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.

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08 July 2009

Book Tweet

This isn't actually a Tweet at all - it was a sign posted on the door of the Casco Public Library, in Casco, Maine. And no, it's not a perfect 140 characters.

Still, were I to Tweet something about books (were I on Twitter, and able to Tweet), this is a sentiment I'd be thrilled to echo. So I'm doing my bit by posting it here instead, with full credit to library in which I found it - and to the place from which it apparently originated.

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26 April 2009


I did it again just yesterday: I used three little asterisks in a row, twice, in my essay. I use them copiously in my diary; unofficially, I'd say twice per typed page, though possibly more depending on the entry and what I'm trying to capture about my week. And the fiction I write is filled with them, a preferred alternative to something as pedestrian as chapter breaks.

At some point yesterday, as I typed them out, I wondered quietly to myself why I use them, and so consistently; and I wondered whether they really serve as I intend them, or if instead they're a kind of cop-out, a writer's crutch to help me navigate around an idea I cannot pin down.

Which leads to the question: what do I intend them to mean or be?

In a world of unanswerable questions, that one I can handle: I like my asterisks because they help define and delineate the continuum of my thinking. And my thinking definitely functions on a continuum. I think my argumentative, opinionated writing tends to navigate around my main point, punching in for direct connections, and then moving back out to pull together related but distinct ideas. Over the years, a few people have complained that my writing can be maddeningly oblique (as is often intended); the asterisks help with that (also as intended). They help me separate out the direct points I want to make from those that are less so, and should lead the reader around without completely breaking a train of thought. This is essential of meeting that larger goal of threading together different ideas across a spectrum of perspectives.

Admittedly, they do sometimes serve as a crutch—when an idea just won't quite come together, and something is needed to help both separate the disparate elements and tie them together, and I am running out of time (on my self-imposed deadline) and I want to wrap something up...

I suppose my final comfort factor is: no one taught me to punctuate my writing this way, I just developed it on my own. Which, as these things go, makes me feel more comfortable about doing it. I'm not mimicking anyone's style (though many other writers do much the same thing). It's just me being me. If you can’t handle that, you’ve come to the wrong website.


Lest I go for one whole posting without the asterisks, there they are, this time as a segue to four items about writing and language. The first is a brilliant poke, from McSweeney’s, at our contemporary culture (with a hat tip to Liz for pointing it out): "Writing for Nonreaders in the Postprint Era." The second and third are good pieces from the New York Times (here and here) on the 50th anniversary of Strink and White’s The Elements of Style. The fourth is a piece on Orwell from the New York Review of Books a few weeks back, and in particular the section on Orwell’s great work Why I Write. Whether you like writing, find writing frustrating or challenging, teach writing, or are mystified by how people who (seemingly) cannot write get by in the world, these are all for you.

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04 November 2007

New Book Review

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

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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...

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