Striking the Chord

(From Proper Boskonian 35, August 1995)

by Bob Devney

[Expanded from APA:NESFA #298, March 1995]

Hidden within many SF readerís hearts these days may be the faintly ashamed wish for less of a good thing.

Thereís simply too much to read. "So many books, so little time" on a T-shirt used to be funny. Now -- doesnít it make you wince just a little?

Havenít you ever found yourself wishing that writers of trilogies etc. would cease being paid by the tree?

That authors wouldnít insist on sharing every square inch of their shared worlds with you?

That Gardner would think it best to maybe take a year off?

That Mars didnít come in quite so many colors?

That fanzine articles didnít take seven paragraphs to get to the point?

Well, if youíre desperate enough to try anything to cut through the clutter, Iíve got two words for you.

Jane Chord.

No, sheís not Sally Circleís sister, or A. Square von Flatlandís girlfriend. A Jane Chord is not a woman at all, but a literary construct. One that may well revolutionize your reading habits.

Jane explained.

I first (and last) read about the Jane Chord in a little article somewhere years ago. Details are hazy. I remember the author was an editor, and the phenomenon had actually been identified by his wife. (Name of Jane.)

What exactly is the Jane Chord?

My definition would be: "The outcome obtained by juxtaposing the first and last words of a given book or other written work to create a two-word phrase or sentence."

Jane, plainly.

OK, so a Jane Chord is the first and last words of a book, put together. What good is it?

Well, Janeís contribution to world literature is the demented hope that the resulting verbal unit may contain some relevance to -- even some revelation about -- the work it bisects.

Got it? Letís try an example. Suppose a book begins with this first sentence: "Yin had always wondered what transpired within the perfumed recesses of the lingerie shop." And suppose the book ends 200 pages later with this sentence: "For ever afterwards, of all the silken creatures of the inner chamber, none found so much favor as the lovely Yang."

Once our respiration returns to normal, we determine that the Jane Chord here, then, is "Yin...Yang."

We also determine that this Chord may well be some sort of clue to this particular bookís central theme. Iíd suspect, with a Jane Chord of "Yin...Yang," that this book might be about sexual identity or duality, wouldnít you?

Thatís all there is to it. Itís that simple. Also, if you like a little mysticism in your mueslix, that profound.

No Jane, no gain?

At this point, you may think that the whole thing seems a little much. One step below the I Ching or haruspication. And maybe itís true that I over-promised a tad. Will the Jane Chord really transform your reading life, save you scads of time, or reveal the hidden mystic truths of literature?

Well, no.

In fact, letís come clean. I suspect that obsessively checking the Jane Chord might ultimately just add another useless laminate of complication to your litíry hours.

But if you have a life, why are you reading a fanzine in the first place?

Strumming a few Chords.

In my own experience of picking out the Chord from time to time when I finish a book, the result is often gibberish. Sometimes rising to the level of enigma. And occasionally revealing a numinous little nodule of found poetry.

Letís try it, shall we? Hereís a smattering of putatively significant Jane Chords, in no particular order. Theyíre extracted from a few works you may have read.

Think about the contents, the author, etc. See if these little dyads bring anything extra to the party. Iíve added my own comments to help you along, whether you need it or not.

A Chord smorgasbord.

David Alexander Smith et al., Future Boston

"Geology... Boston."

Obviously a saga of Beantown-to-be, rocks and all.

Robert A. Heinlein, The Number of the Beast

"Heís...sure."

Well, no one ever accused RAH of uncertainty, did they?

Arthur C. Clarke, Childhoodís End

"The...Sun."

Surely a central image of power and transcendence.

Orson Scott Card, Enderís Game

"Iíve...time."

Intimations of immortality? After all, this book didnít end Ender, did it?

Joe Haldeman, Worlds

"The...stars."

Destination universe.

Theodore Sturgeon, More Than Human

"The...company."

When you think about it, thatís a pretty fair description of a melded gestalt personality.

David Gerrold, A Matter for Men

"McCarthy...way."

Right-wing, yes, but Iíd say the Chtorr saga is instructional in a "Hobbesian way" myself.

Nicholson Baker, The Fermata

"I...longer."

