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Travis Nichols

Travis Nichols

Posted: March 23, 2010 11:52 AM

The nOulipo's S&M Aesthetic Will Set You Free

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On the bus, I watch two elementary school girls in the midst of an argument. One, a big slovenly thing, rains profanity down on the other, a prim looking girl in pigtails. The prim girl's face twitches in paroxysms of rage and frustration as her astonishingly foul-mouthed peer berates her, until finally, eyes bulging, the prim little girl bursts.

"FRESH YOU!" she yells, substituting one "f" word for a clearly forbidden other, but managing to shut the profane girl up all the same. The prim girl beams, the profane sulks, and I'm reminded of the compendium of poems, stories, manifestoes, "texts," and "projects" edited by Christine Wertheim and Matias Viegener, animated by the same "fresh you" principle--the principle of calculated restraint--The nOulipian Analects.

Compiled from the papers and presentations from a 2005 conference in Los Angeles on the legacy of the Oulipo, a writerly group founded in France in 1960, The nOulipian Analects is a marvel. Even if you don't give a fig about literary games involving complex mathematics, reading through these arguments, experiments, successes and colossal failures will remind you that a vibrant literary culture exits in America--it's just thankfully too weird and unmarketable for the New York Times Book Review. This book is inspiration information, pure potential, the type of book you want to keep on hand for the times of writing block and blank, so you can have a laugh and begin again on the serious joke of literature.

The "texts" range from caustic, self-conscious commentary (the excellent Johanna Drucker asks, "Who is going to read these experimental texts or want to? People like writing them better than reading them, or so it would seem.") to constrained pastiche (Rodrigo Toscano quotes Johnnie Cochrane in a poem/essay: "If the glove don't fit?, then you must acquit.") to who-knows-what (Doug Nufer: "Ziggurat mother lowed aires / Entreaties accompany cowherd-tooted shofared"). It's clearly not a definitive book hermetically sealed in consistent procedure (or even a consistent definition of what Oulipo is, let alone nOulipo) but a wonderful mess full of contradicting ideas, personal histories and thick language in the tradition of Italo Calvino, Tristan Tzara, Chris Krauss, or anyone else who has exalted form over content.

Like Harry Matthews' "Oulipo Compendium" before it, this book showcases a raft of writers hell-bent on holding back, such as Bernadette Mayer who describes the tactic "Condensed Pulp: A Constraint": "A method in which you condense the text of a trash novel by combing the first and last sentence of the book," or Brian Kim Stefans, who reveals the hidden haiku in electronic literature phenomenon Basho Frogger: "FRG PND PLP" or Harryette Mullen, who reflects, "I have the same initials as Harry Matthews and that's about as close as I get to an Oulipo connection."

[Intermission for a Brief History of Oulipo: The Oulipo group of writers, mathematicians, and thinkers started out in 1960 in France, with Raymond Queneau and Francois Le Lionnais dreaming up elaborate games and constraints with the hopes of, as they famously put it, becoming laboratory rats who designed their own labyrinths. The name is shorthand for OUvroir de LItterature POtientielle, or, Workshop for Potential Literature, and in the near fifty years since its founding, Oulipo followers have created some of the most interesting and bizarre post-modern writings to have made it out of the asylum. End intermission.]

One overarching feature of the Oulipo set was that they approached the game of language with a serious sense of play, (Georges Perec's novel "A Void" declines to use the letter "e" throughout its two hundred plus pages of detective mischief). It's a balance that's hard to strike, and many writers here err on the side of seriousness, making the language games seem as much fun as cleaning day at a gulag: "Not only can we make other categorical propositions from the ten atomic characters without using the '| ≠ O' superstructure (try it and see)," writes Christine Wertheim, "but if we use exactly the same arrangements, only applying a double, rather than a single negation, so that the overall structure is '| ≠ not-O' we get the new set of sensible propositions."

Luckily others, like Stephanie Young, Juliana Spahr, Christian Bök, and Vanessa Place have jouisstatic fun in their shackles, reminding us, as the song says, that we're only surrounded by places to go. If only we can figure out which restraints to keep us from getting there.