An American in Oulipo: The Harry Mathews Symposium
Cigarettes by Harry Mathews. Dalkey Archive Press. 292pp, $13.50.
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”1—meaning that its characters are not hunting for treasures or navigating fantastical landscapes, are not busy outwitting (or failing to outwit) secret societies, conspiracies, con artists, traps, or puzzles, are not learning invented languages or cracking ciphers (or at least no more than we are). They are simply going about the business of being human, or, rather, being fictional in a way that evokes a different reaction than Zachary and Twang in The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium, than The Journalist’s journalist, than Tlooth’s revenge-bent fugitive. Our concerns are now “sexual conquest; the fostering of reputation; the love and hate between mother and son, father and daughter, brother and sister; the links (and abysses) between affection and imagination; the parallels between homosexuality and heterosexuality; and the nature of amorous friendship linking quite old people.”2 These are as alien to a Rousselian fiction as flying saucers to a Jamesian.
The appeal of these concerns is founded on a similarity to and familiarity with the concerns of the reader, albeit heightened, as fiction must be. As Lynne Tillman has said, “In [Mathews’s] earlier books it looks like games play people, and in Cigarettes it’s people who play games.”3
Further, Cigarettes is Mathews’s only novel substantially concerned with Americans as Americans, at large in a fairly recognizable United States, in a place and time recognizable to readers of other novels we might name. Here Mathews inhabits a shared domain in which other authors have ranged before and will range again; not a private kingdom, inasmuch as our shared language permits this, not a walled city.
The characters in Cigarettes aren’t even going mad—a not-infrequent narrative terminus for Mathews’s manikins—save for the luckless, wonderful, hyperthyroidic Phoebe. And though there are enthusiasms in the book that verge upon the eccentric, these are pursued, so to speak, with sanity . . . Baron Charlus more than Casper Gutman (or Baron Charlus seeking an assignation with Casper Gutman). The characters of Cigarettes do not, by and large, allow whatever abstract systems they may have applied to their thoughts or habits or desires (a specialized vocabulary, a system of classification, installed out of a desire for order, or simply by whim) to impinge on their waking lives, crowding out the everyday situations that they had sought to improve. The opposite, in fact, obtains in Cigarettes. Idées fixes consume themselves here, leaving their survivors outside desire. In literary terms, by the end of the book, these personalities are no longer plotted. Though age and ill health and obsession take their toll on many, and our narrator must contend at last with a virtual army of what he calls the living dead—the shades with which our memories populate the world—the arc of the book is clear: It moves from moneyed decay—a “gabled house” looming over the reader-carrion “like a buzzard”—toward the astounding coda of “the immortal presence of that original and heroic actor who saw that the world had been given to him to play in without remorse or fear.” We are led toward a state of Edenic acceptance, even to a sort of well-being, which is to say a way of functioning in the world as game-players rather than -played, emulating Adam’s now impossible freedom as much as our melancholy and mortality will allow.
There is, for example, Elizabeth, the much-desired, who has moved in with Maud, the wife of Allan, with whom she (Elizabeth) carried on an affair before vanishing behind the scenes—with the occasional ankle glimpsed—for the majority of the novel. It may be said that desire for Elizabeth, and items emblematic of her, motivates a good many of the men in Cigarettes. In seclusion with “her beloved Maud,” in flight from the skewed trajectories of Cigarettes’ various masculine protagonists, she finally decides that “‘men’ [seem] hardly worth the trouble.” The next morning she’s suffered a stroke, which leads to paralysis and death. But this dreadful peripeteia is not a violence visited on the character. It is a necessary stopping point, an end to the primal story that started all of Cigarettes’ many plot-branches whirling like a Calder mobile. It is also a step toward what I can only call “enlightenment” (if she could shout, Elizabeth would no doubt give a mighty “Katsu!”), for Mathews describes the experience of her illness not as a restriction but as a liberation. She does not want to speak or move. It would be “inappropriate,” and “smiling no less so.” How could this not be the case for someone suddenly “inhabited by so large a number of birds”? For all the shit, inconvenience, and grief with which she has left her loved ones to contend, her loss of agency is not at all a loss of personhood. It also allows Maud to best demonstrate her love for Elizabeth, that “passionate friendship between two middle-aged women”4 which Mathews has mentioned as being one of the impetuses for writing Cigarettes in the first place.
