The Riddling Effect: Rules and Unruliness in the Work of Harry Mathews

The Riddling Effect: Rules and Unruliness in the Work of Harry Mathews


Michael Boyden reflects on the stubborn and idiosyncratic fiction of Harry Mathews and introduces a new ebr gathering of work on and by Mathews.

Today, on the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, writers are still clearing up the debris of that hypermediatized event. How can a contemporary author find the right pitch to confront the unremitting stream of master narratives and conspiracy theories, both reassuring and alarming, that are constantly being uploaded and downloaded on the World Wide Web? What we know about the world today has been programmed in advance by the mass media. In this context, the stubborn and idiosyncratic fiction of Harry Mathews poses an interesting counterpoint to the currently dominant tendency to reduce reality to narrative, and narrative to plot (preferably against America). To the hasty reader (and perhaps we are all in that position), Harry Mathews seems to stand for postmodernism in its most experimental guise, cum gratuitous game playing, linguistic snags, empty polyglottism and priggishness; in other words, despite their avant-garde profile, the writings of Harry Mathews appear as a curious atavism, the rubbles of a fad that, we are happy to say, is now completely over. The time when novelists could freely wallow in meaningless word play seems long gone: we have touched ground again. The aim of the present Mathews gathering is certainly not to bring “high” postmodernism back to life, or, for that matter, to ironize the rekindled interest among contemporary fiction writers in more traditional narrative structures (which is interesting in itself). Rather, what we have tried to do in collecting these texts is point out the remarkable originality and density of Mathews’s highly underestimated oeuvre as well as its continued relevance in the age of global terror.

As it appears, some of the major concerns that infuse the work of Harry Mathews, and which comprises not just fiction, but also poetry, essays, and numerable translations, are now again at the center of critical debates in literary and cultural studies: the limits of narrativity, the convergence and divergence of fictional and non-fictional realities, the recycling of popular genres and styles, issues of language and translation, and even comparative cuisines. In this ebr thread, we present the reader with an exclusive and highly illuminating interview with the author, which confirms not just his almost neurotic dedication to the right word in the right place (as well as to people in the wrong place at the wrong time) and his extraordinary wit, but also his scrupulous conviction that fiction can only occupy a meaningful place in our lived reality because it is not actually part of it. On top of this, we have been given permission to “reprint” three texts by Mathews himself which reveal his views on the connection between fiction and translation, and how the latter impinges on the latter. The texts are: one short story, “The Dialect of the Tribe,” and two essays, “Translation and the Oulipo: The Case of the Persevering Maltese” and “Fearful Symmetries.”

In the conclusion to her chapter on postmodern fictions for the seventh volume of The Cambridge History of American Literature, Wendy Steiner argues that the 1990s have signalled the end of the experimentalist period of esoteric metafiction in American prose writing. Whereas outside the U.S. such writings continue not only to be produced but also to be appreciated, Steiner claims that in America critical taste “has moved on” (Steiner 529). As a possible reason for this turn away from self-reflexive fiction, she notes the fact that several of the most renowned American experimenters, notably Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, Robert Coover, John Hawkes, and William Gass, have passed their creative peak. A more compelling factor, however, would have been the so-called “culture wars” in the American academy which seem to have undermined the cultural validity and vitality of postmodern “high” fiction. According to Steiner, the controversies in the universities have resulted in the gradual erosion of the boundaries between “art” and “reality” (530). Further, the development of new media as well as dramatic changes in the marketing of books have made such distinctions between “high” and “low,” or “popular” and “serious,” even more precarious. More and more, apparently, novelists are moving away from elitist game playing and instead are drawing inspiration from mass culture and the lives of “ordinary people” (brackets in Steiner’s text, 535).

