The Quick Brown Fox

This short story was first published in New Contrast, and won the 2006 Thomas Pringle Award

Jay Barrell wrote: “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” It was the whole alphabet in a thirty-five letter sentence. Now this was a bit short for a novel, even for a very short story. So he highlighted the sentence, copied it, then kept his mouse pointer on the paste button for twenty-five minutes, copying the sentence thousands of times over. That made a good meaty novel. After reading it for a while, he realised there was a major short­coming — it was difficult to concentrate on a single uninterrupted text of such length. Accordingly, he cut it into shorter paragraphs. That made for much better reading.

After skimming the new draft for a while, he realised it lacked dialogue. So he inserted quotation marks in various places. Finally, there it was: a 90,000 word novel with paragraphs and dialogue, even if it had certain shortcomings.

Jay printed it. Yes, there it was, a stack of bond paper two inches thick, clean-smelling, the laser-printed lines dressed up smartly and disappearing as smartly onto the next page, until the last one was reached (page 365). He went to bed glowing with creative joy, rather like the relaxed and pleasant feeling that comes after sex.

His wife Laura was sitting up reading Cosmopolitan. ‘I’ve just written a new novel,’ said Jay.

‘That’s nice,’ said Laura. ‘What’s it about?’

‘It’s about itself,’ said Jay. ‘It’s about writing. It’s a text about nothing but being a text, like Finnegan’s Wake.’

‘That’s nice,’ said Laura. ‘But didn’t you say this afternoon that you were starting a new novel? After lunch, I think?’

‘Yes, that’s right.’

‘Is this the same novel then?’

‘Yes, that’s right.’

‘Rather quick, isn’t it?’

‘Computers,’ said Jay.

‘Amazing,’ said Laura, turning the page. ‘What’s it called?’

‘I think I’ll call it The Quick Brown Fox Jumps over the Lazy Dog.’

The next day (it was early spring), Jay had six copies made of his new book and sent one off to his agent in New York, and five to various local publishers. Then he settled down for the long wait.

Jay had other talents. One of them was the ability to turn things into a kind of plastic. He believed it was ordinary polyvinyl chloride, though he never found out exactly what kind of plastic it was. It happened like this: quite by chance, and without any special intention, he began stroking the bloom of a single Eliza­beth of Glamis rose Laura had just placed in a glass vase. His head swam; he shook it, and the feeling cleared. But the rose? It had turned to plastic! He be­gan experimenting with this swimming feeling, and soon discovered that he could just look at something and make the swimming feeling come and the thing he was looking at would turn to plastic. There was no need to stroke it at all. He wrote to the chairman of Mitsubishi offering to teach this skill to twenty of his finest engineers or perhaps craftspersons who could then run classes. The chairman of Mitsubishi wrote back thanking him politely for his interesting of­fer, but felt the company was unable to diversify in that particular direction. The chairmen (none of them were chairpersons) of AG Farben, Daewoo and Hitachi responded with similar notes. So Jay forgot about making a fortune from his talent and quietly went about turning things into plastic whenever he felt like it. It was a most useful art: once while taking a walk he was attacked by a Rottweiler which he turned into plastic at astonishing speed. It’s still there now, lunging over the fence and snarling at passers by, left in place by the owner, who still has no explanation for this transformation of his killer pet.

At the height of summer Jay received a fax from his agent in New York who said that she had read The Quick Brown Fox Jumps over the Lazy Dog carefully and found it “challenging”. Snailpress wrote soon afterwards and said they weren’t actually rejecting it; however, it didn’t suit their list, which didn’t run to mammals. When the oak trees began to shed acorns in sad percussive cadence, David Philip Publishers sent a fax quoting an extract of their reader’s delighted response to the book: “this very accomplished novel – witty, whacky, clever… there is little chance of conveying the layered complexity – not complicatedly layered, but in­geniously interwoven…” However, they didn’t feel they could sell sufficient copies and wished him well. In the depths of winter Ravan Press wrote that they had no problem with the literary technique but found the central character un­convincing. (They praised the lack of racial angst.) Spring arrived again; but by then Ravan and the remaining two publishers had gone bankrupt.