Since the narrator can stop time and fool around in the interstices, maybe heís just talking about experiential duration. Of course, with Baker a sexual connotation is never far away....

Larry Niven, Ringworld

"In...ship."

All aboard, plenty of room, no waiting.

Michael Bishop, Brittle Innings

"After...person."

One big character certainly qualifies as an Ubermensch.

Isaac Asimov, final autobiography I. Asimov

"I...hope."

This one is surely a propos. Almost heartbreakingly so.

"You...Jane."

Youíre probably beginning to get the idea. Itís true that, written as a sentence, a Jane Chord by its nature is a little...well, terse.

In fact, sometimes it can sound like a line of dialog from Tonto or Tarzan. Someone whoís not too familiar with the language, but is trying to get meaning across with a few broken words.

(Speaking of Tonto, did you know that the word "tonto" means "stupid" in Spanish? Iíve always hoped that, in revenge for calling him that, Tontoís honorific for the Lone Ranger -- "Kemo Sabe" -- means something like "Big Fat Masked Sissy" or "Sunburned Negative Raccoon Face.")

But the Chordís very brevity gives it an important advantage, one it shares with poetry. I mean, brevity itself.

Youíre able to concentrate closely on those two little words, and think about them for a while. Spin out multiplying threads of significance and connotation. Each stretches like taffy, while you try to hold in the expanding universe of your mind the almost infinitely meaningful mass of the entire narrative that comes between....

Ground Control to Major Tom, letís deselect the philosophical fuzz generator and try a few other examples. Over.

More Chords.

Bruce Sterling, Heavy Weather

"Smart...run."

In other words, an intelligent chase. Pretty good capsule characterization of this novel. The people may be wackos, but theyíre certainly smart in the ways they go about hunting The Big Storm.

Gordon R. Dickson, Genetic General

"The...man."

Ecce Donal Graeme, the bookís hero. Make that superhero.

Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age

"The...ringing."

The book begins and ends with the sound of Neo-Victorian church bells, so the Chord here is no coincidence. Not a bad symbol, tolling to remind us of one of the bookís main and I think seriously meant themes: the value of traditional structure, morality, a community of belief in our lives.

Connie Willis, Remake

"I...movies."

Put a heart symbol in there and Willis, not just the narrator, is speaking directly to us. You know, like "I [heart] NY."

Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, & Michael Flynn, Fallen Angels

"High...fans."

Although Iíd say the use of narcotics by SF fandom is down considerably from a decade or so ago, there may be some justice remaining in this. Or since the book is basically a roman a clef alluding to some fairly prominent fen, perhaps the Chord can be construed as a simple greeting?

John Barnes, Mother of Storms

"This...sky."

Identifying the eponymous main "character" in this weather disaster novel.

David Weber, The Short Victorious War

"Hereditary...Harrington."

The Honor Harrington space navy series does genuflect to the idea that nobility -- and evil -- can be inherited. Or is this a nod to a future spinoff based on some offspring of Dame Honorís icy yet fiery loins?

Norman Spinrad, Bug Jack Barron

"Split...world."

In this early novel of a tabloid video culture gone wild, more than the screen gets split.

Samuel R. Delaney, The Motion of Light in Water

"Demolition...motion."

Delaneyís autobiography seen as an explosive deconstruction in progress.

Shorter Chords.

Of course, the Chord can wrap around a shorter work as easily as it functions at book length.

Letís cite only a single short story example, since Iím too tired to go downstairs and bench-press anthologies after lugging all these novels up the stairs.

Terry Bisson, "Theyíre Made Out of Meat"

"Theyíre...alone."

This is a wonderful funny yet thoughtful short story, told entirely in dialog, about how the rest of the galaxy finds our unique physical makeup so repulsive that -- well, like the Chord says.

Letís take some other short-form examples that are close to home. In fact, they happen to be right here on the desk. For instance, Ken Knabbeís "Editorial Ramblings" section at the beginning of Proper Boskonian 34, June 1995. The Jane Chord for this two-page piece is:

"Just...introduction."

Neat. And pretty modest on Kenís part, Iíd say.

