Book Review

A boy has to get a fox, a chicken, and a sack of corn across the river, one at a time, using only a small raft. If he leaves the fox and chicken alone together—bloodbath. Ditto, chicken and corn. How does he do it? But just as importantly, who is this boy? Why is he in this crazy predicament, and where are he and his odd companions headed?

Peter Turchi, in his new book A Muse and a Maze, argues that “all writers are puzzle makers.” The impulse to create and solve puzzles is embedded within us, as is a yearning to go beyond the puzzle—which can be solved—to some deeper mystery—which cannot. The tension between these concepts—puzzle and mystery—forms the center of Turchi’s learned, funny, and uncategorizable book, part writing guide, part literary criticism, and part playful compendium of tricks, games, and problems.

The question of the boy toting a miniature food chain through the woods is just the beginning. Turchi ranges far and wide through literature, film, music, and visual art to investigate the way artists make pragmatic, often instinctive use of puzzles, illusion, and artificial constraint to weave their mysterious effect. Through this lens, he offers lucid readings of such diverse works as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the short stories of Alice Munro, and Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. Early on he defines his primary audience as writers, but any reader with a curious mind should find this journey edifying. After all, “a dedicated puzzle solver is engaged in conversation with the creator.” For both reader and writer, solver and creator, the book sheds light on the creative process in which, whether they realize it or not, they are co-conspirators.

What he’s really up to is exploring literary technique—the way stories work. Discussing Breakfast at Tiffany’s (the novel), Turchi recalls a scene in which the narrator searches Holly Golightly’s garbage, finding partial scraps of letters from her brother, Fred.

We never see an entire letter from Fred, and we don’t need to; a carefully selected group of pieces of the puzzle tell us quite enough. . . . Capote’s narrative, composed of compounded and rearranged scenes, partial memories, even scraps of trash, suggests some of the mechanics behind the magic . . . an orchestration of artifice intended to evoke genuine emotional response.

Later, writing about the disorienting opening pages of Michael Ondaatje’s fragmentary novel Coming Through Slaughter, he says that “the game has begun, but it feels a little as if we’ve been given one piece of a jigsaw puzzle and one Scrabble tile.” Such scenes, Turchi contends, illustrate the relationship between puzzle and mystery, in which the pieces, as they accumulate, hint at an ineffable whole.

Not content merely to write about them, Turchi includes roughly two dozen puzzles and games, varying from crosswords to ciphers to chess gambits, most of which had me flummoxed (thankfully, solutions are provided in the back). The physical book is beautifully designed to accommodate this blend of scholarship and mischief. Larger than a novel but easier to wield than a coffee table book, it’s packed with paintings, diagrams, and textual asides, giving it the feel of some potent medieval codex. Written in a generous, conversational style, A Muse and a Maze strikes an appealing balance between rigor and entertainment.

Refreshingly, Turchi finds dignity in every sort of diversion, from the escapist feats of Harry Houdini to video games, cheap Sudoku books, and formulaic detective novels, locating them within a tradition that goes back to at least 1650 BCE, the date of an Egyptian papyrus depicting mathematical riddles and problems. This document’s title apparently translates to Directions for Attaining Knowledge of All Dark Things—think those people took puzzles seriously?

A well-constructed puzzle is, by Turchi’s definition, an object of fun or fascination, but not a work of art in itself, since it can be solved definitively. However, not only is it okay to consume and enjoy them, puzzles (and their relatives: mazes, labyrinths, logic games, etc.) can be a scaffold upon which to build a genuine work of art. Beginning with the rational mechanics of the puzzle, the writer ventures from the known toward the unknown, into an uncertain realm where “that [final] piece doesn’t quite fit; the critical question remains unanswered.”

In other words, how the boy got the fox, chicken, and corn across the river is a puzzle—what he’ll do next is a mystery.

About the Reviewer

Benjamin T. Miller is a writer whose fiction and essays have appeared in Zyzzyva, Santa Monica Review, Epiphany, and others. He earned his MFA from UC Irvine, and lives in Cambridge, MA.