For devotees of Mathews’s other novels, then, and/or the Oulipo, there is—I perceive—I worry!—a potential barrier here. A barrier, and then a paradox, for Cigarettes is, by Mathews’s own account, his only “properly” Oulipian novel. Not, I hasten to add, that lovers of Oulipian writing are allergic to those tropes that generally accompany “realist” fiction, nor that other Oulipian novels (or novels by Oulipians) are empty of emotion, pathos, and all those other things we are meant to want from literature. As I am fond of reminding people, “sincerity too is a rhetorical mode,” and it cannot be sincerity, strictly defined, so long as it must be communicated. Already constituting a restricted vocabulary, sincerity falls squarely within the purview of the Oulipo, does it not? As does the expression of any emotional state in an infinitely permutable medium such as the English language. Nothing could be more “sincere” than a sentence written under duress, without the use of one’s customary lexicon. No: the barrier, if it’s there, lies in the book’s abandonment of the charming playfulness, the fantasy of Tlooth and The Conversions and The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium, which remoteness from quotidian novelistic fare makes them so accessible to the readers likeliest to take up Mathews’s flag. The barrier lies precisely in Cigarettes’ appropriation of the tools of realism. Mathews’s prose is rarely “showy,” rarely purple, even when describing (especially when describing) impossible mechanisms or events. In Cigarettes, however, it may be at its quietest: “No erudition, no language games . . . [I]f you took each chapter by itself, it would seem very conventional in style.”5 Not very conventional, surely, but we are far from the world of Queneau or Perec or Roubaud at their most playful:
In a clump of copper beeches by the stables, on a tablecloth spread on the ground, Phoebe set out lunch: two club sandwiches, four pears, a slab of rat cheese, a frosty thermos of martinis. They ate and drank. . . . Owen felt pleasantly restless: “Let’s go take a look.”
“This is no time for camp followers,” Phoebe told him. “We’d be in the way.”
“Well, I feel like joining the party.”
“They thought of that. You get to bet.”
But to return to that paradox. Mathews called Cigarettes his only “properly” Oulipian novel because it is structured according to an “abstract scheme of permutations of situations in which A meets B, B meets C, and so forth.”6 Or else, as he has hinted more recently, having begun with a series of these simple narrative elements—A falls in love with B, or comes to hate C—these are then swapped about, so that we have A mistakes C for B, and so forth, until the permutations (or their author) are exhausted: “It was arbitrary in the sense that I lined up the different events, but they were after all very basic. They didn’t signify anything substantial. . . . The situations were permutated, as in a sestina; their order changes in a precise way.”7 Since there’s “no point in looking for [the constraint] now because no one will ever figure it out, including me,”8 Cigarettes may be the lone standard bearer for a peculiar sub-genre in the world of Oulipian fiction . . . not so much that its constraint has been very well hidden (a common goal), and not so much that it has the basic concerns of a realist novel, but that this arbitrary (and so, says the conventional psychology, “cold,” even antihumanist) structure of narrative events is hidden in particular beneath a tear-jerker, a story of well-to-do New Yorkers, “cast in limpid prose” and with plots and concerns that a writer like Edith Wharton would admire. Indeed, the artificer for whom Maud and Elizabeth and Allan and Lewis and Louisa are merely A, B, C, D, arranged in rows, dehydrated, waiting for a drop of narrative water to inflate them into characters (much as in Roussel’s wonderful “ Documents to Serve as an Outline,” which he didn’t live to expand into the novel it was intended to be) has cloaked himself behind a story culminating in an exhortation toward the rather unsexy plateau of health, lucidity, and quietude. For all of the book’s advice to itself regarding the necessary annihilation of “typical forms and procedures” in writing, particularly “the illusory ‘naturalness’ of sequence and coherence” (as master sadomasochist Morris advises his protégé Lewis), Mathews has squared the circle of “making new” his subject by writing an Oulipian novel made up of tried-and-true techniques and which is almost pure plot (things we are supposed to be above, nowadays, remember). It reduces the “experimental” or “nonrealist” elements of the work to as comfortable a Victorian antimacassar for the will to tell stories as “Once upon a time . . .” or “In the afternoon rush of the Grand Central Station his eyes had been refreshed by Miss Lily Bart.”
This all makes Cigarettes an inversion of the “typical” Mathews novel. We are given hints that an infernal machine ticks away deep in its center, while it presents to our eyes something almost—polite. That is, if you’re coming to Cigarettes looking for an Oulipian dissection of the novelistic conventions we call realism, you might find, instead, and perhaps to your disappointment, that Mathews has simply built the better mousetrap—has improved realism—by being, perversely, precisely the sort of writer who sees his characters as formal devices, as ways of organizing information. This contra the criticism of the “postmodern” that, in its most genteel form (to flog an old, dead horse) goes a little something like,
after all, are generated by
human beings, and it might be said that these . . .
novels are full of inhuman stories,
whereby that phrase is precisely an oxymoron, an impossibility,
a wanting it both ways. . . .
