Harry Mathews's Al Gore Rhythms: A Re-viewing of Tlooth, Cigarettes, and The Journalist

Harry Mathews's Al Gore Rhythms: A Re-viewing of Tlooth, Cigarettes, and The Journalist

Harry Mathews
Dalkey Archive Press, 1998.

Paul Harris rediscovers the senior American member of Oulipo on the occasion of three new reprints from The Dalkey Archive Press.

Reviewing Harry Mathews is an onerous task, for the review is a taxonomical genre, and Mathews defies classification. Perhaps it is best not to assess his writing but to process it. One could leaf through it using one of his own devices, such as “Mathews’s Algorithm” - a literary machine he invented which recombines given elements according to a simple, elegant procedure. Indeed, Mathews’s texts - which include Oulipian exercises, poetry, translations, reviews, short fictions, memoir, and novels - read as if generated by an algorithm with a few bugs still in it. Mathews has characterized his singular prose style as “thorny,” “cranky,” and “stony.” Yet this writing also possesses a ruthless efficiency; Mathews insists that “in fact it just fits the space it’s taking up. I’m obsessed with getting rid of words.” The resultant work bears traces of an Al Gore rhythm - somewhat monotonic, deceptively bland - but it always remains decidedly, designedly off-kilter. These novels (Tlooth, Cigarettes, The Journalist), which have recently resurfaced thanks to Dalkey Archive Press, unfold in sequences of mechanical, nearly inevitable configurations, while remaining utterly unpredictable.

It seems fitting that Mathews’s membership in the Oulipo has always constrained the reception of his work, because even though Cigarettes is Mathew’s “only ‘purely Oulipian novel’ ” (Compendium 126), these books bear shifting, intriguing relations to constraint-based writing in ways that illuminate the very idea of such a practice. The Oulipo Compendium is reviewed by M. Vuillemin in ebr Mathews’s work should be situated just to the side of Oulipo, a little “off” from the world of constraints, because it combines an abrupt exactitude with total idiosyncrasy. This merging of the quantitative and the quirky in Mathews’s writing was noted aptly by his famous friend, Georges Perec:

There is something fairylike in Harry Mathews’s novels - I use the word not only in reference to fairy tales (the heroes of these stories attain their goals by means of ordeals similar to those of fairy tales) but to what are known as the “fairy” types of chess, in which players agree to use irregular chessboards, or follow unusual rules (in “Marseille” chess, each player makes two moves at a time), or dispose of new kinds of chessmen (the unicorn, the amazon, the black knight). It is undeniable that the first impression given by Mathews’s books is that of a narrative world determined by rules from another planet, rules that with agreeable liveliness undermine the conventions surrounding our concepts of fiction in general and the novel in particular.

Perec’s characterization certainly fits Tlooth to the t not found in Mathews’s name. The blurb on the Paris Review edition deemed the novel a “picaresque account of a bizarre quest for revenge,” but the conventions tagged there explode in a display of discontinuity and incongruity. The tale is told by a seemingly male, then revealed-to-be female, finally possibly androgynous narrator, who seeks revenge on Dr. Roak, who amputated two fingers from the narrator’s left hand, thereby ending his/her career as a violinist. Tlooth begins with a baseball game in a Russian prison camp; after Dr. Roak is released, the narrator tracks her through an otherworldly rendering of the world: from the Russian camp to Kabul to Venice to Milan to India to Morocco to Rome to France. The globe and novel alike become a labyrinth worthy of Daedalus.

A synecdoche for the text so viewed is found in the elaborate artifice of Hapi, the vehicle entered in the “ ‘home-made animal’ race” which enables the narrator’s escape from the camp. The shell of Hapi has a mock-gnostic iconic inscription on the front, a “textual maze” on the right side, a diamond-shaped maze on the back, and “the true text of the maze” on the left side - a text whose directions for navigating the maze conclude, “Then, no matter which turning you took, and it did not matter which one you took, you will have reached the entrance, for the labyrinth leads nowhere but out of itself.” Like the novel, the vehicle is a contrivance built out of operations: superimposing graphic plans and textual instructions on one another yields an itinerary - in the sense of both a journey and its record - which remains identical only to itself. Just as the labyrinth’s user’s manual only sends you back to the labyrinth itself, the plot is resolved only inconclusively, and the text ends with a stark image of shells and rockets exploding: “The labyrinth of their colors sets a dense clarity against the blankness of the night.” Labyrinthine clarity set against blankness: precisely the type of textual configuration Mathews scratches on the empty page.

