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Thursday, March 4, 2010

A Perfect Analogue of JA's literary puzzles [and MASSIVE SPOILER as to today's (Thursday's) NY Times crossword puzzle]

One of the most common reactions I have received from Janeites to whom I have revealed one or more of my discoveries vis a vis shadow stories is that it was somehow beneath Jane Austen, as an author of serious literature, to fill her novels with silly or trivial puzzles for the reader to solve, and, what's more, puzzles which she does not even identify as puzzles to her readers, so that you have to first realize there is a puzzle, before you can go about solving it. And even if such puzzles are there in the novels, some others respond, surely I am not serious in suggesting that the answers to these puzzles could in any way enhance the reader's understanding, emotional experience of, or enjoyment of, JA's novels.

I have responded first by pointing out that if this sort of puzzlishness is beneath Jane Austen, it must also be beneath the Yahwist (author of the "seeds" from which the rest of the Bible grew), and also of the likes of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens, James, Joyce, and many many other universally esteemed authors, as to each of whom there is SUBSTANTIAL literary critical scholarship published over a very long period of time, which identifies, and attempts to explain, the presence in such great literature of puzzles which somehow seem out of place.

I know this, because my research on Jane Austen's shadow stories has led me to ALL those other authors, and therefore I have come to expect, as inevitable, as to any author to whom I see a connection with JA, there must be some recognized puzzlishness going on with that author, puzzlishness which is (or at least seems to be) entirely unrelated to Jane Austen.

And that does not include the long list of modern writers like Borges, Eco, who have made this sort of riddling puzzlishness very overt in their fictions.

And I have, in response to skeptical reactions, also put forward several types of arguments to explain WHY an author like JA might have embedded secret puzzles in her novels, arguments which I will not repeat now. I am 100% convinced that JA had several powerful, indeed compelling reasons, for all of this, and I will be explaining all of that in print. I have another fish to fry today.

But first I will include a tip of the hat here first to my good friend Colleen Sheehan, whose work I praised in one of my messages yesterday; and second to Anielka, who is the only other member of these groups besides myself who has engaged in a serious AND successful way with specific puzzles and riddles embedded in JA's writings. While Anielka allows several more degrees of freedom than I do in the kind of wordplay which, for her, constitutes a valid decoding of a JA puzzle, she has nonetheless made some remarkable discoveries (each of which I have praised very shortly after she has presented them to these groups). In particular, first I, but then also Anielka, each on our separate path, have both followed fruitfully in Colleen Sheehan's trailblazing footsteps in engaging with the hidden meanings of the second charade ("courtship", "Prince of Whales" and other secret answers) in Chapter 9 of Emma.

This is all introduction, however, to a particularly apt analogy to the way JA played games with her readers, which was just dropt into my lap by a fairy this morning, in the form of the Thursday crossword puzzle in the NY Times. This puzzle was edited, as all NY Times puzzles since around 1992 have been edited, by the famous puzzlemaster, Will Shortz, who I believe continues to appear weekly on Weekend Edition on NPR.

This particular Thursday puzzle was constructed by David J. Kahn, and I am now going to explain the "punch line" of this puzzle, which will constitute a MASSIVE SPOILER for anyone reading along here is someone who actually does the NY Times puzzle. Therefore, this is the moment for any such puzzle solver to STOP reading this message until you have done the puzzle (and by the way, for those of you who would like to do the puzzle, you either have to buy today's print NY Times, or else subscribe (as my wife and I do) to the online NY Times service here:,4Q26kQ3Am3kkbQ514o3Q5E5ph54Q2FQ7Ek3Q264ohccVQ5EmiQ27b5V

Anyway, for those who are prepared to read spoilers for today's puzzle, I will now explain the relevance of same for understanding JA's literary puzzles. Today's NY Times puzzle is a "theme" puzzle, as many of the harder puzzles are, which means that there is a theme which helps the reader get the answers to certain designated clues (in this particular puzzle, there are 123 clues in total, and six of them are covered by the theme), over and above the language of those designated clues themselves. An extra "lifeline", if you will.

The theme of this puzzle is given in clue 14-down, and the clue for 14-down reads as follows: "Answer to each of the six starred clues, literally".

It turns out that the answer to 14-down is "mixed metaphor", but....the answers to the six starred clues, when I solved all six of them, were not mixed metaphors at all, not even one of them. A simple example of a mixed metaphor, for those who may be unclear about what it means, is ""Can't you hear that? Are you blind?" The modality of hearing has been mixed with the modality of sight.

In today's puzzle, in contrast, there were answers like "Top Maher" to the starred clue "Be funnier than comedian Bill?"; and "Rome path" as the answer to the starred clue "Via Veneto?". Even though I had finished the puzzle quickly (it was otherwise not a particularly difficult Thursday puzzle), without needing an assist from the theme, it bothered me that I could not figure out where the mixed metaphors were in those answers to the six starred clues. Something was rotten in the state of this puzzle, and I wanted to know what it was!

That was when I called my father, because he and I have long been "crossword puzzle buddies", where we talk to each other about the hard puzzles we both do, and I relentlessly tease him about taking much longer to do the puzzles than it takes me. He knows my teasing is all in fun, and conceals my admiration for his abilities, because I am 57 and he is 91, and it's amazing that he even does any crossword puzzles at all, let alone the most difficult ones in the American style (which, as puzzle buffs among you will know, are very different from English cryptic crossword puzzles, which I, for one, find EXTREMELY difficult, and do not enjoy even attempting them).

