An American in Oulipo: The Harry Mathews Symposium
Cigarettes by Harry Mathews. Dalkey Archive Press. 292pp, $13.50.
It has become commonplace in many of the more refined literary circles to think of plot as unimportant, even antithetical to fiction’s artistry. The critic Christopher Higgs, for instance, has spent several years at HTMLGIANT arguing that plot is irrelevant in, if not antithetical to, the construction and appreciation of innovative stories and films.1 And this is not a new line of thinking. Higgs frequently invokes John Hawkes, who in 1965 said:
“I began to write fiction on the assumption that the true enemies of the novel were plot, character, setting and theme, and having once abandoned these familiar ways of thinking about fiction, totality of vision or structure was really all that remained. And structure—verbal and psychological coherence—is still my largest concern as a writer.”
One encounters similar attitudes outside self-proclaimed experimental literary scenes. Since the late 1970s it has not been unusual to find in the pages of The New Yorker or Ploughshares realist “stories” comprised of strings of elliptical scenarios or vignettes (“white space fiction”) that end in an inconclusive or “open” fashion, near-epiphanies that leave the scant narrative suspended and unresolved.
One might more broadly argue that one of Modernism’s legacies has been to render plot something vulgar, more appropriate for popular genre works than artistic literature.2 Hence the truism that one should read fiction not to find out what happens (since any sophisticated reader understands that these stories are all invented), but rather for Hawkes’s verbal and psychological elements: complex characters bobbing in a sea of lyric descriptions, wordplay, themes and motifs, and the dazzling execution of poetic constraints and concepts (which can structurally replace plot). Such fiction’s worth, we’re told time and time again—as though we keep forgetting—that the words on the page are just words on the page, “mere language.” At best, we’re given guilty apologies for plot, as I was when I asked a college professor what he thought of Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day, which he was reading for the first time: “I don’t know yet. I’m still reading it for the plot, and I know that’s not what matters.”
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, what they do, and how they are related.
Certainly the novel’s prose style—its language—is relatively straightforward, consisting primarily of omniscient reportage:
While at the New School Irene met Mark Kramer, ten years her senior, a prosperous public accountant with a weakness for high culture. He persuaded her to leave the Bronx. From their brief marriage she learned that the sexual sincerity of the male may have capture and imprisonment as its covert goal.
This excerpt is also typical in its summarization of events. Only occasionally does Mathews dramatize the plot by means of scene—and even there, dialogs tend to be brief.
A focus on plot, presented in straightforward language—much of Cigarettes is exactly what we’re so often told literary fiction is not, and cannot be. But Cigarettes remains an unusual book. What distinguishes itfrom, say, Game of Thrones, is how the information is parceled out—and how Mathews leaves so much of the plot for us to figure out.
The book’s Table of Contents is, initially, a meaningless list of names: “Allan and Elizabeth,” Oliver and Elizabeth,” “Oliver and Pauline,” etc. We read onlargely to find out who these people are—who is a Ludlam, who a Pruell, who a Lewison—as well as who has slept with whom, and who’s betrayed whom. None of this is secret or beside the point; Mathews’s narrator tells us right on the first page, “I wanted to understand. I planned someday to write a book about these people. I wanted the whole story.” So do we.
As it turns out, all of the characters in Cigarettes are caught up in intrigues, and in navigating society. This includes the book’s first-person narrator who, despite disappearing after the first page, looms over the entire novel. (The narrator is ultimately revealed to be Mathews himself.) His presentation of the facts that he’s uncovered is extremely elliptical, with crucial details—small facts linking characters—often withheld. We might imagine that information is presented in the order that the narrator encountered them. And in its elisions and non-chronological ordering, in its stray clues and numerous red herrings, Cigarettes functions exactly like a mystery novel. (It’s not accidental that Mathews includes a quote from The Big Sleep.) We’re invited to play along, to puzzle out connections before the narrator reveals them.
Thus, for example, it isn’t until page 80 that Priscilla is even mentioned: “Phoebe saw Walter less and less. Priscilla had come into his life, looking after him, taking up his time.” Who she is, how she came into Walter’s life, the precise nature of their relationship—none of this is initially explained. (Indeed, Walter himself is something of a cipher at this point.) One page later we read: “Walter went away for a few days with Priscilla.” Mathews and his narrator deliberately leave us very much in the dark.