Each of these novels is excessively centripetal.
The different stories all intertwine, and double and triple on themselves.
since the characters in these novels are not
really alive, not fully human,
their connectedness can only be insisted on. . . .9
Can it be that the well-to-do, imaginary New Yorkers who drink and fuck and maneuver and make money for our amusement have actually been begging for this treatment all along? (One thinks of Morris and Lewis’s various ministrations: BDSM, like most things, makes for perfectly serviceable literary criticism if done correctly.) As Edmund White put it—the blurb is front and center on the Dalkey Archive edition—Cigarettes is “as involving as a nineteenth-century novel and as original as any modernist invention.” That’s a specious if tempting binary, natch—as I’m sure White was/is well aware—but I would tweak his sentiment: how about, instead, we say that Mathews has marshaled modernist invention to bring the novel of manners, like Elizabeth, to an enlightened terminus?
What, then, about the devotee of that much-pilloried novel of conventional psychology that Cigarettes is reforming? The reader concerned not with constrained literature, not with Mathews’s other work, but with the psychological novel, as it was and is still written? If Cigarettes so sublimates its origins in the arbitrary, are there no barriers or paradoxes in store for them?
I’m reminded of Borges’s words in praise of the genre novel over the literary:
The typical psychological novel is formless. The Russians and their disciples have proven, tediously, that no one is impossible. A person may kill himself because he is so happy, for example, or commit murder as an act of benevolence. Lovers may separate forever as a consequence of their love. . . . In the end such complete freedom is tantamount to chaos.10
Mathews has no interest in freedom of that sort, and the reader who prefers those baggy monsters might smell a rat just as quickly as the devotee of experiment/constraint. Mathews has said of Cigarettes’ style that, despite its concern with “real life,” “there is actually no suggestion of depth in the writing itself. It’s all very two dimensional and readers, including myself, must fill in the rest.”11 And then, if this were not enough, to reach Elizabeth’s transcendence at the end of the novel, you must first pass through its morbid echo, a different avian episode entirely, when hallucinating Phoebe is taunted by her dead grandmother in the form of a black bird. I find this the novel’s most memorable and certainly virtuoso chapter (“Owen and Phoebe II”): a breathless unraveling of what constitutes humanity in Cigarettes and fiction generally. It is also the book’s one great rupture with conventional narration, aside from the wonderful slips into a kind of (invented?) Polari by Morris, and other peekaboo moments reminding us of the digressive “knee plays” in Tlooth. If Phoebe is the beneficiary of a form of enlightenment, it is not a liberation from fiction but a burdening, a brush with word-gamesmanship as a terrifying and undermining irrationality. This terror serves as an interregnum in the otherwise well functioning engine of naturalist fiction that Cigarettes emulates: Mathews opens the hood to reveal “some kind of Oulipian torture”12 beneath Cigarettes’ placid surface, a nightmare in wait for the unsuspecting humanist. To the model of fiction decried by Borges—not dissimilar from that with which we live our lives, built on the assumption that our words and identities are more or less stable and subject to our wills; thus the model to which “real-life” material like Cigarettes’ is most often consigned—this is sickness indeed. Phoebe’s hell of the body and mind is the inverse of Elizabeth’s escape, just as Cigarettes inverts the model of Mathews and Roussel before him. This sickness reduces the signs of the world until a recognition of their depthlessness is inescapable. The chapter seems almost an anticipatory parody of the above-quoted condemnation of the centripetal novel, with its inhuman characters and insistence on (paranoid) interconnectedness:
At another time [the voice in Phoebe’s head] repeated an inexplicable succession of letters inside her docile ears: b.s.t.q.l.d.s.t., b.s.t.q.l.d.s.t. . . . Phoebe could not decipher the series. After making it yield “Beasts stalk the question lest demons sever trust,” and “But soon the quest lured drab saint thither,” she rejected the possibility that the letters were initials. She found it even harder to make words out of them, especially without a u for the q.
The Oulipian snake in the realist garden. Of what else can those letters remind us but the progress from A to B to C? And a page later comes the pivot upon which the novel turns, darkly: Phoebe riding home on the train comes to a new insight, which is that the letters’ meaning is not in the words or statements they might imply but in their sound. That sound divorced from sense is what names the book, whose allegiances are thereby put into (permanent, suspended) question:
During her trip, Phoebe learned something about the series of letters. B.s.t.q.l.d.s.t. signified an old train careening down an old track. At slower speeds, the train said,
Cigarettes, tch tch.
