A Void
by Georges Perec (1969), translated by Gilbert Adair (1995)

A n armchair linguist, Parisian Georges Perec (1936-1982) delighted in word games, penning (all in French) crosswords, anagrammatic poetry, and purportedly the longest palindrome in history (5000 words). Among his works of fiction, though, were a short story ("Les Revenentes") where "e" is the only vowel used and, conversely, A Void--a 283-page novel without a single "e."

In essence a parody of the whodunit, A Void features the recently disappeared Anton Vowl, an incurable insomniac. Enter a band of his close colleagues who, through the scouring of Vowl's journals, try to trace his whereabouts. All they find, however, is that Vowl (like Perec, incidentally) harbors an obsession with wordplay and witticisms. Soon, they unwittingly become lost in this same labyrinth of language.

Incomparable to any other work of fiction (except perhaps Perec's others), A Void leads its reader through a maze of memorable epigrams and subplots. Despite being "in on" the joke, we are left with a very tactile sense of being duped ourselves. This said, the novel never becomes heavy--just blithely frustrating.

To read A Void, we Anglophones must rely on the translation by Gilbert Adair (Love and Death on Long Island, The Dreamers). A translator's task is always thankless; Adair's rises to his challenge with remarkable aplomb. Only 1/3 of the words in the English language are "e"-less, which severely limits the translation process. Adair earns mad props for translating the book into prose that never reads forced or stilted, while still maintaining the capricious and delightful gimmickry of the original.

Naturally, much of the allure in reading A Void is the prospect of finding an "e" somewhere in the text. Especially in such a subplot-dense book, searching for one can be distracting. The novel is undoubtedly worthy of two reads: the first, to erase any "e"-borne skepticism and to begin a cursory examination of its playful prose; the second time around, to appreciate the novel not just as an example of Perec's lipogrammatic legerdemain, but as a clever commentary on literature as well as political anarchy.