Thursday, 7 August 2008

Review: ALLAKAZZAM! by Daniel Abelman

I was predisposed to like ALLAKAZZAM!, though I didn't know that when I started reading it: Daniel Abelman's debut novel is a trickster tale, and I've always loved this kind of story. Every culture has tricksters: in some Native American stories, he is known as Kokopelli or as the coyote; in Zora Neale Hurston's collection, it is the slave named John who outwits his white master, God and Satan. Whatever name he is known by, the trickster inspires audiences to jealousy as they wish they could be so clever.

A short way into Abelman's book, I erroneously figured out that this is one such tale - I say "erroneously" because I thought I knew who the trickster was as well as the tricks he was playing, but I'd forgotten that the coyote is a shapeshifter; true to the best of trickster tales Abelman's coyote changes form again and again. Every time I think I have figured it out, I turn a corner and discover that there are many more dimensions to this story than I'd considered or even imagined - trickster to the nth power! And yet it all makes sense; a cohesive narrative unfolds without annoying contradictions to unveil the true trickster, the master, Abelman himself. I should have known - well, isn't that what authors do? They play a grand trick to induct the reader into imagined worlds of imaginary people. So Abelman goes about in his novel to guide (without malice!) the reader through worlds. No, not just one world: many, many worlds. The world of a white man's Africa and that of a black man's Africa, the rich man's and the ordinary man's worlds, the world of people's justice and payback, the school, the office, the airport … Abelman coaxes the reader through these spaces and places so they become more than just scenes. They are pieces of a life - not the characters' lives, but Abelman's life.

I don't think I'm giving away too much in saying as much, because Abelman himself is up front about his designs, if only I had paid attention:
"In an Afrika rampant with real spirits and rife with bogus erroneous notions, skeptical disregard of superstition does not diminish its coiled up potency in any way whatsoever. Be tolerant of what others believe and don't poke at idiosyncrasies. Scoff if you will, but when I recommended to TapTap that he should win the fight using magic, he eagerly and immediately adopted my suggestion […] What, then, could be a more natural thing to accept for boys who half believed they were the sons of the Tokolosh. In Afrika, half belief is enough." (pp. 17-18).
Abelman could well have been talking about the reader (opening the book is proof that the reader already half believes the story) and talking to the reader to ask the reader to suspend skepticism at the same time that Abelman promises not to mock the reader for believing in magic. Truly, by the midpoint of the novel, Abelman has the reader believing in magic, psychic powers, secret societies, religious artifacts with supernatural powers, and - most incredible of all - characters who weave their knowing with their doing and with others' ignorance to play tricks on all.

Rather than tread Abelman's maze with disengaged skepticism, I found myself drawn in deeper and deeper with each story. Within the frame story I discovered another, and within that story there were more besides. I loved the polyvocal aspect of ALLAKAZZAM!: there is more than one narrator and one main character, though the ultimate narrator, Abelman himself, is disguised out in the open and appears in his own novel in different forms.

The book consists of a novella (ALLAKAZZAM! proper) and three short stories featuring some of the same characters as I came to know through the main story. Edmunds' illustrations throughout the novel are very talented and add to Abelman's imagery by embracing the same mix of real and extra-real that imbues Abelman's prose. The strong, cream-colored paper shows off those illustrations to good effect. Likewise, the format of the book reflects its multivocality: the font switches to signal changes in narrator and effects like italicization mark quoted text or words spoken in another language.

Abelman drops another clue from the start with his title, ALLAKAZZAM!. It won't take any reader long to perceive the power of words in this novel. They can be words of magic like the title, to be shouted with finesse and panache, or they can expose secrets, as when a teacher is called by his true name: Pedophile. They can just as easily mask secrets. Abelman uses several very different languages (Xhosa, Hebrew, Lithuanian Yiddish, Afrikaans, and English), and various dialects (e.g. the German-Jewish accented English), and offers translations of non-English phrases in parentheses, but the reader should beware of taking any translation at face value from a master trickster. There are stories within the story inside those "translations." Words have the power to transform.

I especially appreciated Abelman's expressiveness. There were so many times I laughed out loud because his language was absurd, or poetic, or witty beyond reckoning, for example:
"…Why, oh why, did he have to use red thread when he replaced my white shirt buttons with black ones? Why?

My favorite cotton button-up shirt, which suffered from brilliant bleach radiation […] was now bleeding to death through its buttonholes." (p. 21)
Abelman's language is wholly accessible, and his unique expressiveness is a result of the unique characters, not obscure language. Still, I couldn't read this novel all in one sitting; I had to digest it in chunks because there are too many things happening on too many levels. Similarly, I grew accustomed to looking for extra-linguistic meanings behind the surface, so when Herr Doktor Herloff Wizzner, one of the story's characters and holocaust survivor, repeatedly tells one of the narrators: "Ja, ve had boys like you in zhe camps." (p. 59), I wondered if Herr Doktor saw something in the boy that I had yet to discover. Abelman prefaces one of the final stories with an explanation of how he related stories to his parents after dinner; the succeeding story is one such tale, a story about which Abelman says "I still weep when I read it." (p. 144) At the same time his mother retorts time and again "What unadulterated rubbish!" (p. 149), his father stops grinning.

Is the story true? The yes or no answer depends on how you define "story."



  1. I loved the excerpt, and the illustrations by Cathy Edmunds are brilliant. I think I might just grab me a copy...

  2. Hi Andrea
    I think you should definitely get a copy!