Priscilla isn’t mentioned again until page 111, where we’re told that the late Morris Romsen’s will was supplemented “with a generous life-insurance policy whose beneficiary was his associate, Priscilla Ludlam.” At this point, the attentive reader will realize that Priscilla is somehow related to Allan, who way back on page 4 was referred to as “Mr. Ludlam.” (The surname also appears, in reference to Maud, on pages 30 and 99.) Mathews gives us a moment to pause and make that connection ourselves before revealing, in the very next paragraph, that Allan is “Priscilla’s father.” This is the first indication that Allan and Maud have a child. In a more straightforward novel, we’d be given us the respective family trees. Mathews instead leaves it to us to draw our own.3
Along the same lines, Phoebe’s brother is mentioned at first only in passing, on pages 44 and 51. On page 80 we’re given his name, Lewis, and told he’d been “arrested in scandalous circumstances” in late November 1962. He’s mentioned again on page 92; on page 93 we’re told that “In late May, her brother, Lewis, again became the object of public scandal.” But it isn’t until page 133, the start of the “Lewis and Morris” chapter, that Mathews relates the precise details of his character and the scandals.
Appropriately, the characters in Cigarettes are preoccupied with schemes and intrigues. Consider the episode involving the character “High Heels.” Owen Lewison suspects that Allan has hidden A Portrait of Elizabeth, despite having reported it stolen. Owen thus enlists the help of a former mistress, a woman “universally known by her childhood nickname of High Heels” as his accomplice; Owen instructs her to seduce Allan and search for the portrait at his home.
Mathews avoids telling us exactly who High Heels is, although he provides clues: she’s related to Allan by marriage and bears a grudge against Maud. The attentive reader might be able to infer her actual identity from those details. Much later in the book, Mathews revisits the intrigue and reveals the mystery woman to have been Pauline:
So Pauline’s resentment lived on, a ponderous beast dormant in its gloomy trough. Twenty-five years after her marriage, her friend Owen Lewison told her one evening that Allan and Maud, for reasons unknown to him, had sequestered a valuable painting by Walter Trale, improbably claiming that it had been stolen. He asked Pauline to find out if the painting had been hidden in Allan’s apartment. ‘High Heels’ accepted, with a vengeance, with no illusion about her task: she would seduce Maud’s husband and implicate her sister in a dubious scheme.
And with that revelation, we might remember that, at that start of that chapter, Mathews planted the detail that Pauline, as a child, wore high heels while riding horses. Of course, it’s easy to miss this connection, coming as it does one hundred pages after the appearance of High Heels.
Once we know that High Heels is Pauline, we can realize that it is her marriage with Owen which is unhappy: “Forty-six and very pretty, she [High Heels] had been married twenty-four years to an uninterested husband for whom she had consoled herself with many lovers, Owen among them.” Mathews embellishes this, but again at a remove of over one-hundred pages:
Pauline never interested Oliver except as a prize. He soon neglected her. He discouraged her from working, from having children—when he learned the truth about her inheritance, he declared that in such difficult times children cost more than they could comfortably afford.
These revelations significantly revise the way we read page 41, the final paragraph in the chapter on Oliver and Pauline:
Oliver’s self-esteem did not lessen when he learned, much later, the facts of Pauline’s inheritance. He never overtly reproached her, and in truth the revelation left him almost grateful. After all, it confirmed that he had the right to manage things, the right to show condescension and pity, the right to control.
One of the novel’s central plots, the ownership of A Portrait of Elizabeth, is similarly parceled out. We learn relatively early on that Walter Trale painted it, in 1936, and that it became the cornerstone of his successful art career. But Mathews creates a great deal of confusion over what subsequently happens to the thing. Allan steals it at the end of the first chapter. It next appears in Owen’s possession; he defaces and destroys it. In the following chapter, Owen lies to Phoebe, claiming to have purchased the painting from Maud. He gives her the painting, bringing it to her hospital room, then home.
All of that is presented chronologically, but contains substantial omissions. In “Allan and Owen,” we slip backward in time, learning more precisely how Owen acquired the painting—by blackmailing Allan. At this point we might think the matter resolved: Maud bought it; Allan stole it; Owen swindled it; Owen destroyed it.
But there’s still more. Mathews returns to the plot almost one hundred pages later. Before Maud bought the portrait, Irene began representing Walter. Priscilla then seduced Walter and began plotting with Morris to sell some of the artist’s paintings behind Irene’s back. Priscilla asks Walter to let Morris sell A Portrait of Elizabeth. Walter, however, substitutes a copy for the original. Now we understand the importance of our having been told that Phoebe was working to copy the painting; we also understand why, when her brother brings her the painting, her response is to giggle and exclaim, “It was mine all along!” then call it, a few pages later, “My Elizabeth.”
And so the entire Maud/Allan/Owen struggle was over Phoebe’s copy. We understand this by page 215, and it is laid bare to most of the characters involved on page 265, when Walter calls Maud to tell her how she purchased an imitation: “There had been a string of crazy misunderstandings . . .”
Mathews slyly tips his hand at one point. At the racetrack, Phoebe points out to Owen a horse she intends to bet on:
At her return she announced, “My Portrait in the sixth.”
“My Portrait is a horse?”
