Book Review: Imagine Without Vowels

Roy Phoenix’s Alphabetica is a celebration of the imagination, the magical fuel that ignites creativity. He skillfully conjured a planet called “Typewriter”, where Letters, Punctuations, Signs and Numbers cohabit in a spirit of “unity in diversity”. The alphabet as a metaphor to tell his satire of majoritarianism is a stroke of genius. The parallels unfold when the jealous Y criticizes the appeasement policy “favoring” the Vowel Minority, denying Consonants the article “an”. Y further provokes the majority of consonant followers by reminding them that they gave birth to Alphabetica as 3,500-year-old Phoenician consonants. While the vowels are Greek intruders which later tricked into cornering an unfair 38% word share in the dictionary. This becomes Y’s “why” for the “Rise of the Consonants” campaign.

While building the vicious yet charismatic character of Y, Alphabetica takes us on a journey that explores the playbook of the tyrant “Great Dictator”, who ruthlessly eliminated the minority – the human vowels. Y uses his weapons of fear and plays the victim card to convince the Consonants that the Vowels will soon cause their extinction. When Y becomes the supreme chief of the consonant majority, the “brownshirts” force the oppressed vowels into exile in Numerica, the neighboring land of numbers. This then silences Planet Typewriter with the death of words.

This work of cerebral fiction draws on little-known etymological facts about the English alphabet, which owes its origins to Greek and Latin scripts and ancient Phoenician abjads. On one level, Alphabetica is clever satire that uses humor, wit, irony and sarcasm to draw parallels with patriotism hijacked by jingoism. All characters are caricatures of Earthlings. There’s E, the hated comedian with the most word sharing. The mute sycophant X, the muscular vigilante of Y. S is the spy who carries the calling card of an investigative journalist. Scholar C is too scared to speak out against bully Y. There’s a lot more to laugh about: the silly bickering, flabby romances and quirky gigs at their favorite ‘Italics’, the pub where they ‘ink’ their blues.

Planet Typewriter also has its benefactor. Interestingly, the Letters call him the “poet”, but for the Numbers he is “the writer”. One planet, two gods. His wife is the accidental professor of letters who listens under the keyboard. A classic case of imperfect education that does not allow interactivity. Perhaps the Alphabetica poet influenced Roy to produce such delectable figures of speech, lipograms, pangrams, logograms, digraphs and ligatures. Then there are the amazing secrets about the lost 12 letters, the Achilles heel of Y and the 27th letter of the English alphabet. All of this makes Alphabetica a treat for lovers of English literature.

On another level, Alphabetica is a utopian fantasy. The “Epiphany” and “Unity” chapters read like parables. Here we discover Planet Typewriter’s “Mahatma” – the humble Ampersand. Like the “&” logogram, this conjunction never divides but only joins. “Oneness” deftly lays out the challenges of a coalition opposition facing the unified force of the Consonant majority. Composed of disparate groups of vowels, numbers, punctuations and signs, the coalition runs into problems of one-upmanship. Ampersand persuades them to make the cause the leader, rather than a single representative of a coterie. It reminds us of the Pancha Pandavas, united for the Dharma by a Krishna.

Satire is a complex subject that can be lost on people who cannot draw parallels. Even George Orwell’s animal farm suffered initial rejections. Alphabetica requires serious reading but rewards generously. Alphabetica is a collector’s item to be discovered by the richness of its text and its powerful illustrations. Mainly because it empathically demonstrates that the tyranny of the majority is a problem we see at all levels of our society. Especially for people with disabilities who are defined and disenfranchised by the dominant majority. Roy illustrates this by presenting Q as the least privileged who needs U to be heard.

Roy has the unique gift of telling the truth without malice. His humor is subversive and has been used to remind us of our rendezvous with humanity. Maybe that forces Alphabetica to end with a positive message of hope and not stop at a dystopian “Imagine No Vowels.” Instead, it forces us to “imagine all people sharing everyone.” What a lovely way to reinforce our belief in the ancient ethos of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam.

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