Cigarettes, tch tch.
There is the temptation to see that “old train” careening down its “old track” as the novel—this novel and then the novel: of manners, of conventional what-have-you. The sounds it makes and the turns it takes are its meaning, but the passengers may well be incidental.
The conclusion of Cigarettes, quoted earlier, states that only the ur-character, Adam, could be a free agent, the “hero” of his story, because unencumbered by the knowledge of mortality. He could play, while we cannot. If there is a sub rosa quest in Cigarettes after all, of the variety at the forefront of The Conversions and Odradek, it is a quest by the narrator to understand how and why the people in his life have acted as they did, which is the subtle or unsubtle intention of much psychological realism. The answer is: the overwhelming constraint that is death, ours and others’. In life and in fiction, our characters and vocabularies are shaped by the knowledge of our inevitable cessation, and we act under its influence at all times. We are not ourselves, but the dead. Eden, which is to say choice, is a fiction, and so character too is fiction. If this is “conventional psychology,” it leads us to a place where both of those words have been entirely obviated by other forces.
You might be familiar with Laura Bohannan’s famous article “Shakespeare in the Bush,” which relates her frustrated attempts to demonstrate the universality of certain “great tragedies” by explaining the plot of Hamlet to the elders of an African tribe (and itself resembles the set up for a Harry Mathews story, for example “The Dialect of the Tribe”). The elders tell her that she is wrong about most of the plot, for surely it could not have happened that way. (Why shouldn’t Claudius have married Gertrude? And of course Laertes was responsible for Ophelia’s death, for with Prince Hamlet in love with her, no other suitor would take her; better to sell her body to the witches to ameliorate this loss of income . . .) There is something of this same reordering of assumptions in Cigarettes. Mathews is shuttling between his two tribes (that he was born into, and then that he adopted), speaking a language and telling a story that is, or so the scholar-graduate intends, not only comprehensible but affecting to both. Yet each tribe will interpret the stations of Cigarettes’ plot differently—what discomfits the one might well amuse the other; and then the motivations of the characters and their author too will come across differently depending on your assumptions as to the function of fiction: A means of transmitting sentiment? A game? A panacea, an emetic, a tool with which to learn about humanity or else about the culs-de-sac in its only manner of meaning? No loan word carries the same import in all the languages to which it’s been introduced. I’d like to think that the paradoxical Cigarettes might be the sort of book to undermine the certainties of whatever camp tries to assimilate it to their tradition. If it sits uncomfortably in either of the primary modes to which it belongs, this can only be to the betterment of both, for—it always bears repeating—all novels are constrained by convention, however chaotic or experimental or generic they appear; and there is no fiction so human as that which appears to distance itself from its humanity.
Something as fragile as a cigarette would only be squashed under the weight of a word like masterpiece, and, really, who needs another masterpiece this late in the day? Better in the end, perhaps, for a Great Book “to fade away and leave behind ashes of regret.”
Jeremy M. Davies is the author of the novel Rose Alley (Counterpath, 2009), and is Senior Editor at Dalkey Archive Press.
 Edmund White, “Their Masks, Their Lives,” Review of Contemporary Fiction 7:3 (Fall 1997), 77-8.
 Lynne Tillman, “Harry Mathews.” BOMB 26 (Winter 1989). Available online at “http://bombsite.com/issues/26/articles/1165
 “Art of Fiction”
 Barbara Henning, “An Interview with Harry Mathews.” Unpublished, available at http://barbarahenning.blogspot.com/2012/05/interview-of-harry-mathews.html
 “Art of Fiction”
 James Wood, “Human, All Too Inhuman.” The New Republic, 24 July 2000. Available online at http://www.powells.com/review/2001_08_30.html
 Jorge Luis Borges, “Prologue,” in The Invention of Morel (New York: New York Review Books, 2003), 5.
John Ash, “A Conversation with Harry Mathews.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 7:3 (Fall 1987). Available online at http://www.dalkeyarchive.com/book/?fa=customcontent&GCOI=15647100621780&extrasfile=A09F7D46-B0D0-B086-B609D260CAA2D76E.html
 Mark Ford, “Red Makes Wrong.” London Review of Books, 25:6 (2003). Available online at http://www.lrb.co.uk/v25/n06/mark-ford/red-makes-wrong
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