An American in Oulipo: The Harry Mathews Symposium
The Conversions by Harry Mathews. Dalkey Archive Press. 192pp, $11.95.
On June 19, 1997—a few weeks shy of my 27th birthday, and fifteen years nearly to the day that I am writing these words—I stopped by Book Ark, a used bookshop three steps below ground level on West 83rd Street in Manhattan, and bought my first Harry Mathews. The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium and Other Novels. It was published in 1975 by Harper & Row; those other novels were The Conversions (1962) and Tlooth (1966). A forbidding pair of Jim Dine scissors, red-handled and standing on its points, loomed on the front, a precise nightmare. The cover price was $5.95; inside the bookseller had marked it as “6—,” an appreciation of five cents over 22 years. It had belonged to a smoker, possibly the “Tim Yolm” who had written his name in pencil on the flyleaf. But the cigarette odor was faint, unlike that which arose from my copy of Jakob Lind’s Soul of Wood, so thick you could taste it. (I will never get to Lind; even typing his name makes me suppress a cough.) The pages were bright, the binding was tight. Overall it looked like a steal.
If we’re talking June 1997, I was still living as a boarder in a rambling apartment on West 98th Street1, renting one room for the extraordinary price of $425 a month. My living space was not yet overflowing with books. The old lady who lived there let the other room to a violin salesman, then (in quick succession) a Russian photographer, a German-Turkish soap opera actor, and an Argentinean dancer. If I wasn’t at work, I was usually at Book Ark. I would browse there several times a week, and during my lunch breaks downtown I regularly slipped into St. Mark’s or the Strand or Tower Books. But Book Ark was the best. It was the most affordable (save for the occasional sales at the nearby New York Public Library branches) and the most surprising.
Indeed, my latent taste for the obscure was nurtured by my proximity to Book Ark and its trio of saturnine employees. One of them sometimes engaged in bookish chat when I made my purchases; another was polite if quiet; the third, whose voice I can’t recall ever hearing, resembled a skittish D.H. Lawrence, gaunt and bearded. (A few years later, I was watching TV in Paris and caught a few minutes of an American documentary about used-booksellers, and there he was.) I liked Book Ark’s perpetual gloom. Being in the basement, it was always in shadow, even at the height of summer. This was the rich soil—of used books, authors long out of fashion, “other novels” appreciating at the rate of around two cents a decade—where certain ideas about literature took hold in me. Before it closed (ca. 2004), I assembled a counter-canon, on the cheap.2
I never had a title in mind when I went down those stairs, unless it was something I’d seen on a previous visit and, failing to nab it then, proceeded to obsess over it, and hoped that it would still be on the shelf when I returned. This was the case with TSOTOSAON. If I had heard of Mathews before, I certainly hadn’t read him. The heft of the book, its strange title in stolid green caps—the abundance implicit in the casual “other novels”!—and its enigmatic cover all attracted me, as did this statement on the back:
For several years Harry Mathews has enjoyed a growing following among college students, artists, other poets and writers, and fans of the obscure who have never been able to buy his books.
It seemed a contradiction, an impossibility. Being a fan of the obscure was one thing—but being the follower of an author whose books you couldn’t even get? That was another level of perversity. And I was ready to go there.
Having captured this Mathews omnibus, I didn’t begin reading immediately. How much time passed before I entered, via The Conversions, the Mathewsian orbit? (Surely my journals from the period could help me pin down the date—if only I could find the journals.) It hardly matters. The book had been waiting in the store for me; it had been waiting in its tangible form for 22 years; it has sat on my shelf, in five different homes, to be consulted again with pleasure. “Mathews’ work is virtually indescribable in brief,” the back cover stated, then went on to do so: “His is a genius of wild invention presented in a kind of meticulous deadpan narration that leaves the reader howling, amazed, and exhilarated.”
It is not hyperbole. The Conversions begins with an impenetrable ideogram, a circular maze sealed off completely, no way in or out. From the start, the prose exudes an eerie and compelling calmness. In quick order, the narrator relates a racing competition of Rousselian strangeness (an intricate affair combining woodwinds and worms) and then meets a novelist who provides a summary of his book The Sores, in which three early music enthusiasts try to survive a polar plane crash. In this condensed form, it’s a fantastically detailed miniature, like the view from the wrong end of a pair of binoculars, and the twelve pages it takes up feel as rich as a work ten times the length.3 Throughout the book, Mathews is able to let his narrator recede and interpolate texts from other hands, such as a chapter from a book entitled The Otiose Creator. (What I love is that the full text of this “found” chapter is repeated in an appendix—in German.)
