Enter 'Alphabetica': Vowels form a unique minority in Roy Phoenix’s satire


Satire is not an easy genre to master. And debut novels are even harder to review. However, Roy Phoenix is not your average debut novelist. His experience in the advertisement industry as well as his time writing screenplays—his debut feature film, Apna Asman (2007), winning the "Best Feature Film" award at the Stuttgart Film Festival—have played a role in developing his observational writing style. But more than his style, it is the creative flair to be able to conceive the concept of Alphabetica (Notion Press, 2021) that makes him stand out.

Alphabetica is a city-state on Planet Typewriter. It is the central setting of Phoenix's debut novel, and is home to all 26 letters of the English alphabet. The alphabets are divided into two groups of 'open sound makers' and 'closed sound makers', essentially vowels and consonants, with our main character, Ypsi, being the letter 'Y'.

Ypsi harbours disdain for the vowels that reside alongside the other consonants in Alphabetica. She believes they have been given an unnecessary amount of power and preferential treatment—they make 38 percent of the total English words in existence, for example—even though they are the minority.

At its core, Alphabetica is a satire on majoritarianism: the political philosophy that the majority (whether on the basis of religion, social class, or language) is entitled to make decisions that affect society as a whole. And Phoenix does a great job of imagining the satirical elements of the story.

He uses Ypsi to tell a narrative of class divide, segregation, fascism, and racial disparity. It's a commentary on dictators of the past and the present. When Ypsi talks about the pride and heritage of the consonants, and their blue bloodedness, or even when she talks about vowels being impure, it is clearly a reference to Nazis, white nationalists, and Neo-Nazis. These sentiments of race or religion-based superiority is something to which our side of the world isn't unfamiliar either.

One major challenge within satire: not only does it have to be a commentary on the politics and culture of the author's choice of setting, but rather something which a reader from any country or community can relate to. This is where Alphabetica excels.

Roy Phoenix does an excellent job of writing a story that is deeply tied to the context of his country, India, while also ensuring that people from elsewhere can relate to it in the context of their lives. The problems of majoritarianism—where the opinions of minorities are disregarded and decisions are made without any consideration for the challenges faced by them—are universal, as are some of Ypsi's ideologies and beliefs that she presents to justify her narrative.

The only critique I have for the book is that readers might struggle at the beginning to get invested in the story. Perhaps he chose to create a world through the alphabet in order to avoid creating proper human characters, who could be likened to real life political or influential figures. Or maybe he just wanted to be creative about the process. However, this often makes it difficult for readers to become invested in the characters in the book, who lack the depth and motivation that come with being human.

Aside from this one point, I would definitely recommend Alphabetica to anyone who is fond of satire. It is not going to be a quippy and hilarious read that has you laughing from start to finish, like the works of Terry Pratchett or PG Wodehouse, but it will leave you thinking about the major problems surrounding race, religion, caste, class divides, etc., while also having a chuckle. 

Aaqib Hasib will someday finish writing his book. But not today. Write to him at [email protected]