Anyway, I called him, and he, too, had completed the puzzle, but he also was deeply puzzled by the absence of any apparent mixed metaphors in those six answers. However, this was the moment when he and I diverged in our reaction to our shared puzzlement, in a way that goes to the heart of why I am telling this little vignette in a Jane Austen discussion venue. His first reaction was that there must be some mistake in puzzle construction by Mssrs. Kahn and Shortz. He was like Darcy initially trying to squirm away from Lizzy's cross-examination with the lame excuse of some congenital disability for ungentlemanly behavior at the Meryton assembly.

Whereas I, like Darcy AFTER Lizzy calls him out on his lame excuse, and he 'fesses up, had as my first reaction that the error must be MINE, not the puzzle creators; and further, that my error must be in some assumption I was acting on, which was erroneous, which was blinding me to what I was sure would turn out to be a Homer Simpson "Doh!" moment, when I'd realize that the trick had been hiding in plain sight all along.

I reacted this way without having to have a Lizzy Bennet to goad me, because I recalled, and had long since taken to heart, that every so often, Will Shortz & Company was going to play a game like this, by embedding an added twist in a puzzle, WITHOUT EXPLICITLY telling the solver, but instead winking it at very slyly, and letting the solver's puzzlement over some apparent error be the motor to lead the solver, sooner or later, to seek out the hidden puzzle that will show the apparent error to actually be a very clever final twist.

And the analogy to reading Jane Austen's novels may at this point perhaps leap out at some sharp elves reading this, because that is EXACTLY how I explain why I (and Colleen Sheehan and Anielka) are the ones who have solved JA's literary puzzles, whereas many other extremely intelligent Janeites, with equally extensive knowledge of JA's fiction as ours, do not solve those puzzles, or even realize that there ARE puzzles there to solve. To spot, and then solve, JA's puzzles, you have to be perpetually suspecting JA of a puzzle (thanks once again, Mary Crawford!), EVERY time you come across something in her novels which somehow clangs awkwardly, or seems not to fit with the context in some jarring way.

But back to today's NY Times Thursday puzzle. The REALLY sharp elves out there will have already been suspicious enough of ME to take a second look at the two answers to starred clues which I gave you, above, with such apparent casualness. If you have, you could have, judging by those two answers alone, figured out the mixed metaphor that was in each of them.....LITERALLY.

But for everyone else, I will now make it a whole lot easier to figure that out, by giving you, below, ALL SIX of the answers to the starred clues, one atop the next, which is exactly the procedure I myself started to go through as I tried to figure it out, when I realized the "trick" while I was writing the third answer.

other map
Rome path
Top Maher
Map hater
home part
more phat

Do you see the "mixed metaphors"? I deliberately placed the answers one atop the next, so that certain structural parallelism between these six answers, so utterly unrelated in content, will be more prominent, visually . you now get a subliminal sense of some other, even more powerful parallelism between these six answers?

Such as that they each consist of a total of eight letters?

And those letters are not entirely random, are they? ;)

Are you perhaps at this moment reminded of the following?

My first displays the wealth and pomp of kings,
Lords of the earth! their luxury and ease.
Another view of man, my second brings,
Behold him there, the monarch of the seas!

But, ah! united, what reverse we have!
Man's boasted power and freedom, all are flown;
Lord of the earth and sea, he bends a slave,
And woman, lovely woman, reigns alone.

Remember what Colleen Sheehan told us about this charade --each stanza is an acrostic anagram, where the first letter of each line gives us "mlab" and then "bmla", which are both anagrams of "lamb".

Now everyone still reading along must surely realize that the above answers to the six starred clues are all ANAGRAMS of each other! Each consists of the same 8 letters, but in different orders entirely!

Very clever of Mssrs. Shortz and Kahn, right? of you with a good memory may think to ask--yes, that's very clever indeed, but still, where's the mixed metaphor in each of them? And what do Shortz and Kahn mean by that last word "literally"?

And (if I may be permitted one frivolous intentional mixed metaphor myself) it is those questions which inject the icing on the cake of this ultraclever puzzle, which is that each of those six words are ALSO anagrams of the word "METAPHOR", which ALSO contains those same eight letters!

And that, my friends, is the "punch line" I was leading up to in my deciding to present this little tale to groups of Janeites--because that last step is a perfect analogue for JA's shadow stories. The "theme" clue led us down a garden path of looking for mixed metaphors as we ordinarily use that term, BUT.... playing fair with the puzzle solver, it ALSO contained a CODED instruction to look for the word "metaphor" LITERALLY (or concretely) in each of the answers to the six starred clues. THAT is the "shadow story" of this NY Times puzzle!

But, clever as this NY Times puzzle is, as I have now explained it, it should also be apparent that JA's puzzles, which lead into the shadows of six of the greatest works of fiction ever written, are a gazillion times more significant, and meaningful, than mere word games which do not lead anywhere beyond the page where that puzzle is printed. Why? Because JA's puzzles vastly deepen and expand the scope and significance of the METAPHORS which are the nuts and bolts of her fiction.

And so, I end this message clangingly echoing Obe Wan Kenobi (or, for the well-heeled New Zealanders amongst you, One Kiwi Nabob), and saying, to those of you brave enough to begin on the journey into JA's shadows stories alongside me, "May the METAphors be with you". ;)


P.S.: Just as my father has never, during my entire life, missed any opportunity to kvell, to friends, family and strangers alike, about my achievements, whether they be my SAT or LSAT score, or my TV game show or Spelling Bee triumphs, I will myself NOT now miss the opportunity to kvell about my ninety-one year old father's far more remarkable and ongoing achievements in being able to complete the most difficult American-style crossword puzzles, both the 3 weekly hard NY Times puzzles, and also Stanley Newman's weekly "Saturday Stumper", putting him, I think, in a league of his own among nonagenarians.

So I now proclaim across the ether: WELL DONE, DAD!!!!

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