Friday, April 20, 2007
Relative difficulty: medium
Another solid outing from Señor Quarfoot. I have a few quibbles with some of the clues and fill, but my standards are Very High for a Quarfoot puzzle, AND I solved this puzzle in the throes of the worst head cold I've had in years, so ... that should put any criticism I have in context. In general, I think that would-be constructors should study Quarfoot puzzles as models of contemporary themeless construction art.
So I'm going to look at this puzzle in somewhat more formal terms than I do most puzzles in order to demonstrate (somewhat) precisely what features I believe make a contemporary themeless puzzle great. In the end, there is no strict formula - sometimes there's just a kind of alchemical magic that happens when you juxtapose words or clue an answer a certain way. But there are general principles. Here are some of them.
1. Compound phrases - themeless puzzles will inevitably (in the best publications, anyway) have stacks and parallel columns of fairly long answers - this puzzle has SIX different 3x7 columns and two 3x10 stacks. Notice how many of the answers in said columns / stacks are compound (that is, involve multiple words): ALL SIX of the stacked 10-letter answers (as well as one of the two unstacked 10-letter answers), and twelve of the eighteen vertical seven-letter answers. It's probably the latter number that I find more impressive, because there are so many more 7-letter words in the language than there are 10-letter words, so while you expect to see a good degree of compoundness in the 10s, to see that high a degree in the 7s is remarkable. What makes compoundness good? It's all about parsing - trying to figure out what the answer is, how many words are involved, where words break, whether there are hyphens involved, etc. Having lots of compound answers adds a level of excitement and variety to the puzzle, so that the difficulty resides not (just) in the obscurity of the answer, but in getting your brain to be supple enough to tease out an answer. Compound answers can simply be way more tricky to see than single-word answers during the course of solving because even if you have some crosses, you can't be sure what relation those letters will have to one other. Take ONE-MAN ARMY (15A: Versatile combatant). I had --E-AN ARMY for a bit and all I could think was that "--E-AN" was one word, like, I don't know, CRETAN. I think your brain instinctively wants to see the answer as a single unit, and you have to will it into seeing / considering breaks and disjunctures. This is how it is for me, anyway. Compound answers add an extra facet to the challenge of solving, one that takes you beyond the question of whether or not you know something to the question of whether or not you can see something.
2. Breadth of vision - part of what makes fill "fresh" or "lively" (words I've used often) is the imaginative exploitation of the space in a long answer. The closer you stick to one-word fill, the more limited you are in your options, so every constructor's going to have to go compound to a certain extent; but the best puzzles have a certain fearlessness about the multiple-word phrase and its ability to take you into the language of the everyday world (contemporary, in-the-language phrases and ideas and names that are not necessarily dictionary-worthy). I have this ridiculous urge to compare Quarfoot (and I would say Shortz, insofar as he fosters and encourages this kind of thing) to the poet William Wordsworth, particularly where Wordsworth's commitment to the "language of men" is concerned. The following is from Wordsworth's very famous "Preface to Lyrical Ballads" (1798):
There will also be found in these volumes little of what is usually called poetic diction; I have taken as much pains to avoid it as others ordinarily take to produce it; this I have done for the reason already alleged, to bring my language near to the language of men, and further, because the pleasure which I have proposed to myself to impart is of a kind very different from that which is supposed by many persons to be the proper object of poetry.Now Wordsworth, when talking about "the language of men," most likely did not have something like TOYS 'R' US KID (1A: One who doesn't want to grow up, in a jingle) in mind. Too crassly commercial for one who worshipped at the altar of Nature. But still - the rejection of a certain formal, staid, self-consciously erudite aesthetic in favor of a more populist aesthetic strikes me as admirably democratic, and a wonderful way of isolating and bringing out the beauty in words and phrases we see and utter every day:
UPC CODE - 34D: Bars from a store
FLU SHOT - 12D: Seasonal safeguard
SAT IN ON - 7D: Audited
PET NAME - 37D: Muffin, for one
AIR WAVE - 13D: Broadcasting unit?
ON BOARD - 2D: Participating in a group
That said, the best puzzles will still reserve the right to Get Medieval (45D: "Le Morte d'Arthur" author (Malory)), or even Ancient Roman (60A: Berlioz opera based on Virgil's "Aeneid" ("Les Troyens") and 52A: Golden Age writer (Ovid)), on your ass. That's why I say "breadth of vision" is important - you don't ditch the old for the new, you just mix them up in unexpected ways.
