Back and Forth


You can imagine that some pretty strange stuff comes across our desk amid the normal torrent of pleas to take sides in various public-policy debates. But we cannot recall anything stranger than a 167-page novel from the pen of Lawrence Levine of St. Augustine, Fla., entitled, “Dr. Awkward & Olson in Oslo,” which arrived the other day. This novel--whose plot and character development, frankly, aren’t much to write home about--does have one distinction: It is a 31,594-word palindrome. It reads the same backward and forward!

Many one-sentence palindromes are well-known: “A man, a plan, a canal--Panama,” for example, or “Able was I ere I saw Elba” (Napoleon’s lament). If English had been invented at the time of the Garden of Eden, the first human words spoken could have been a palindrome: “Madam, I’m Adam.”

Concocting even a palindromic paragraph is no mean feat, and the idea of stretching one out for 167 pages defies comprehension. Yet Levine has done just that, writing a sort of detective novel whose bad guy (Dr. Awkward) does battle with characters sporting monickers like Sam X. Xmas, Mabel E. Bam, Evita Dative and Lear S. Israel. Oddly, the palindromic Lon Nol, former leader of Cambodia, makes no appearance in this book.


The trick in devising a palindrome is to get it to make sense and sound relatively normal, which is the downfall of most efforts. To overcome this problem, Levine casts his novel as stream of consciousness--a literary technique, after all, that was good enough for James Joyce. Writing in the current issue of Word Ways, the Journal of Recreational Linguistics, Levine explains: “Every character speaks a private tongue that often has the most tenuous relationship to the conversation or problem at hand.” (Indeed!) “Dialogue is often like the fractured, tortuous dreams of sleep where events occur with only the frailest conjunction with what has passed.”

We defy any reader to try to read more that a few pages of the output, but we salute Levine for his chutzpah in tackling the project. The world needs more Levines--playful eccentrics determined to scale the heights where no one has gone before, even if getting there isn’t much of an accomplishment.

Or, as the metaphysicians say, “No lemons, no melon.”