Monday, September 20, 2010

Sam Munson's Hieroglyphs

The first noteworthy element to strike me in Sam Munson's first novel, November Criminals, was not any similarity between the narrator and Holden Caulfield.

Now, I have reviewed economics books for pay for a magazine that is well known to its devotees — but never novels. Writers, actual novelists in fact, who are presumably begged to review new books by august editors at even more august publications such as The New York Times, took a gander at Sam's novel and they all had to make the obligatory Caulfield reference, as if to say, "See, I spent whole summers in Iowa literary seminars discussing things like this."

Not me. I was struck by what I thought was an unusual code to identify the pages. Instead of the usual numbers I saw, at the bottom of each page, not in the center as is traditional, but somewhat edging toward the outer edge of the paper, three discrete black hieroglyphs that looked more or less like the ones I have reproduced below. They looked like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle but they were not numbers.

The one on the left, for example, seemed to me an F with a fat middle stroke. The middle one was more classical a jigsaw piece ... but what was that semicircle doing? The left one looked like a missshapen B and I.

I turned the page. More of them! Different shapes. It was almost like going back to the 1980s, when I didn't have a television, to see the all-lowercase thirtysomething across the screen, so cool, so typographically hip. I knew about it because production people were always telling me we should do this in my very serious, dull as wheat toast, economic weekly.

I figured this had to be some creative stroke of Sam's. Young people these days! [intone as an emphatic, cranky sigh]

I was still left with the problem of how to remember where I was in case the bookmark fell out. Until ... eureka! I suddenly looked at page 19 again and saw:

It wasn't three hieroglyphs! It was color-reversed white numbers on a black background. Kids!

I am not the only one to have experienced this problem. In an informal poll of about two or three people my age and socioeconomic status, the numbering was a puzzle at first.

Let this be a lesson to Sam Munson, who has written a fine novel, superbly sharp at dissecting the white middle class hypocrisies of parents and teachers (I found myself nodding and thinking, "At last someone has said this in print!") in the neighborhood where I watched him — and his friends — grow up.

Ah, yes, the lesson: don't listen to geezers like me.
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