~Post by Jenn S.
This is the latest in a series of reviews of experimental fiction written by BookPeople Brian C. and Jenn S.
Brian and Jenn have made it their mission this summer to open up their reading lives to the weird, the odd, the curious, the avant garde, and the totally out-there in the world of fiction. The previous review in this series, of Kathy Acker’s Great Expectations is available HERE.
Some reductive statements
One of the major literary/artistic crises of the twentieth-century was a little thing called modernism. Roughly, modernism in literature was the phenomenon of writers running around shouting, “Hey! We can do whatever we want! Woo hoo!” Okay, so they didn’t all say that. But the spirit of experiment, the one we’ve been talking about all Experimental Summer long, fueled the writings of modernists and postmodernists.
David Foster Wallace uses this great analogy for modern/postmodern writing’s major predicament—basically, the creative freedom embraced by writers in the twentieth century is like the exhilaration kids feel if they throw a party when their parents leave town. The only rule is: there are no rules. Wallace compares the writers of his era to the kids after the party has gone on a little too long, and everybody realizes the parents aren’t coming home. Late twentieth-century writers feel uneasy and unmoored by their freedom and wonder, “Is there something about authority and limits we actually need? And then the uneasiest feeling of all, as we start gradually to realize that the parents in fact aren’t ever coming back—which means we’re going to have to be the parents.”
Which brings us to this week’s fascinating sector of contemporary experimental writing: the Oulipo
A list of assorted facts about the Oulipo
- Oulipo (oo-lee-poh) is French shorthand for the workshop for potential literature (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle).
- About half of the Oulipo project consists of the continual redefinition of the project, mostly in manifesto form.
- It’s nice to know that somebody’s still out there writing manifestos.
- The Oulipo and its writers are ALL about rules.
- That is, they write not from the abyss of unfathomable freedom that blessed and cursed the modern/postmodernists, but from a set of strict, self-imposed restraints.
- Or, if you like, “Oulipians: Rats who must build the labyrinth from which they propose to escape.”
- Members include writers and mathematicians like: Georges Perec, Italo Calvino, Raymond Queneau, and Jacques Roubaud.
A sub-list of examples to illustrate point #4, using the oeuvre of one Georges Perec, card-carrying Oulipian since 1969 (pictured with cat.)
a.Wrote the longest palindrome ever written.
b.Wrote an entire book without the letter ‘e.’
c.Wrote an entire book with no vowels but ‘e.’
d.Recorded the comings and goings of an ordinary Paris street corner for three ordinary days to find out “what happens when nothing happens” in An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris.
e.Collaborated with some forward-thinking computer scientists in the 1960s to write The Art and Craft of Approaching Your Head of Department to Submit a Request for a Raise.
Perec’s The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise came out in English earlier this year. In it, a worker goes through the various hypothetical steps of, well, asking his boss for a raise.
The tiny, 80-page hardcover volume has the original book-generating algorithm, or flow-chart, printed on its endpapers. Perec wrote it on assignment for a computer research institute, tasked to simulate the algorithm in language. Turns out, Perec’s story is more than just a written equation. It follows the computer’s strict flow-chart almost to the letter, spelling out each iteration depending on various factors (Is your boss in his office? Did he have fish for lunch? Does his daughter have the measles?) and on their consequences (Either you go in or you wander the halls and talk to his secretary, ms. wye; If he has a fishbone stuck in his throat, you have to come back the next day; If his daughter has measles, he has to be quarantined and you must come back in 40 days).
As the permutations multiply, the characters develop and evolve, despite their clear roles as factors in an algorithm. Perec uses no punctuation or capitalization in the book, so it reads like a run-on sentence. He uses the stock phrases from the flow-chart to order the text with a reassuring, repetitive structure. But even the repeated phrases start to break down—the worker (“you”) often ends up walking around the building waiting for his boss to show up, which Perec describes as, “to circumperambulate the various departments which taken together constitute the whole or part of the organization of which you are an employee.” It’s easily the clumsiest phrase in the book, and as it reappears on almost every page, it’s also easy to skip past it. As the story continues, the phrase changes subtly—at one point, you’re walking around “the organization which toys with you,” and by the end, “the organization where you eat your heart out.” The worker’s quiet desperation seeps into every word as he moves through the algorithm’s labyrinth.
The book is a funny, engaging look at the astonishing mess of hypotheticals and what ifs ordinary people go through to make basic decisions everyday. Perec shows insight into mental territory few people want discuss, let alone write about. Using a rigid formal constraint, Perec manages to render a lively portrait of the daily grind. Which is to say, maybe sometimes rules are good things. And maybe, as the Oulipo would have it, rules are actually the keys to truly experimental fiction.