Noted editor and somewhat less noted writer Lish (Krupp’s Lulu: Stories, 2000, etc.) serves up a post-Joycean slice of mannered modernism to mark the twilight of his years (“I’m gaining on 90…”).
Things were different back when: people puffed on cigarettes (“It was, in that lovely era, a dreadfully smoky affair”), drank by the gallon, and talked cleverly. Women did not work—most women, anyway. One who did was a long-lived aunt of Lish’s who figures as the catalyst for this odd exercise in belletristic cryptography, or perhaps cryptographic belles-lettres. Adele Deutsch, who was “never again at liberty to advertise herself under her given name once she had been inducted, in the 1950s, into the National Reconnaissance Office,” offers a curious sort of mentorship to young Lish once he in turn decides it’s time to enter the workaday world, for who doesn’t want to be a spy? She serves up a deliciously cunning puzzle that underlies this book, most of which is made up of uppercase words arrayed in a list that begins “FLUSH LEFT” and ends “ALL SMALL CAPS.” In between are words that a crossword-puzzle aficionado would cherish and your average speaker of English would blink at, from Haecceity to Ensorcelled to Monadological. The whole enterprise seems like sheer self-indulgence at first blush, but look closely at the list, and puzzles emerge: why do the first letters of a particular sequence spell “CRAP”? Why is the word Interpellate repeated four times in a row on one page? Turns out that Adele the Spook, conductor of multiple affairs and presidential medal winner, isn’t just a devilishly hard setter of mental tasks, but also fun, smart, and wholly unique, “a one-of-a-kind outcrop of humankind”, qualities nicely commemorated in this literary memorial.
As much a game as a book, Lish’s latest doesn’t quite track for the plot-driven. Language lovers will enjoy it, though, and it’s a sight more challenging than your average morning sudoku.