3. Supple Joints - big stacks and columns are of course the bread-and-butter of a themeless puzzle. They're showy, ostentatious, impressive. But what about the answers that move you from quadrant to quadrant, from showcase to showcase - the three- and four-letter answers that connect the wide-open spaces that we know and love? In the best themeless puzzles, these answers will be both tricky and colorful, not throwaway answers or tired standards. Now not every answer in a puzzle can be scintillating, so I can forgive some blandness in the joints, but a perfect puzzle does not treat the joints as unimp0rtant way-stations. In today's puzzle, for instance, we even get some Scrabbly letters (another key ingredient in a stellar themeless) in the joints:
DR. X (33A: Bogart's only horror film title role, 1939) crosses
CRUX (25D: Meat) and
OJOS (24D: Optometría concern) crosses
JOIN (27A: Make one).
The worst answer in today's joints was MUS. (32A: Where hangings are witnessed: Abbr.) both because it's a bad abbreviation (i.e. one you are not likely ever to see) and because that "hangings" clue, which was probably once tricky, is getting old. But that's one of only a few duds in this puzzle. Take your short answers seriously! They're part of the puzzle too. If you look at the short answers in the SW of today's puzzle ... not much to love, but if you look at the SE: MOME (45A: "And the _____ raths outgrabe" ("Jabberwocky" line)) over APIA (48A: Capital on Upolu island) over LTDS (51A: Old Fords)? Nice. Also, in the NW, SOIR (19A: Matin's opposite) over TATE (Larry or Louise on "Bewitched") over ERIS (26A: Harmonia's antithesis)? Lovely, especially given the "Bewitched"-oriented cluing for TATE (so much better than a MUSeum- or Manson-oriented clue).
Which reminds me: I have left cluing out of today's discussion for the most part, focusing mainly on the composition of the grid. Cluing is of course important - vital, even - to the quality of the puzzle-solving experience. But I find I have far fewer specific opinions about what a clue should be than I do about how a grid should look.
I have never constructed a puzzle in my life, so feel free to throw all my opinions straight out the window.
- 17A: Popular '90s workout video ("Abs of Steel") - Genius. Wordsworth would be proud.
- 24A: Modern communication (on-line chat) - you'd think I'd like this, but I don't; clue seems stale, and the answer strikes me as ... unsnappy. It doesn't trip off the tongue the way, say, "CHAT ROOM" does. I know, this is a lame criticism, but I'm just telling you how I feel.
- 44A: Starting point? (Eden) - The latest entry into the "What's the craziest @#$#-ing way we can clue EDEN" sweepstakes. Perhaps someone can tell me how many different clues there have been for EDEN in even just the past year. I feel the number is large, and the number of "?"-containing clues must be high as well.
- 20A: Interpretation of a dog's growl ("I'm mad") - I'm deeply ambivalent about this answer, which strikes me as borderline insane (imagined dog thoughts are fair game now?), but also clever and somewhat hilarious. Reminded me of the Amazing comic We3 (Grant Morrison / Frank Quitely), which I just finished teaching in my Comics course. It features three domestic animals (dog, cat, bunny) who have been programmed by the government not only to be very efficient killing machines, but also to speak in a very, very rudimentary, computer-ese kind of way. That invented language is alternately hilarious and touching, and one of the book's great charms. Highly recommended.
- 54A: Home of Southern University (Baton Rouge) - wife used to teach at LSU, also in Baton Rouge; I had no idea there was another major University there.
- 9D: Song on the Beatles' "Let It Be" ("I, Me, Mine") - I've now seen this answer at least three times since I started blogging puzzles over six months ago. I know this because I learned it from the puzzle, and now it's my go-to 7-letter Beatles' song answer.
- 35D: Birthplace of René Coty (Le Havre) - no idea who this dude is, but the -EH- combo at the beginning of this answer made it very easy to guess.
- 39D: Monopoly avenue (Vermont) - One of the greatest traps I've ever fallen into. I had "VENTNOR" for a good long while, severely delaying my solution of the SE.
[Late addendum: Since there is so much talk in the Comments about TOASTER (1D: Wedding reception figure) - the wrong answers people had for it, the difficulty of cluing it well, and the place of the word in the "Battlestar Galactica" universe - I thought I would show you a picture of my prize "Battlestar Galactica" "Frakkin' Toaster" T-shirt. In fact, my wife and Andrew and I all own these. (This is the part where you say "Nerds!")
I wore this T-shirt on ACPT Sunday ... and ended up leaving a square blank. Frakkin' Toaster!]