, an account of his friendships with Jean Rhys, Germaine Greer and Sonia Orwell.
ABC might have been subtitled "Difficult Letters," dealing as it does with Gerard Chauvin's sudden obsession with the origins of the alphabet. The novel opens with a terrifying, heartrending scene in which Gerard and his wife, Peggy, witness the death of their 6-year-old son, Harry, when the child plunges through the floor of an abandoned house during a sunlit summer outing. Moments before Harry's fall, Gerard notices a scrap of paper in the fireplace of the ruined building.
"On the top of the heap, not crumpled, was a sheet of writing, and Gerard leaned closer to try to decipher the meaning. He couldn't, and he reached down to pick it up. Frowning, he saw what he assumed must be letters, but he had no idea in what script, because it was not any he was familiar with. The letters were drawn very carefully, maybe by a child."
In the months that follow, Gerard grows increasingly estranged from Peggy. He is compelled to ask again and again the unanswerable question that surrounds his son's death: Why?
But that question gradually becomes subsumed into one he asks his wife as he broods about the scrap of paper with its indecipherable writing: "Have you ever wondered why the alphabet is set up the way it is? . . . Why does it start with A B C and not F D Q? Who arranged it the way it is, and when?" Gerard's obsession leads him back to the abandoned house where his son died. There he discovers that Harry's death was the result of a malicious act, no less terrible for being random. In the wake of this knowledge, Gerard's grief-driven detachment begins to resemble a sort of madness. He remains aware of his past and his identity, but neither bears any meaning for him now: He sheds them as though they were ruined clothing. His actions become dictated by impulse, by a sense of predestination that propels the novel more, and far more affectingly, than any conventional plot does.
Gerard purchases a battered volume, Histoire de L'?criture (The History of Writing), in a used bookstore in Manchester, N.H. A few months later, in a Boston cemetery, he meets an Asian woman named Catherine Whipple. She is gazing at a headstone dated 1800, memorializing an 18-year-old girl who bears the same name as Catherine's daughter, recently dead of a heroin overdose; the engraved names of the girl's parents are the same as those of Catherine and her husband, who killed himself from grief at his daughter's death.
After they almost immediately meet again at the public library, where both are researching the alphabet -- by chance, but how can this possibly be chance? -- Catherine invites Gerard to accompany her to London. Responding to the strange dream-logic that now orders his world, he goes, with scarcely a thought for the life he is leaving behind. In London they meet David, another obsessed, grief-stricken abecedarian, whose wife died violently; with him they travel to Greece and encounter yet another woman whose compulsions mirror their own.
Readers in search of an intricately plotted, neatly ordered novel that disgorges camera-ready truths and platitudes should seek it elsewhere. ABC's narrative is propulsive but undeniably eccentric. Its mismatched band of "death-obsessed and death-bound friends" is a 21st-century variant on The Wizard of Oz, drawn together by grief, global tragedy and their bizarre, shared passion for etymology.
Plante's prose is careful, measured; his dialogue tends to be stilted and unnatural. But in an odd way this suits ABC's tone, which is both utterly contemporary -- Gerard's companions mourn loved ones lost to terrorism, drug addiction, the war in Chechnya -- and as timeless as a folktale.
Plante is less interested in closure (a fictional construct if ever there was one) than in immanence. The correspondences between his characters' histories, between the strange groupings of objects that Gerard sees everywhere -- broken toys, crumpled rags, fragments of carved stone -- are inexplicable, seemingly random yet charged with an eerie, almost rapturous sense of meaning, of beauty and poignancy, impermanence and, yes, eternity.
Because what is an alphabet, really, but a means of expressing what is inexpressible: the sum of all human history and experience and longing? "They were aware of this," Plante writes, "aware of every single object as an icon of some greater meaning than each object had in itself."
ABC is a daring book, and, despite its exploration of grief, an exhilarating one, unafraid of confronting the sort of philosophical issues that the late Ingmar Bergman did in his films. As Gerard's friend muses near the end of this exceptional novel, "We live in an unreal world, but it is only in the unreal world that meaning can be found for the real world, if meaning matters at all." ?
Elizabeth Hand's most recent novel is "Generation Loss."