If we should take Steiner on her word, any discussion of the work of Harry Mathews, which has sometimes been identified as postmodernism in its most experimental guise, risks being anachronistic from the start, or perhaps even superfluous (indeed, despite his considerable oeuvre, the Cambridge History nowhere even mentions the author). Yet, as I hope to show below, these are unworthy epithets for a writer of the stature of Harry Mathews who has figured at the cutting edge of literary “experiments” - excuse my use of such a backward term - for more than half a century now. I will not go into Steiner’s analysis of the literary historical situation, which no doubt has a lot to say for it, except that her analysis seizes an at best partial understanding of a deep-rooted structural drift in U.S. society to explain a mere alternation of generations in the literary institution, giving it the weight of destiny. It is undoubtedly the case that the rise of giant chains such as Barnes & Noble has had a strong impact on how people read and what gets published. It is also true that Dalkey Archive Press (which has published or reprinted many works by Harry Mathews) was founded in 1984, in the midst of this development towards group-targeted book consumption.See Paul Harris’s review of three Mathews novels republished by Dalkey Archive. What should be clear is that the symptoms of increasing mediatization and democratization, if that is what it is, are much more complex and go much further back than Steiner’s essay conveniently suggests.

What, one could ask, might the current turn to reality in American prose writing entail? We may begin with the trivial observation that a “turn” is always also - at least in part - a “return” to a state quod ante, which means that it belongs in a tradition which we have to acknowledge as “real,” even if it is not reality pure and simple. As it appears, in the context of fiction writing in the U.S., this tradition goes a long way back. From early on, American authors have wanted to write books that were not bookish, but somehow reflected the reality of the nation (even if it did not yet exist). In a sense, the American tradition has always been opposed to the very idea of tradition. In the 1960s, the confessional poets propagated a turn away from New Critical dogma towards a closer approximation of the “personal” in poetry. For the New York poets, however, the confessionals had not come closer to life but had moved away from it by obviating the impersonality of modern life, as well as the reality of the written word itself. Some of these New York poets, in their turn, are now under fire for being too difficult and elitist, too self-involved to confront the realities of the postindustrial age. As it appears, the clash between “minimalists” and “experimenters” is not typical of the current situation, but rather results from a non-stop pendular movement that has characterized the American tradition almost from the start and that has paradoxically secured its relative stability. So have we “moved on”? Because this question can only be answered from within the literary institution itself, every answer will to some extent reinforce the distinctions it is supposed to dismantle.

A more compelling question, then, may be how the “turn to life itself” is realized in fiction. It is a fact that a book by Mathews can be a frustrating read, as it constantly eludes our generic expectations without apparently replacing them with alternative ones (contrary to some critics, I do not see the short stories as a key into the longer prose which to me seems more bound to the strictures of narrativity, and thus lets in more “reality”). It should be stressed, though, that Mathews has never attracted a broad audience, not even among devotees of formal innovators of the likes of Pynchon (whose bleak worldview he certainly does not share). Judging from the modest reception of his work in the U.S., Mathews seems particularly out of key in that country. One could argue that, in the American context, his writings appear at once too much at home and at the same time too foreign to really fit in. Contrary to many now popular authors, Mathews comes from a typically WASP background, a fact that he himself has repeatedly identified as an imposing “constraint” on his creative energies. Admittedly, the members of the New York School, with whom Mathews is often associated (during the sixties, Mathews worked with John Ashbery on the journal Locus Solus, the title of which betrays a shared admiration for the work of Raymond Roussel), came from a similar milieu but they at least could be classified as gay writers, which perhaps makes them sufficiently marginal to still occupy center stage in the current climate of conversion.

Another factor in the relative neglect of Mathews’s remarkable literary oeuvre in the Anglo-American context could be his association with the OuLiPo, the Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, to which he was admitted in 1973 (nominated by his personal friend George Perec). This rather loosely organized Paris-based group, co-founded by Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionais in 1960, was initially a sort of modern chamber of rhetoric which concerned itself mainly with the connections between literature and mathematics. Gradually, however, the cooperative has broadened its scope and has started to focus on all kinds of constrictive patterns in various art forms. In 2002, Mathews was awarded the prestigious Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, a clear indication of his acclaim in the French literary world. Yet, here too, Mathews has remained something of an outsider. Almost invariably, he is presented as the only American author in the OuLiPo since Duchamp (who, obviously, was not actually American). Moreover, Mathews himself has often stressed that, in spite of having lived outside his home country for a long time, he has always considered himself an “American” author. This would be consistent with his activities as a mediator (a new edition of his OuLiPo Compendium, co-edited by Alastair Brotchie, has recently come out).See Alain Vuillemin’s review of the first edition. Although Mathews’s writings contain many, often witty traces of his Oulipian background, I think that this French connection is by no means defining for his oeuvre as a whole.