Perec imagines Mathews’s novels being determined by “rules from another planet.” However, the itinerary here seems shaped neither by an alien nor an Oulipian procedure, but after the manner of a Raymond Rousselian textus ex machina, where some association or pun or allusion moves the text from one site/cite to the next. The generative principle brings to mind a scene from Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual Winckler wants to sort a collection of hotel labels from around the world into some distinct order; having given up chronology and geography as constructive principles, Winckler “would have liked…to link each label to the next, but each time in respect of something else.” Whatever the algorithm underlying Tlooth may have been, it no longer exists; Mathews has admitted that a “hidden pattern” underlies most of his work, but “once the work is written, the pattern becomes irrelevant and of no use in reading the work…it is in no sense the point of the work” (Leamon 18). Retrospective detection of the algorithm would prove futile; we would end up like Winckler, who, looking over his labels, realizes that “if you leave the labels unsorted and take two at random, you can be sure they’ll have at least three things in common” (Perec 32).

Necessarily ignorant of the novel’s constructive principles, critics seek to categorize Tlooth. For instance, Eric Mottram has compared the novel to Poe’s Pym and Brockden Brown in its use of false documents, puzzles, diagrams, and quasi-learned allusions, and because “the prison/labyrinth/puzzle trope is so fundamental.” Re-viewing it now, it could also be seen as a cross between The Crying of Lot 49 and Wim Wenders’s Until The End of the World - a nested set of stories disrupting a quest underwritten by a revenge plot which wanders across the globe.

In comparison to Tlooth, Cigarettes is a nearly conventional novel - despite being written under strict constraints which Matthews has never disclosed. Edmund White has marked Jane Austen as “the most obvious precedent” for the novel, though he admits Mathews is “more psychological than sociological” and “far more bizarre and violent” than Austen. Here Mathews does resemble Austen in that he penetratingly probes the formative relationships in a specific group of people: upper-middle class New Yorkers involved in business, horse racing, and the art world. He also creates unexpected empathy for characters who are sado-masochists, alcoholics, liars, cheaters, vain, or just ambitious.

But the novel is completely different in tone and form from Austen; it has a distinctly modern, acentered quality. It is episodic and recursive in structure, and makes its impact through implication and juxtaposition. The role that constraints play in shaping the plot might be inferred from this passage in Cigarettes: “Morris was showing him what writing could do. He advanced the notion that creation begins by annihilating typical forms and procedures, especially the illusory ‘naturalness’ of sequence and coherence. Morris did more than state this, he demonstrated it.” Rather than a distinct telos, then, the narrative is driven by a dynamic in which one character’s view of a relationship gives an impression that is subsequently altered radically by another’s narration. Just as fellow Oulipian Jacques Jouet wrote of Mathews’s language “that meaning, far from being in words, is between them. Meaning has left its leaden shoes,” so too is the “truth” of the relationships between characters.

With characteristic dryness, Mathews has said that in Cigarettes, he “had the desire to deal with what are called relationships, and as we all know relationships are often the opposite of that. People will go to any lengths to deny the true nature of the relationship” (Ash 31). The narrative voice enforces this sense of how relationships are based on people misreading one another or projecting their own impulses onto others in tones that vary from tender to cold. As Priscilla, driven by her desire to keep her place at the side of the increasingly famous painter Walter, plots to secure her role, the narrator parenthetically pauses to observe, “Sadly, perhaps inevitably, Priscilla in her accounting ignored what to both Walter and herself mattered supremely: she liked him better than anyone she had ever known.” Soon after, as Priscilla seeks to manipulate her way into the graces of Irene, who runs the gallery showing Walter’s work, we are told (again parenthetically), “In truth, the two women misjudged each other. Priscilla thought too much of Irene’s influence, Irene too little of Priscilla’s pluck.” Such failures to recognize others ultimately estrange people not only from each other but from themselves. Priscilla undermines Irene’s hold on Walter by persuading her brother Morris to market some of Walter’s work; the effect on Morris is described this way: “He had justified adopting her by her charm, her loyalty, her usefulness, hardly noticing her strangeness to him, and how strangely he himself had yielded to her bizarre determination.”

