Ben Segal, 78 Stories: A Crossword Novella, No Record Press, 2008.

Reviewed by Matt Dube

[Review Guidelines]

Ben Segal's 78 stories are the interleaved answers to non-existent crossword clues, stories composed a paragraph at a time in the successive boxes of a giant crossword puzzle printed on one side of a large sheet paper, folded accordion style like a road map. Read the paragraphs in the five squares that might ordinarily contain the letters to be an answer to the clue "DIAGRAM Reviews Editor," and you've read a story. The same paragraphs, of course, are part of stories that must be read vertically as well, to answer a hypothetical "down" clue.
     The space at the bottom of the sheet of paper typically reserved for clues is taken up with interesting but inessential material about the development of the crossword puzzle and its European cousins—but there are so many we don't miss the clues, ones that feature a homicidal mouse crossed in love, a pet psychic named Sandra's experiences during the end of the Mayan long-count, and an overweight bear with a taste for human flesh. It's a broad panoply of possible experiences, and while the range of experience required to finish the Sunday Times crossword might be broader (I wouldn't know; it's beyond my experience), a wide ranging and not-too-serious cross sample of contemporary narrative possibilities jostle for space on the page.
     Segal doesn't play entirely fair with his structural conceit: in a traditional crossword puzzle, you are limited to one letter per square, yet Segal doesn't limit himself to a single sentence, or even a set number of sentences or words per square. Instead, the rule seems something like "include enough information to move the two stories, across and down, forward one measure." So one square, selected at random, captures a character investigating his relationship with his father, and acting to understand it by writing a letter. The adjacent squares, then, follow the letter or the reflection, depending. And as far as that goes, Segal's process works—the stories have an almost serial effect, as if each chapter is a frozen moment (if not a cliffhanger) like the panel in a comic strip, recording a significant exchange, something to advance the stories.
     With very few exceptions, Segal succeeds; there's one part of the collection where I found myself a little bit confused, unsure if the Carl I was reading about is a mouse who is in love with a man named Paul, or else the ghost of Paul's father. And in another section, the resolution of certain stories is conclusively unsatisfying: what exactly is going on with the invisible pit Paul is knocked into by some errant elk? A collection that stakes so much on structural ingenuity invites structural scrutiny, and on occasion, I felt as if I'd opened the wrong door in the funhouse and found myself in a custodian's closet, or some narrative engine room where a belt had slipped. But in almost all the stories, the experiment with branching narratives works to show Segal in control of whole swathes of experience, human and animal.
            Of course, it's worth asking about the value of a project like this. What passes for back matter positions 78 Stories alongside Cortazar's Hopscotch, Abish's Alphabetical Africa, and George Perec's Life: A User's Manual (I had to look that last one up). The idea that the form guides content isn't a new one, really, but the mechanical experiments of writers like Perec and his OULIPO peers gave them the means to investigate the workings of arbitrary state power. Stripped of a similar context, Segal's project will be read differently. 78 Stories reveals the writer, his quirks and particularities in a way that A Void or Exercises in Style maybe doesn't. Segal is a witty observer of people's awkward foibles, as the following sentence shows: "Paul and Sandra had only brought a small amount of food with them for their honeymoon because they had planned to eat out for the most part." It's funny because the situation is recognizable to me and most of Segal's likely readers—erudite, cosmopolitan people who enjoy the challenge of a crossword as much as we enjoy finishing one. Segal's stories build downward and rightward toward an apocalypse in the puzzle's final squares, and humans play a smaller and smaller role as history winds down. What is perhaps less immediately noticeable is that the collection starts with a death, too, that of Dennis Winston, a fifty-three year old architect, husband and father. Maybe it's just a desire to conclusively end so many stories, but Segal's presence shadows the collection; instead of obscuring the author, Segal's scrupulous arrangement becomes the clue that needs to be solved for: who is Ben Segal? I suspect he is like his readers, worldly enough to recognize when a coincidence is nothing more than that, but ultimately drawn up short by the way lives–ours and those of others–end so suddenly, whether we did them justice or not.