Even as these stories multiply, Mathews’ linguistic bravado and sense of proportion (by which I mean the chapters are shortish) keeps us hooked. He walks us through weird science (a character’s discovery and unsuccessful promotion of a sex position that not only prevents conception but provides intense mutual pleasure), doomed, esoteric plots (such as the one involving hypnotized hockey players), and the gibberish spoken by two strange brothers (“Lop oh oh kop . . . yoppo you boploppo oh dopyop foppo ohlop . . .”). Codes seem to pulse between the lines. Meanings elude the narrator, as in the ghostly letters of a failed sentence left by the charmed creatures at the beginning:
e as no s ex rex noth Syl i4
Early in his quest, the narrator is presented with three seemingly arbitrary riddles in the will of the “wealthy amateur” Grent Wayl: When was a stone not a king? What was La Messe de Sire Fadevant? Who shaved the Old Man’s Beard?” To which he thinks, helplessly: “When was a stone ever a king? Who was Sire Fadevant? What old man?”
Yet as in Nabokov’s carefully patterned work, the experience for us—the readers—isn’t frustrating: it’s a blast. I’m pretty sure I howled when I figured out how to decode that bit of “Lop oh oh kop” nonsense above, seeing that it worked out, like a pig-latin variant, as “Look, you bloody fool . . .” What can you figure out that the narrator can’t? I doubt I will ever solve, conclusively, all the puzzles embedded in these first novels of his. (One dreams of a document like Raymond Roussel’s posthumously discovered “How I Wrote Certain of My Novels,” in which Mathews explains it all.)5 To not see it all seems as important as the possibility of total comprehension. These books are hymns to misunderstanding.
From a purely writerly standpoint—i.e., a what can I steal? technique standpoint—I was knocked out by the uncertainty (in the reader’s mind) of the narrator’s identity, something that occurs in at least one of the titles in TSOTOSAON. (Shh, I am trying to preserve the sense of surprise, for those who haven’t read these works.) A vital statistic is revealed right at the end, forcing us to revise how we’ve thought of the central character, and thus the book as a whole. This is another place where the howling comes in.6 And it’s not cheap; it’s fundamental to the story. It’s the aesthetics of surprise.
That’s the title of a thesis that a character has written in my novel Personal Days (2008).7 I made a conscious nod to Mathews’ early work by performing a similar, identity-shifting maneuver with regard to the narrative voice—again, I’m couching it vaguely because part of the fun is to happen upon the twists yourself, unawares. As if my debt to Mathews wasn’t great enough, The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium8, a lovely headrush of an epistolary novel, gave me some ideas for the last part of Personal Days, which takes the form of a long e-mail. (The e-mail is done without periods, an injured-typewriter constraint of the sort that might have been dreamt up by the Oulipo, the predominantly French “potential literature” group, of which Mathews was for a long time the only American member.)
These days I like to misread the ending of Borges’s “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” by thinking that it’s a statement about when a certain book intersects with a reader’s life. Had I come across TSOTOSAON a little earlier, I might not have taken notice; a little later, who knows? 1997: Both Mason & Dixon and Underworld came out that year, but it was Mathews’ three-book brick—patiently traveling through time—that changed the way I thought about literature.
Ed Park is the author of the novel Personal Days and a founding editor of The Believer.
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More from The Quarterly Conversation:
- I Read It for the Plot: The Narrative Artistry of Harry Mathews’ Cigarettes Even Harry Mathews has said “I think situations are more important than plot and character.” And while his 1987 masterpiece Cigarettes is, at first appearance, a collection of situations, reading it quickly reveals that one of its chief pleasures is the (re-)construction of its plot: learning who its characters are,...
- Short Disclaimers, Extravagant Tablecloths: Harry Mathews, Poet If Harry Mathews is esteemed predominantly for his masterful fiction, it is nonetheless as a poet that he ventured upon a writing career. The marriage of form and content evident in the inventions of Tlooth or Cigarettes emerged from the discovery, as he puts it in a 1987 interview with...
- My Life in CIA, a series of overlapping interactions A little past the midpoint of My Life in CIA, Harry,our hero, goes on a date. This date turns wrong for Harry. A lot in My Life in CIA turns wrong for Harry. Not because he isn’t suave, svelte, and socially super-charged. Or because he isn’t smart, funny, charming, generally...
- Tch, Tch: notes on Cigarettes The earthbound, comparatively conventional Cigarettes is a singular contradiction in Harry Mathews’s fiction. This book of the intersecting romances and relations among well-to-do New Yorkers in the 1930s through the ’60s is his only novel to concern itself with “conventional psychology”—meaning that its characters are not hunting for treasures or...
- My words aren’t stones to harm you but fences to make you not harm me: On the peculiar generosity of Selected Declarations of Dependence A note in the minutes to the August 2000 meeting of the Oulipo, the Parisian literary consortium of which Harry Mathews was for nearly four decades the only American-born member, records that he has recently been proud to identify a statement made by his granddaughter about her cluttered purse, j'ai...
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