More often, the drawing of such inferences is left to the reader. Perfectly reliable seeming accounts of situations or pictures of people are countered by revelatory twists later on. The reader therefore ends up in a position not unlike the characters, left to “read” the unfolding scenarios as best they can, given the available evidence. The novel’s emphasis on what lies in its interstices foregrounds the reader’s role; somewhat in the vein of Wolfgang Iser’s idea that texts leave gaps and indeterminacies to be filled by the reader who thereafter realizes the work. Mathews says “this is how reading can be defined: an act of creation for which the writer provides the means” (“For Prizewinners” 10). Only, what characters and reader share in here is darker - the play of reading as a recreation leading to creation is countermanded by misreadings Mathews depicts and engineers as well as the novel’s pervasive pull toward death. Such propensities are felt in the relation between Owen and Phoebe: the daughter’s insistent independence maddens the father; when Phoebe falls ill, Owen convinces a doctor and psychiatrist that her life of artistic dissipation is behind her troubles. The narrator blandly states, “When the thyroid gland misfunctions, the effects are not felt as symptoms. Depression and excitement, even indigestion, are interpreted as private, ‘natural’ experiences.” The misinterpretation manifests itself in devastating form on the interpersonal level: speaking of the doctors, Phoebe asks Owen, “Has anyone ever looked right through you and out the other side?” The misdiagnosis proves fatal in the end; a father’s fear of losing control kills a daughter.

Dedicated to the memory of Perec, Cigarettes was written in the wake of the deaths of several people close to Mathews. It is, finally, an exploration of relationships informed by the question of how to relate to people who have died. Love and death converge in one of the novel’s unforgettable scenes: Morris, who has encased his lover Lewis in concrete and humiliates him, falls dead of a heart attack as Lewis helplessly watches. Lewis’s meditation at the novel’s conclusion places the problem of relationships in this larger light: “I was only beginning to learn that the dead stay everlastingly present among us, taking the form of palpable vacancies that only disappear when, as we must, we take them into ourselves. We take the dead inside us; we fill their voids with our own substance; we become them.” This presence of the dead underlies the journey that writing undertakes: “…I sometimes think that only the residual strength of the dead beings inside me gives me power to survive at all. By that I mean both the accumulated weight of the generations succeeding one another and, as well, from the first of times, when names held their objects fast and light shone among us in miracles of discovery, the immortal presence of that original and heroic actor who saw that the world had been given him to play in without remorse or fear.”

While The Journalist was apparently not composed using strict Oulipian methods, it nonetheless may be read as a complex, multilayered assessment of writing and constraints. Perhaps his most accomplished novel, it both attests to his always close link to Oulipo and etches out an utterly original space. Generally speaking, constraints may function as an interface between language and text or between life and writing; Marcel Benabou calls constraint “a commodious way of passing from language to writing,” while for the Perec of Life: A User’s Manual constraints provided a selectional matrix which cast a widely distributed net over “life” for inclusion in his book. In The Journalist, Mathews demonstrates the self-generative power of systematic writing, the way in which constraints induce a project to take on a life of its own, as well as unveiling the devastating vertigo lurking in the “potential” of carefully circumscribed literary procedures. The novel is like a hybrid, the result of an idly passing thought in answer to the riddle, “what would you get if you crossed Perec and Sterne, an intricate, constraint-based textual procedure with the project of writing down one’s entire life?” In the end, a world, self, and text that collapse in on themselves.

To summarize the storyline of The Journalist is to render it banal: a man recovering from a nervous breakdown starts a diary; at first a way of confirming the world and his place in it, the diary becomes a world unto itself, and the narrator gets swallowed up by it, and goes nuts in the end. But the deliberate, incisive detailing of this process creates a mood, a series of effects; one begins to note each word on the page, and even the slightly mottled texture of the book’s paper; as you register the journalist’s minute observations, you examine your own impressions as if they were someone else’s.

