Research Notes · 01/10/2014

A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee's Guide to Saving the World

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Rachel Cantor writes about A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World from Melville House.

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Evading the Scramasax

Leonard, complaints guy for a national Pythagorean pizza chain, is something of an innocent: he left school at fifteen after learning only about the life of the Leader and about hygiene, “both physical and social.” He rarely leaves his White Room, which is where he relieves Clients-in-Pain through liberal distribution of Neetsa Pizza coupons. But heroes cannot stay in their White Rooms forever: they must emerge or there will be no story!

A Highly Unlikely Scenario is the story of that emergence. Leonard makes his way first into his own town, then to the stronghold of the latter-day followers of medieval theologian and scientist Roger Bacon, and finally to thirteenth-century Rome. As he does so, Leonard is constantly confronted by things he does not understand. One of his Special Gifts, according to the book (and one of his charms, I like to think), is his receptivity, his fascination with the unfamiliar. How to convey some of that newness, how to convey the fascination he feels not just with exotic realities but, eventually, with the reality of his every day life, and the people all around him?

One way, I decided (though not necessarily consciously), was through language. Throughout the book, I found opportunities to use unfamiliar words. Some I made up, words that originate in a world like Leonard’s, where Whigs, Heraclitans, Dadaists and, yes, Pythagoreans evangelize, in part through proprietary fast-food chains. Leonard may not use halflife-pencils or play solo games in his White Room, for example; his sister wears steep pants (reprehensible tartan steep pants!) while his nephew carries a junior clutchbag.

Though I made up words (all understandable, I like to think, through context), I relied much more on real words — real unfamiliar words — and for that, I needed research.

Leonard’s sister Carol works for Jack-o-Bites, a Jacobite restaurant that serves Scottish tapas. Secretly a Maoist who wishes to radicalize the middle classes, she sneaks food home for Leonard and her son in her silver travel vest. Leonard and Felix therefore nibble on Scottish food quite a lot. I’ve had haggis in Scotland, but otherwise the food I had there was quite familiar, so I investigated Scottish food online — and found bannocks and crowdies and tatties and skirlies and bridies and, oh yes, clootie dumplings! Only an initiate could know what these were, I reasoned; the rest of us could not hope to guess! (For it is not just Leonard for whom the world is often strange: we, too, must find it unfamiliar!)

The major part of my research, I reserved for the final third of the book, when Leonard and his warrior-librarian girlfriend Sally travel to 1280 to retrieve Leonard’s nephew, who is studying, after a fashion, with a famous mystic in Rome. Leonard is more out of his depth — even those things you and I might dimly remember from history class are strange to him.

To recreate medieval Rome, or at least present a convincing version of it, I went to numerous sources: history books, engravings, old maps. I started by making lists of words from Robert Brentano’s Rome Before Avignon, a splendidly textured study of the medieval city. Acanthus, I wrote in my notebook, campanile, “Cosmatesque floors,” tufa, porphyry, serpentine. I wanted to give myself a linguistic feel for the time. Papal, penitence, Cistercian monk, hermit, Frangipane, Annibaldi, curia, order of the Trinitarians, Acqua Claudia. These are not strange words, of course, but they are not (in my world) everyday words. “Christian slaves in Moslem captivity,” monastery, scribes, spicers, rione, sacramental, indulgences, “reliquary of gold and silver and precious jewels,” “six corporal works of mercy,” florin, crypt, barbican, fortification, granary. I used maybe five of the words I copied into my notebook, but they helped me situate myself.

I researched medieval names online. I wanted nothing familiar: no Marios, no Marias. For women, I found Purpurea, Biancofiore, Buona, Oddolina, Adelascia, Rodulfucia, Sapia, Romana, Altemilia, Hostisana, Regimina, Caracosa, Froga, Plasira, and Euphemia. I used Froga, probably because Froga reminds me of strega, or witch, which suited the character in question.

For men, I found Petruccio, Buonfiglio, Riccio, Rufino, Gottifredo, Bobolo (the bastard son of Maccafora), Radulfo Carbonis, Ugolino, Pietro Bursa de Barbarubeis. I used Bobolo (how could I not?) and Ugolino de Barbarubeis (imagining, perhaps, a combination of the unsavory Ugolino from Dante’s Inferno and a red version of the equally vile Bluebeard).

I researched medieval Italian Jewish names, again not wanting anything run of the mill: Alchana de Polonia, Angelino de Levitis son of Guglielmo, Antonia de Villantieriis, Aron de Saerdote son of Abramo, Bartolomeo Berro (and so on) — then found Zedekiah Anaw, a scholar known to have associated with the mystic in question.

Nowhere is Leonard’s disorientation more strong than in his first moments in the thirteenth century. He doesn’t know when he is, much less where, and he appears to have arrived mid-sentence. The innkeeper (the aforementioned Bobolo) is full of words Leonard can’t understand, medieval words I found online and in books and which, I have to say, I adored for their odd opacity. Bobolo, for example, wonders that Leonard doesn’t carry a scrip or baldric, if he is indeed a pilgrim (as he has apparently claimed). He refers mysteriously to a blandreth (something his wife Froga is at that moment standing over, “a’stirring and a’mixin”); once in their room, he points apologetically at a jordan (which looks rather like a chamberpot), explaining that he lacks an outdoor necessarium. In a moment of apparently commonplace anger, he calls his wife a wagtail; in reply, she calls him a puttock. Froga is, further, hopeful that Bobolo, prostrate and faint, will experience fleeming, but Zedekiah Anaw disappoints her: as she well knows, he puts no stock in blood-letting.

Could you learn the word fleeming and not use it in a sentence?

Leonard and Sally are chased throughout the city by the above-mentioned Ugolino, a murderous representative of the Roman Inquisition, who enjoys imagining the many ways he might hurt them. I researched the names of medieval weapons, again favoring those that might be unfamiliar; thus, we have scramasax and brank and flail.

To highlight Leonard’s foreignness, I include the kind of conversation all of us have had who have gone to other countries: he speaks one language while the family whose help he seeks speaks another — Cumbrian, as it happens. I probably erred in choosing Cumbrian, a dialect currently spoken in Cumbria in northern England, rather than Cumbric, an extinct Celtic language, but this choice allowed my friendly pater familias to point at his food and say (to a very hungry Leonard), “Scran? Snig? Skemmy? Kets?” Just looking at those words makes me laugh! The words and phrases, which I found online, are absolutely opaque to this American writer, but, with a combination of gestures and obvious good will, help is nonetheless provided. Leonard looks longingly at a loaf of bread; it turns out, this is all the communication he needs. He finds his way, ultimately, in a succession of strange worlds, chewing on bridies, evading the scramasax, making himself understood by innkeepers and Cumbrians alike, and making those worlds his own — what more could you want from a hero!

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Rachel Cantor’s short stories have appeared in the Paris Review, One Story, Kenyon Review, Ninth Letter, New England Review, Fence, and elsewhere. They have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize three times, and have been short-listed by both Best American Short Stories and the O. Henry Awards. Rachel has received fellowships from the Yaddo Corporation, the MacDowell Colony, the Millay Colony, the Djerassi Resident Artists Program, and elsewhere, and has been a scholar at the Bread Loaf, Sewanee, and Wesleyan Writing Conferences.