By Robert Elks

Scribbled: A Review of Robert Elks’s Scrabble
by Lucas Klein

—That’s not a word, Joyce cried to Carroll.
—It is if I say it is, Carroll’s reply, and it means exactly what I say it to mean.
—Fair enough, jimmied Joyce. My mistake, and grumbled, volitional, a portal to discovery.

References like this are stippled throughout Scrabble, the first book-length publication by Robert Elks, whose tossed-up alphabetic tricks pivot around a simple premise: James Joyce and Lewis Carroll are playing Scrabble in Heaven—or the New Critical netherspace where all authors exist simultaneously—squabbling as they scrabble over whose portmanteaux are cleverer or who will reach the double-word square first.
The Oulipoian technical mastery of such a text (I hesitate to call it a proper novel) is bound to impress: built of twenty-seven sections, one for each letter plus the central blank checker, the simple premise stretches to encompass nearly the whole of English literary history, from Beowulf to the present day. A survey course in fewer than three hundred pages, the imaginative gymnastics of this book step from the ridiculous to the sublime: Joyce and Carroll’s arguments elevate to history’s cyclicality, or whether a man falling from on high could ever again awaken: Joyce’s Finnegan can, while for Carroll not even the king’s horses can put him together again. But before long, they are back at name calling, and Carroll accuses Joyce of plagiarism: who indeed is Humpty Chimpden Earwicker?
But no freshman year English course can be substantiated on only these two figures baring their English and Irish teeth. The eternal principle of metamorphosis spins off from these two bickering binaries: as a matter of fact, in the beginning the players are not Joyce and Carroll at all, but rather Anthony Burgess and Tom Stoppard. Further incarnations ensue, too, and before long Laurence Sterne faces off against Miguel de Cervantes (the only non-Anglophone writer found in these pages) pitting quixotic Tristram against shandy-drinking dandy Quixote while more players wait in the wings. Among these players are Shakespeare and Marlowe, poker-facing in blank verse while we find out who really authored all the Bard’s plays. Or Vladimir Nabokov internal-rhyming against Edgar Allan Poe, from which an intriguing if bitter passage comes when they discuss their mutual hatred of Crime and Punishment:

As I read it, weeping weary, this Russian creep, so bleakly leery,
And his played-out pallid love for yet another virtuous whore,
As my eyes lost their once cheery disposition, turning bleary
As the hero’s guilt belabors for three hundred pages more,
Familiarity crept into me, “Why,” I cried, “that Slavic bore!”
And threw the voluminous volume into the darkness beyond my door,
“No one shall plagiarize my pages” vowed I, “no one, no one, nevermore!”
It is but “Telltale Heart”—and nothing more!

But by that point, lulled to dullness by crosswordsmiths Wordsworth and Blake, or Chaucer versus Milton, or the token female match of Austen versus all the Brontës, or Melville versus Hawthorne, or Salinger versus Pynchon, we’re more interested in sorting out our own scrabbled eggs than the posturing of authors who’d do best to stay dead.
To be sure, some of the combinations work better than others, but even at the brightest the scenario never peels off more wit than an episode of Celebrity Death Match, and the verbal fireworks are outshined by Steve Martin. Indeed, for all his erudition, would-be wunderkind Elks lacks something central to all his forebears: passion. One word missing from the combinations of Scrabble is love, but it is not missing in the way that Shakespeare’s love is missing in Burgess’s Nothing Like the Sun, nor is it missing the way that Leopold Bloom feels in Joyce’s Ulysses. Scrabble is missing love because it is just not there, and consequently, we feel no love for this book while reading it.
Elks’s failure in his own work, however, elucidates the strength of the authors he takes as his characters. For all their difficulty, these fictions are embedded with human emotion, and it is this emotion that endures, while the dazzle and palaver of allusions and puns are only icing on a truly rich cake. Perhaps Elks is just a brilliant boy who needs to have his heart broken before reaching authorial maturity; at any rate, he has been reading for the wrong reasons. And this is the great sadness of Scrabble: that a human being capable of such illustrious play will have to be hurt before it can grow up and learn how to feel.

(Entry by Lucas Klein)