Thus, to understand the reasons as to why Mathews is so curiously absent from most official histories of American literature, we cannot suffice with external explanations but must look at the oeuvre itself. What, to my mind, speaks from all these writings is a very strong sense of singularity, as well as an equally strong desire to overcome this desire, thus indirectly strengthening it. This could explain Mathews’s peculiar style which strikes the reader as both level-headed and extremely slippery at the same time. Although Mathews resists easy categorization, two characteristics of his work stand out which in the same movement point to two recurrent misunderstandings. The first characteristic is that Mathews’s fiction is much less an example of the misdirected erudition and wordplay that Wendy Steiner now considers outdated than a constantly renewed attempt to undermine all preconceived systems of thought. According to Steiner, contemporary fiction writers are exploring the possibilities of mass fiction to a degree that was unimaginable to the experimental postmodernists. If Mathews is classed among the latter group (even though he clearly disapproves of the label “postmodern”), this statement strikes me as utter nonsense. From the start, Mathews has used the strictures of popular - fictional as well as non-fictional - narrative formats to question the basis of inherited knowledge: the quest (The Conversions), the epistolary novel (The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium), the proverb (Selected Declarations of Dependence), the cookery book, the lecture, the Festschrift, the pedigree (Country Cooking and Other Stories), or the diary (The Journalist).

The second distinguishing feature of Mathews’s fiction, as I see it, apart from the persistent subversion of received narrative genres, is its imposing realism. This point may appear particularly surprising, given that Mathews has often been considered absurdist and surreal, even to the point of being nonsensical. The persistent reader, however, soon realizes that there is more at stake than merely gratuitous game playing. What Barbara Guest has said about Tlooth may point towards a paradigmatic trait of Mathews’s entire achievement: “Gradually we recognize that besides the fervid rompings there is an obstinate realism, like that underlying a comedy of errors, a place where everyone, not only the underdog, has a mistaken identity, a mistaken idealism” (Guest 117). Mathews himself once argued in an interview that what he aims at in his fiction is a sort of “riddling effect,” which urges the reader to stop seeing writing as a more or less adequate representation of the “real world” and to acknowledge its own reality: “riddles have no answers, and when they do, the answer is another riddle” (quoted in McPherson 198). This riddling effect, I think, is the kwintessens of Mathews’s creative project, which constantly sabotages the inevitable illusion that we can have full-coverage access to life. Its realism, then, paradoxically resides in the exposure of the idea that the written word and the world “outside” can coincide in the same, undivided universe. Reading Harry Mathews means constantly being reminded of a defect in mimetic function, which at the same time hints at a different, somehow fuller reality.

By way of conclusion, let me now try and substantiate the above claims by turning to Mathews’s latest novel, My Life in CIA (2005). As the title already suggests, this book clearly draws on what Steiner calls the “master genre” of the present day, namely the testimony or memoir (Steiner 537). Written in a sparse, almost Spartan style, the book discloses an episode in the life story of a middle-aged American author living in Paris by the name of Harry Mathews, who sometime during the early 1970s all of a sudden stands accused of being a member of the CIA. At that point, the supposed truths on which he had built his life start to crumble and his trial begins: “I wanted to play a part in the grand conspiracy of poetic subversion; in fact that was how I justified my life. But how could I get a hearing if people thought I was an ordinary, paid conspirator?” (12). Through the opposition between the “grand” conspiracy of art and the “ordinary” conspiracy of spying for the American government, Mathews thematizes the predicament of the “otherworldly” expatriate writer who, in a moment of personal and political crisis (among other things, 1973 was the year of the coup in Chile), painfully realizes that his world is based on an illusion, a flight from reality. On the surface, this “autobiography” is a dime a dozen, but it should be clear where My Life in CIA departs from the currently fashionable non-fictional fiction of the “memoirs of a psychic spy” type (e.g. McMoneagle). In a sense, Mathews too is a “remote viewer,” but in his case it is unclear who is to benefit from his extraordinary psychic abilities or what is so subversive about them. After all, “who can trust a novelist?” (25).