The narrator sets out to capture the stark thingness of the world, its externality, but feels the futility of the enterprise from the outset. He notes that “Itemizing the events of the day didn’t save them for me. Objects and events, once I’ve written about them, emerge from the strangeness of belonging to systems outside my control. They are naturalized. Even their differences, being what they share, make them resemble each other, make them familiar.” Seeking for a method to mold writing to things rather than vice-versa, he realizes that “To follow chronology means fitting things into place, making sure that nothing has happened. How to see things out of place? Analysis will subvert the illusory naturalness of memory left to its slippered self.” He thus devises a system for classifying events of the day, a skeletal form for filtering content: objective is divided from subjective, and each is subdivided into categories like communications, actions, cultural events, food, expenditures, dreams, contemplations, speculations.

The primary problem the narrator faces is of course also the novel’s central theme: the relation between the writing self and the written one. As he becomes increasingly preoccupied with keeping the journal, he finds himself caught in what Bertrand Russell called “the Tristram Shandy paradox” - life outruns writing because writing is part of the life-time. Mathews cuts to the quick on this one: “A full account of my life requires a full life. Example: I can’t report what I read unless I read.” The journal about his life with others soon cuts him off from those others; between living and writing, the issue becomes one of “commitment”: “I don’t know what Daisy said next; I wasn’t listening: I was reflecting that in this task I’ve set myself I’m totally alone, and it cannot be otherwise… How can I ever explain to anyone the high principle that governs my commitment - a commitment to the ‘perfectibility’ of my methods?”

Inevitably, as the writing itself becomes the focal point of his life, the narrator’s world and self become mired in the project, and disappear into it. The paradox of self-inclusion - how to factor one’s writing about one’s life into the totality of one’s life, including the writing of it - materializes as a problem of self-forgetting. He abruptly realizes that his “laborious classifications have proved worthless” because in filtering the world onto the page, they have “left out the chief activity of my life and the chief fact of my project: the keeping of this journal…. The making of each page, the making itself, deserves to be accorded its supreme place.” He thus differentiates his project from illustrious forebears (Plutarch, Rousseau) on the grounds that “My work is not for ‘the world’ (by that I mean anybody else) or for me (I’ve hardly time to read what I’ve written). It’s for ‘It’.” The potential of constrained writing, in other words, is that it ends up an autopoietic textual machine.

Austere, blunt, callous, diffident, elusive…. Harry Mathews remains hard to pin down, no matter what order you put words in. Spread over nearly thirty years, these three novels indicate some of his range, suggest a few common threads, and will no doubt help sew up the reputation he has long deserved… inside and outside the Oulipo, within a constraint-driven world whose limits he will always exceed.


works cited

Ash, John. “A Conversation with Harry Mathews.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 7 (Fall 1987): 25-35.

Benabou, Marcel. “Rule and Constraint.” In Warren F. Motte, ed. OULIPO: A Primer of Potential Literature. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1986: 40-47.

Jouet, Jacques. “A brief note concerning the impossibility of preparing the ‘Single Word Dictionary’ that was thought useful for a considered reading of the works of Harry Mathews.” Review of Contemporary Fiction (Fall 1987): 194-96.

Leamon, Warren. “Harry Mathews: An Interview.” In Leamon, Harry Mathews. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1993: 14-20.

Mathews, Harry. Cigarettes. Dalkey Archive Press, 1998 [1987].

__________. “For Prizewinners.” Review of Contemporary Fiction (Fall 1987): 8-16.

__________. The Journalist. Dalkey Archive Press, 1997 [1994].

__________. Tlooth. Dalkey Archive Press, 1998 [1966].

Mottram, Eric. “ ‘Eleusions Truths’: Harry Mathews’s Strategies and Games.” Review of Contemporary Fiction (Fall 1987): 154-72.

Perec, Georges. “Avez-Vous Lu Harry Mathews?” Review of Contemporary Fiction (Fall 1987): 82-83.

__________. Life: A User’s Manual. Trans. David Bellos. Boston: David Godine, 1987.

White, Edmund. “Their Masks, Their Lives - Harry Mathews’s Cigarettes.” Review of Contemporary Fiction (Fall 1987): 77-81.