Review: 'Alphabetica' tells us as much about ABC as the dangers of majoritarianism

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#Alphabetica A Satire on Majoritarianism, #Book Review, #Kaushik Roy, #Roy Phoenix

(Representational image) In certain passages in the book, you can almost hear the rhythm of the typewriter keys ‘hitting the Ink Ribbon’.

Nothing is as simple as ABC for much of the English-speaking world. And yet, the English alphabet has a long and not-uncomplicated history. A recent book by Kaushik Roy (nom de plume, Roy Phoenix) – Alphabetica: A Satire on Majoritarianism – uses this dichotomy. 

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The story on the surface is about a simple city-state – Alphabetica, “suspended on the Westerloo Wall of Planet Typewriter” – home to 26 letters (“sound makers”). (The numbers live in Numerica on the eastern wall.) Each day, as the owner of the typewriter, a poet, types out his lines, each of the letters gets to “kiss” the ink ribbon.

#Alphabetica A Satire on Majoritarianism, #Book Review, #Kaushik Roy, #Roy Phoenix
It’s a fairly equal planet, where each of the 26 letters – anthropomorphised – has an equal footing in the “word factory” Underwood, irrespective of how often they’re each used and how. The trouble starts when one of the letters becomes unhappy about what she sees as an overwhelming representation of the minority in most writing.

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“Ypsi was visibly enraged. “How can the Greek Vowel Minority corner a whopping 38 per cent share of words?” she muttered under her breath. “And why should they maintain a disproportionate average word share of 7.6 per cent, when the twenty-one Consonant Majority have an average of only 3 per cent? Why should more than half the Consonants, who are more than double the number of Vowels, have an abysmal word share average of 1 per cent of the Lexicon? Why?!” To rub salt into her wounds, Epsi, the Vowel comedian, had single-handedly cornered an 11 per cent share of the Words!,” Roy writes early on in the book.

The discontented letter ‘Y’ or Ypsi tries to get the other consonants to see what she feels are injustices towards the majority. Ypsi then launches a detailed 15-step mission to topple the vowels, starting with U – incidentally, the least used vowel in the English language as per the lexicon.

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The small world of the typewriter offers Roy a big stage to do three things.

One, the world of 26 letter is populated just enough to introduce varied characters and conflict but small enough to capture their motivations and manage the fallout of their actions. It’s the stuff of great social experiments. The author, Roy, also gives each of the letters a personality – and an illustration. He has worked in design and branding for over 40 years. And from setting the book in Times New Roman to a lovely map of the typewriter world on the index page, nothing is accidental. Everything goes towards building this world where quibbles and jealousies quickly blow up to threaten the planet.

Two, because of the ubiquity of the English alphabet in our lives today, there’s also no need to explain a number of things – like why 26 letters, or what makes the vowels special. Indeed, there are aspects of the English alphabet that are less known and which Roy cleverly builds into the narrative. Case in point: the English alphabet draws from the Phoenician letters which didn’t have vowels, only 22 consonants – an argument Ypsi uses to win supporters.

Three, Roy shows up the problems with using data indiscriminately. The word share ranking doesn’t decide pay or status on the planet. And yet it cuts Ypsi deep enough to hack a detailed plan to take revenge.

Incidentally, one of the main tropes of the book is also what leads it into a somewhat childish zone at times: imbuing the letters with personalities. For instance, C (Camel) is the scholar in this world. In this role, she becomes a vehicle for Roy to share trivia (which alphabet have 56-58 letters, for instance). Epsi, or E, is quickly typecast as a maker of jokes. Xi or X is a fitness freak, and Ypsi or Y is Professor Whyness. There’s a certain flatness to the characters, who largely appear to be one-trick ponies. 

But all of this speaks to the plot. Where the book yields surprising delights is in the pace of it. The action unfolds quickly. Once the seed of discord is planted, Ypsi has to act fast and pivot multiple times to maintain power. It’s impossible not to draw comparisons with real life. 

Reading Alphabetica is also a sensory experience in parts – rhythm is a big part of how Roy envisaged this book. Outside of the (sometimes juvenile) poems that the letter characters spout, you can sometime catch echoes of the staccato sound of the typewriter in the writing. Sample this passage on the inner workings of the Underwood word factory:

“With ballistic catapults hitting the Ink Ribbon through a turret of a cylindrical fortress and pulleys ferrying a gigantic piston triggering an alarm bell, the magnificent Underwood was a battleground of creativity. All the characters would be chattering away like hyperactive gunners in their cockpits with a single-minded mission to convert the Benefactor’s commands into indelible marks for eternity. And the concert of castanets, conducted by His magical touch, would create a bouquet of words and figures. The twenty-six Alphabeticans would then convert the Poet’s words into songs to have a merry dance at their favourite ‘Inking Hole’ – the pub they called Italics.”

Read ‘Alphabetica’ if you love the English language, or if you are concerned about the dangers posed by an increasingly majoritarian world.

Also read: “The tyranny of the majority is not about demographics alone”: Kaushik Roy

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