The End of the Alphabet

By C. S. Richardson

After failing his annual medical exam “on or about his fiftieth birthday,” London advertising specialist Ambrose Zephyr is diagnosed as having an unnamed disease “of inexplicable origin” that he is certain to die of within a month. Given Zephyr’s absurd name, and the deliberate withholding of specifics relating to the set-up (is Zephyr fifty? forty-nine? what are we to make of the fact that he doesn’t even know what year it is?), C. S. Richardson is clearly claiming the ground of literary fantasy. This is not a realistic novel. In fact, its first sentence – which is the same as its last – informs us that “This story is unlikely.”

With a month or less to go Zephyr sets out on a trip with his wife, Zappora Ashkenazi (nicknamed Zipper), to experience a highly personal list of Twenty-Six Things to See Before You Die – one for every letter of the alphabet. Their destinations are hybrids, involving both places and things, usually artistic or architectural. A is for Amsterdam and Rembrandt’s Night Watch. C is for Chartres cathedral. G is for the great pyramid at Giza. And so it goes, for as long as he can take it.

As befits the hero of a literary fantasy, Zephyr is hyper-aesthetic, if also a bit literal-minded (“Amber Zephyr liked what he liked and didn’t like what he didn’t like. It was as simple as that.”). In addition to being keen on art and living in a house full of books (always a good sign), he also boasts supernatural powers of sight and smell. He can see America from England and identifies countries by their distinctive national odours.

Underneath all of this self-conscious artifice (this is Richardson’s first novel, though he has had a distinguished career as one of Canada’s best known book designers) is a brief, rather sentimental love story including lots of tears, lots of kisses, and many affectionately brewed cups of tea. As love stories go it is also a schematic fantasy, and one without passion. Perhaps it’s the prosaic, middle-aged protagonists with their exotic names, or the abstract, anti-reality of the story and its “millionaire plot” (one where money is no object). In any event, the result is a sporadically clever but disengaged novel, more a postmodern objet d’art than the compelling human drama it also wants to be.

Review first published March 31, 2007.

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