11 July 2009

Business As Usual

There are a variety of reasons we read books, from the sheer joy of well-constructed sentences to the knowledge that may be gained from an author. In the case of an Oulipian like Harry Mathews, those reasons hold—and more. Mathews' My Life in CIA is, in two words: pure joy.

First, the language is ripe and punchy, descriptive and often inventive, from the names of the characters to his self-deprecating descriptions of his desire for particular members of the opposite sex. The series of Tantric romps with the superbly named Marie-Claude Quintelpreaux are short and sweet, but engage the imagination with passages such as “The tip of my erection settled in her navel; this was apparently acceptable. I thought ‘There’s no place like om.’” Mathews is no Faulkner, and thank goodness. If anything, there are shades of Paul Bowles’ short stories, or the even some of the (adult) stories of Roald Dahl. (Whether Mathews would agree with this I don’t know.)

Then there's the story itself. If you are a fan of spy novels, ones constructed in the cerebral, Le Carre mold that focuses as much on psychological motivations as "action," Mathews delivers on a variety of levels. He is, after all, not a spy; at least, one doesn't think so and Mathews clearly wishes us not to believe it so, since that is the starting premise of the whole escapade. Therefore the antics of an inventive author acting like a spy—selling faked Russian spy plane parts, offering up a coded map of Siberian nuclear installations—while feeling badly for the American-supported overthrow of the Allende government in Chile, and sitting through interrogations with various Soviet and French bureaucrats, all present as hilarity. (This often reminded me of Lawrence Block’s 1966 work The Thief Who Couldn’t Sleep, an underrated pulp novel if ever there was one.) You cannot help but get wrapped up in Mathews’ real-or-imagined intrigue, and feel concern for the semi-hemi-demi-hero as the story moves to its climax.

At the same time, the book helped me grasp the nature of Oulipo in a completely different way. Two simple examples of Mathews’ inventive mind and its Oulipian application. First, while addressing a group of dyslexic travelers, he proposes that one means of alleviating their (anxiety induced) disability is to choose only trains or buses that depart on a palindromic schedule, e.g., 05:50, or 13:31. Later, he proposes an automotive itinerary for an American couple that would take them on a scenic tour of France, beginning with a visit to Saint Agrève and ending with a trip to
Saint Zacharie. These work as jokes in the story, and on their own.

I recently read Mathews’ second novel, Tlooth. Together these two books make for terrific summer reading, both absolutely engaging and appropriately—necessarily—intellectual.

Labels: , ,

04 November 2007

New Book Review

My review of Jeffrey Hantover’s forthcoming, very beautiful novel The Jewel Trader of Pegu is posted here.

Labels: ,

29 October 2007

A Review of Reviews

I'm working on a book review, which will be done later this week. In the meantime, how about this refresher on other books I have written about over the last few years...

Labels: ,