With masterful irony, Mathews lets his protagonist decide to combat the persistent rumor that he is “CIA” by acting out the role that has been forced upon him, and thus transforming himself into a counter-counter intelligence agent. The character then starts his search for a respectable “cover,” so as to hide his virtual intelligence work from the outside world, and thus, paradoxically, to uncover the absurdity of the rumor that he is “CIA.” In order to face reality, Mathews has to start lying about his identity - not coincidentally, Apprendre à mentir is the title of a TV program cursorily mentioned in the novel (84). He starts an international travel counsel which allows him to draft fake maps of secret geographical sites, and which he conveniently names after the journal Locus Solus. If anything, it is testimony to Harry Mathews’s superior self-mockery that he here associates the avant-garde journal that he helped to establish with a bona fide bourgeois cover for intelligence operations. At a moment when his writing career is stuck in the morass, his love life is a mess, and his money is running out due to the devaluation of the dollar, the protagonist of My Life in CIA is faced with the question: how to keep on believing in the “grand” conspiracy of art? Art is a lonely place. Contrary to what Steiner’s typology would suggest, therefore, Mathews’s fiction is more than a mere illustration of the apparently growing gap between art and reality; it also reflects on this development, but without suggesting easy solutions.

Initially, the protagonist relishes his new life as a pseudo-spy: “it made me less vulnerable to public events. Writing had only rarely done that for me. In fact it had been writing that had first painfully exposed me to world affairs” (58). Whereas, before, being a writer had seemed an alternative to bourgeois life, the excitement of being involved in something secret and important - even if it was only play-acting - now exposed this romantic idea of the solitary artist versus the world as an illusion. One could even argue that, in the novel, writing is what makes Mathews middle class - “Monsieur s’embourgeoise,” as one of his ex-lovers at some point teasingly remarks (89). Very soon, however, the character gets stuck in an inextricable web of intrigues, whereby he apparently becomes the plaything of radical groups both on the left and the right who, in the apparent knowledge that he is a fake spy, try to scapegoat and even eliminate him to equalize their mutual debts (or is all this a pathetic joke of his Paris friends?). His life as a double agent, his supposed grand scheme which was going to dispel the idea that he was working for the CIA by paradoxically exposing his intelligence activities, eventually entirely robs him of the possibility of individual agency. “My game had to end. I’d go back to being the fool who kept denying what he was supposed to be. Better to be taken for a fool than an accomplice. I’d been a fool anyway thinking I could play spy and not pay for it” (149). Ironically, what settles his hash are precisely those things which before had lifted his life from “ordinary” existence: love of women, good food, and modernist poetry.

Harry Mathews is sometimes portrayed as a skillful creator of witty but ultimately trivial game narratives. However brief and partial, the above reading of My Life in CIA indicates that this point of view fails to do justice to the lighthearted seriousness of Mathews’s art, as well as its almost maniacal precision, wit, and originality. The OuLiPo connection is clearly recognizable in Mathews’s fiction, but this presence by no means exhausts the complex texture of Mathews’s writings. To put it differently, our work is not finished once we think we have unravelled a hidden pattern. Rather, these devices merely serve as a reminder of the reader’s own presence in the novel. Thus, for instance, My Life in CIA contains an excruciatingly funny numerical palindrome, when at a certain point the protagonist addresses an audience of dyslexic travelers with departure anxiety: as a cure, he suggests that they pick those departure times that read the same right to left as they do left to right. However, the insertion of this palindrome is more than gratuitous frivolity. The talk about departure anxiety was delivered at a meeting of the AARO, the Association of Americans Resident Abroad, which thus indirectly points to the protagonist’s own predicament as an American-living-abroad. Perhaps it also reflects his own inability to tell left from right, since the reading puts him in touch with Patrick Burton-Cheyne and Marie-Claude Quintelpreaux, two characters who in the end appear not to be what he thought they were.