“By Spitting Image out of My Business.”
Owen doesn’t take the bet and loses. Phoebe follows her gut; My Portrait pays off “at nine to two.”
By the novel’s end, we understand that it relates the fortunes of two generations of three families: the Ludlams, the Pruells, and the Lewisons. By the final page, the respective family trees are no longer mysteries. Priscilla was Allan and Maud’s daughter. Pauline, Maud’s sister, married Oliver. Phoebe and Lewis were the children of Owen and Louisa. Walter hired Phoebe as his assistant, and lived with Priscilla for a while; later, he was seduced by Pauline (who earlier seduced Allan). Walter was represented, meanwhile, by Irene, whose brother Morris was Lewis’s lover, and schemed with Priscilla.
It’s easy to see how Mathews originally structured the novel by means of a generative plot outline:
I created this abstract scheme of permutations of situations in which A meets B, B meets C, and so forth. There’s no point in looking for it now because no one will ever figure it out, including me. Anyway, I stared at this for a year, and in time people started appearing, then situations, then stories.
Mathews means that we shouldn’t bother looking for the underlying pattern of As and Bs and Cs. But of course he intends for us to look for the connections between the characters, and to write out those respective family trees. That’s why he doesn’t tell us at the beginning that Priscilla is Allan and Maud’s daughter. Or why he doesn’t tell us until pages 241–2 that Priscilla was the girl whom Lewis, age 15, attempted to rape.
This less than linear approach to plot informs not only the larger plot’s presentation, but the structure of actual scenes. Consider Maud and Elizabeth’s argument over Allan. We first overhear it, as Allan does, on page 12; the two women seem to be arguing over both Allan and the portrait. This matter then disappears until the last chapter, “Maud and Elizabeth,” when we hear the argument again. This time, it is revealed to be a performance for Allan’s benefit (and ours). But note how repetitive the plot’s presentation becomes. Maud and Elizabeth watch Allan carry the painting off on page 250. We then shift back in time as Maud, inspired by Priscilla’s thesis, begins looking for Elizabeth. Just when Maud is giving up, Elizabeth visits her. The two women then (again) watch Allan make off with the portrait. Elizabeth proposes she stay with Maud. And then on the following page, we again slip backwards in time, to Elizabeth confessing her affair to Maud. The two women then hear Allan, and for a third time we see them stage their argument.
In this way, we repeatedly return to several of the novel’s relationships and situations. Each pass usually affords us new details, enabling us to flesh out our sense of who these people are—the whole story.
That said, some of the book’s mysteries are also never formally resolved. We’re told, for instance, that Morris and Lewis plan to write a great book together:
Morris had imagined a prodigious book: for that place and time, The Book. It was to include fiction as well as criticism, theory as well as poetry, using the most appropriate medium to explore each facet of its subject: the finiteness of intellect and language confronting the infinity of the intuited universe. During the spring weekend they spent with Phoebe in the Hudson River valley, Morris invited Lewis to collaborate on the project. They would begin work on May 24, Morris’s thirtieth birthday. The task would take at least three years.
This is the project’s sole mention. Presumably Morris’s death prevented its completion?
More unanswered questions: Where did Elizabeth disappear to for twenty-seven years, from 1936 to 1963? And what caused her to return? She casually mentions to Maud in the summer of 1963 that she’ll be “bone poor till September sixth”—what was to happen then? Furthermore, what is Elizabeth’s actual fate? Does she truly suffer a second, fatal stroke, as is implied? Earlier, the narrator hints that another character besides Morris will die, telling us that Lewis, after walking away from Priscilla and Walter on Carmine Street, would not see them again “until early September,” an ominous-sounding detail. But would Lewis attend Elizabeth’s funeral? And would Priscilla, given her falling out with Walter, and her subsequent fight with her mother? Complicating things further is the fact that, on the novel’s penultimate page, the narrator tells us that he himself returned to Saratoga Springs for “the funerals”; the pluralizing implies that someone else besides Elizabeth has died. Are we meant to believe this is Phoebe? The bird dream that those two women share could certainly be read as evidence of that. Finally, hovering over all of this, on every verso page, is the enigmatic title Cigarettes, which is never satisfactorily explained—although Mathews intends us to wonder why the book is called that.4
Just like in real life, not every plotline resolves, nor every mystery solved. But that shouldn’t stop us from trying to figure out what’s happened, or taking narrative seriously. In Cigarettes, Mathews hasfashioned a masterpiece around an element of fiction all too commonly, and wrongfully, dismissed as artless.
A D Jameson is the author of the prose collection Amazing Adult Fantasy and the novel Giant Slugs.
4 In response to interviewer Lynne Tillman’s question, “Why that title?” Mathews replies, “”The question, ‘Why is the book called Cigarettes?’ is a question that should be asked.”
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