Not convinced? All right, letís try another example from the same PB issue. NESFAn Mark Olson is something of a skeptic on the subject of the Jane Chord. But hereís the Chord for his own review of Gene Wolfeís The Lake of the Long Sun:

"This...recommended."

Which nicely sums up the sense of the review, Tonto-fashion.

Of course, this Chord isnít exactly a surprise. Mark ends just about every favorable review with the comment "Recommended" or "Highly recommended," thus nailing down half the Chord to start with.

But allís fair in love and deranged literary theorizing.

In fact, in the issue in question thereís only one Olson review -- for C.J. Cherryhís Foreigner -- that does not end with the usual phrase. One noticeable exception. An eerie chill may creep up Markís spine as I reveal that the Chord for this review -- out of his own keyboard -- is, in fact:

"An...noticeable."

Ooooooohh. Seems like some sinister Fortean influence at work for sure, doesnít it?

When the Chord hits a sour note.

Iíll hasten to bite the bullet here and confess again that the Chord does not by any means always prove out. On first learning of the Jane Chords, NESFAn Leslie Turek commented that she "tried it out on a few of my favorite books and got ambiguous results. Two words is not a lot of bandwidth..."

Well said, Leslie. But the problem is not just ambiguity. Letís be frank. Sometimes Jane takes a pratfall.

As in the following examples from a few favorite novels, dating from my personal Golden Age. I think three stinkers will suffice:

Frank Herbert, Dune

"In...wives."

If it had been "in...worms" we might have something here. Otherwise, no.

James H. Schmitz, The Witches of Karres

"It...again."

This might work for a big shapeless Steven King sequel, but means absolutely nothing to me here.

H. Beam Piper, Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen

"Tortha...it."

At least it isnít "Tortha...Harrington." But you see the problem.

Whoís pulling what?

Whatís finally uncertain is not necessarily the meaning of the Chord, but its very existence. Iíve taken the tack throughout that the Chord can exist, and can communicate meaning. That leads to a further question:

If a Jane Chord is a message, who is it from?

I see five possible candidates to be the entity tugging gently on the end of any given Chord. As follows:

1) The writer. Remember, every word in a book arises on some level from a conscious act of creation. So in this hypothesis, the writer did it on purpose. Either knew about Jane Chords or just fancied it would be keen to encrypt a little message in first and last words. The best candidates here would be writers who are at heart gamesters, deep thinkers, lottery addicts, cabalists, conspiracy buffs. In fact, if you suspect one of this bunch is a conscious Chord creator, better also check out the first letters of his or her chapter headings for clues to who killed President Kennedy.

2) The writerís unconscious. In this scenario, a meaningful Chord is generated while the writer is about some other business. Every writer knows the power of beginnings and endings, and lends them extra attention. A careful stylist may very well give both a last polish on the same day. So one top-of-mind concern or theme gets planted at the worksí endpoints: built by association.

3) The readerís unconsciousness. Hungry for meaning in our miserable lives, we invent some. Check the examples in this piece. Many a first word in these Chord pairs may only be a function word or placekeeper, given retroactive significance by its last-word partner. We see a juicy word in the power position -- last place -- then go back and convince ourselves that the first word mystically completes a theme. However, remember: this kind of debunking simply canít account for every example. So we must proceed onward to

4) The Mischievous Mindscrewing Monsters of Monoceros Prime. Perhaps the same baneful alien remote control that has given us CD shrinkwrap, working for a living, womenís shoes, the marketing department of Microsoft Corporation, and the fiction of Piers Anthony also works its evil in more subtly innocuous ways.

5) Whoopsus, God of Coincidence. If a thousand monkeys pound a thousand keyboards for a thousand careers, that might account for some incidence of Jane Chords, as well as the existence of novels based on movies based on video games. Additionally, weíre talking creative artists here, so lots of those monkeys are drunk. Anythingís possible.

Wrap it up with the Chord.

Perhaps, after all, the Chord tells us nothing about a book that we canít get by reading it straight.

But I tell you this. Every book has its Jane Chord. And now, youíve learned of its cryptic presence.

And once you know that the Chord exists -- that itís always there, whining its tight little high-frequency note right through the heart of the book...

Itís hard not to look for its sweet, secret message.