Stephin Merritt might be a master of song and verse, but the rules governing the word games Scrabble and Words with Friends bewilder him. Especially the 101 two-letter words officially recognized by Scrabble.
"It seems pretty arbitrary to me that 'de,' which is French for 'of,' is allowed, but 'le,' which is French for 'the,' is not," complains Merritt, bandleader of the Magnetic Fields, the 6ths, the Future Bible Heroes and the Gothic Archies. "They're both used for names [in English] and are pretty much parallel."
That's just one source of confusion, Merritt notes: "I keep trying to play 'ew,' which is a word I use every day to convey disgust or displeasure." But the word has yet to gain official recognition from Scrabble authorities.
Merritt has become a frequent player of Words with Friends, the Scrabble-like mobile game app. Over time he noticed that friends were consistently playing the two-letter words he couldn't remember.
"I have a terrible memory," Merritt says, "so I started writing these mnemonic devices.
"I realized I might as well write all 101 of them," he adds. "So then I thought, 'Why not make it a book?'"
The result, 101 Two-Letter Words, is Merritt's first book. It was released by Norton in September and illustrated by Roz Chast, the New Yorker contributor. Merritt will read selections from the book at the Madison Central Library on Oct. 18.
The book is a whimsical affair, much like Merritt's music. It is a series of short prose pieces about each of the two-letter Scrabble words. Some pieces have recurring characters -- like a "vampire dog," modeled after Merritt's late dog Irving, a Chihuahua named after Irving Berlin.
The text accompanying the word "an" reads: "An androgyne from Anchorage/annoyed an anthropologist/and suffered injuries that sent/him to the gynecologist."
"Ox" reads: "Trixie was the ox princess./She ruled the happy oxen/until a rival dosed her with/a nasty neurotoxin."
"I like the fact that oxes are actually male, castrated male cows," Merritt says. "But I have an apparently female ox. That gender confusion is not explained. I like that. I have a lot of gender play in the book."
The book employs a familiar Merritt conceit, using form and constraint to guide and shape the content.
Merritt's best-known work with the Magnetic Fields is 69 Love Songs. An audacious project spanning three CDs, it's filled with songs that examine love from every conceivable point of view, some silly, others profound. ("The Book of Love" has become a popular wedding song, for instance.)
"I like working with predefined structures, having the number come first; 101 two-letter words, that's all there are. The amount is already built into the concept," he says. "With 69 Love Songs, the amount is the point. A hundred love songs was a good idea, but 69 was even better."
Were there any two-letter words he struggled to write verse-stories for?
"The Hebrew letters [fe and pe] and Scottish words [ae and oe] are completely unfamiliar to me," he says. "Also do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti, it was hard not to seem arbitrary.... It has to be memorable."
Although the narrative flowed from the set structure of the words, the collaboration with Chast was serendipitous. Merritt's editor asked if he knew of any illustrators, and he had, by chance, just received a fan letter from Chast.
"The note went something like, 'Hi, I'm Roz Chast. You may know my work from The New Yorker. If you ever need an illustrator, or want to get some tea, here's my email address.'"
Merritt says he has other ideas for books. He won't share the details, except to say that he has no intention of trying to write the great American novel, at least not in the format most people would expect.
"I'm not really an epic-type person," he says. "I don't write music like Beethoven, and I'm not going to write Paradise Lost. I'm not a mystic.
"My lifelong ambition is to write the great verse novel. The Eugene Onegin of the English language," he adds, referring to Alexander Pushkin's Russian verse masterpiece.
Merritt has only given one other reading from 101 Two-Letter Words, in Seattle.
"That one was a little weird because we played Scrabble at the same time. Playing Scrabble while doing an interview and reading is a little distracting," he says. "In Seattle... I read 14 poems, and I think that was a good number. And I'll sing a few to show why they would not be good songs."
Will he sing any of his other songs?
"If we run out of other things to do, I suppose I will."