Meanwhile, a strange thing was going on. A crowd of hostile aliens had begun attacking the earth. To call them extraterrestrials is to miss the point; they were really extradimensionals. They called themselves the Flungos, and they resem­bled an unfocused rubbish heap. They entered our three dimensions by intruding on people’s dreams from inside, and then escaping from these dreams into ordi­nary space (they stretched the dream until it burst). The only human being in the whole world who knew about this was Jay Barrell.

Ordinary dreamers didn’t know this was happening, because they would wake up from an inarticulate nightmare and find their lives full of rubbish they couldn’t explain which affected them for years, most of them getting divorced eventually or going to the wall. But Jay discovered this invasion by turning his whole distempered Flungo-invaded dream into an unfocused rubbish heap made of plastic. It crystallised in the air above his bed and fell on him; luckily it was a lightweight plastic indeed and he survived the crash uninjured. Soon his whole garden was filled with these strange objects until the Flungos gave up their plan of invading the earth, all because of Jay Barrell.

He had a third talent. He discovered one day that if he held his breath in a spe­cial way and thought of green things, he could fly. It wasn’t proper flying, be­cause he could only just clear the rooftops, and when he flew over a pine forest, his feet brushed against the tops of the pines. On bad days he could barely dangle below the ceiling; on all occasions, it took great effort. Still, he was proud of his abil­ity to fly. He practised it in secret for many years, mostly late at night, and not even Laura knew. Occasionally she asked him: ‘Why do you have green pine needles stuck to the soles of your boots?’ And Jay would say vaguely, ‘I’m not sure, love. Do I?’

One peaceful night he had a tremendous breakthrough; he learnt to fly above the pine forest at enormous speed. It thrilled him with delight to do so and he soared about, not very high it is true, but easily and fast. After indulging in this sport for some time, he encountered himself treading wearily below on the ground, his boots thumping into the carpet of dead brown needles.

‘Hullo down there,’ he shouted, somewhat bombastically, ‘look how fast I’m flying!’

Jay looked up and shouted back, ‘If you’re flying so fast while I’m just walking, how come I’m keeping up with you?’

Jay didn’t know the answer to that one, lost his concentration and came tumbling down slowly. He landed on his head and forgot about flying for a while.

The shock of falling gave Jay two new thoughts. One was: ‘Diversify!’ The other was: ‘Plastics!’ He took the remaining plasticised Flungos from his gar­den, and sold them off one by one. Jay pretended that one was a soap opera. He called it Isidingo and sold it to SABC. Some were displayed to great acclaim at the Grahamstown Festival, and the government bought the rest. About half of these were used to guide and develop the President’s understanding of what causes AIDS, while others became the cornerstone of his Zimbabwe policy. A particularly odious Flungo was turned into a decision to buy sixty billion rands’ worth of jet fighters, submarines and other weapons.

Jay never heard from his agent in New York again, though he faxed her repeat­edly. However, with his newly acquired wealth he could afford to publish The Quick Brown Fox Jumps over the Lazy Dog himself. He ran off a thousand copies and sold them to the bookshops at a loss. Most were pulped eventually and sold by the kilogram, together with outdated computer magazines and horror fantasy comics. However, not all this literary effort was wasted; The Quick Brown Fox Jumps Jumps over the Lazy Dog was reviewed. Stephen Watson wrote a long and elegant es­say in New Contrast placing the novel in the context of its nihilistic predeces­sors; it was really (he explained) about that monstrousness latent in the act of writing itself. Barry Ronge thundered (in You): “The novel has finally died, of bore­dom.” But Jay didn’t have time to read what the critics said, and didn’t care either. He was too rich to care. He began wondering if there was another sentence which contained the whole alphabet in fewer than thirty-five letters. He would research it. That would be the scope and matter of his next book.

© Ken Barris