At the end of My Life in CIA, we pick up the trail of the Mathews character in 1991 when he is residing in Berlin on a fellowship of DAAD, the Deutsche Akademische Austausch Dienst. One day, he enters a local restaurant called Paris-bar, “feeling pleased I hadn’t lost my way” (202). Having taken his seat, he overhears a conversation between two men who are talking about his alleged CIA past. On being asked, one of them says: “I know he was CIA. That wasn’t really the problem - lots of people are CIA. He was also a space cadet.” Being CIA here seems to entail being “American” and accepting the consequences. (the “space cadet” may refer to Robert Heinlein’s 1948 juvenile novel of the same name, or even to a 2005 British TV show Space Cadets in which unsuspecting contestants were trained to become space tourists, not knowing that this was a hoax.) But “accepting the consequences” is precisely that at which the protagonist of My Life in CIA is particularly bad (perhaps not so much unlike Joseph K. in Der Prozess). At least, the man on the other table suggests as much when he claims that, after having messed things up, Mathews had to be “terminated with extreme prejudice” (203). The last line of the fictional memoir reads: “There was not the slightest doubt that this man was telling the truth.” This sentence par excellence reveals the supreme realism of Harry Mathews’s fiction: when it excludes all doubt - or, as it says in the quote from St. Augustine’s Confessions that functions as one of the book’s epigraphs (the other is tellingly a quote from the novel itself), when there are “no falsehoods to offend me” - every truth sooner or later tends to collide with its opposite.

As I have tried to show in this essay, the preoccupation with the paradoxical quest for truth, as well as the refusal to finalize it, are remarkable constants in Harry Mathews’s art. In my opinion, it is also what sets his writings apart from the stream of 9/11 novels now flooding the literary market. From the start, Mathews has tried to complicate our understanding of reality and how to represent it. For instance, in his second novel Tlooth, first published in 1966, he lets one of his characters exclaim that “impatience in solving riddles often overlooks what is plain in its quest for the mysterious” (66). As Mathews himself has suggested, “tlooth” can be interpreted as a sort of contamination of the word “truth,” as a Chinese person might pronouce it, and “tooth,” which is a recurring motif in the novel. More than just a nonsensical word, “tlooth” points towards the pointlessness of any pursuit for the ultimate truth. In its clumsy monosyllabic physicality (the word is uttered almost in passing half-way in the novel by an oracle, whose voice issues from a bog), it seems to indicate that the truth can never reach us undiluted: no pain no gain (in the novel, pain takes the form of a deadly toothache). In a conversation with Warren Leamon, Mathews once described his literary endeavor as “an endless and never-to-be-concluded battle against the legion of answer-gatherers” (Leamon 66). Following recent world events, this legion of answer-gatherers seems to have swollen incrementally; consequently, truth itself has sunk deeper into the muddy morass of meaning.

Works Cited

Guest, Barbara. “Tlooth.” The Review of Contemporary Fiction 7:3 (1987): 117-118.

Heinlein, Robert A. Space Cadet. Illus. by Clifford N. Geary. New York: Scribner, 1948.

Leamon, Warren. Harry Mathews. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1993.

Mathews, Harry. The Conversions. New York: Random House, 1962. (1st Dalkey Archive ed. 1997)

—, Tlooth. Garden City, NY: Doubleday/Paris Review Editions, 1966. (1st Dalkey Archive ed. 1998)

—, The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium and Other Novels. New York: Harper and Row, 1975. (1st Dalkey Archive ed. 1999)

—, Selected Declarations of Dependence. Illus. by Alex Catz. Calais: Z Press, 1977. (1st Sun & Moon ed. 1996)

—, Country Cooking and Other Stories. Providence: Burning Deck, 1980.

—, The Journalist: A Novel. Boston: D.R. Godine, 1994. (1st Dalkey Archive ed. 1997)

—, My Life in CIA: A Chronicle of 1973. Normal; London: Dalkey Archive Press, 2005.

Mathews, Harry and Alastair Brotchie. The OuLiPo Compendium. London: Atlas Press; Los Angeles: Make Now Press, 2005.

McMoneagle, Joseph. The Stargate Chronicles: Memoirs of a Psychic Spy. Charlottesville, VA: Hampton Roads Publishing Co, 2002.

McPherson, William. “Harry Mathews: A Checklist.” The Review of Contemporary Fiction 7:3 (1987): 197-226.

Steiner, Wendy. “Postmodern Fictions, 1970-1990.” Ed. Sacvan Bercovitch. The Cambridge History of American Literature. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 1999. 425-538.

Zeppotron. Space Cadets. Pres. Johnny Vaughan. Channel 4. 7-16 Dec. 2005.

Lori Emerson:

See Paul Harris’s essay “Harry Mathews’s Al Gore Rhythms: A Re-viewing of Tlooth, Cigarettes, and The Journalist” in which he rediscovers the senior American member of Oulipo on the occasion of three reprints from The Dalkey Archive Press.