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Old 7th Nov 2005, 11:01   #3
John Self
suffers from smallness of vision
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Join Date: 27 Jun 2003
Location: Belfast
Posts: 15,939
Default Re: Harry Mathews: My Life in CIA

Yes, I was going to add this to the other OuLiPo review rick posted today, but as Honey has started off the topic here... I read Richard Beard's Damascus a couple of months ago but never got around to posting a review. Beard is one of the few British writers following the OuLiPo way of doing things who is published by a mainstream publisher. Damascus takes its restrictions from the fact that all the nouns in the book (or all but six, I think) are taken from The Times newspaper of 1 November 1993. Now this is actually a fairly loose restriction, since today's multi-section newspapers have thousands of nouns in them every day, and reminds me a bit of Graham Rawle's recent A Woman's World, where all of the text is taken (literally cut-and-pasted) from women's magazines of the 1950s and 60s - again an almost limitless supply. I found that with Damascus, the conceit wasn't restricting enough to be impressive (unlike say Perec's e-less La Disparition/A Void, and despite the fact that Beard reminds us that "it’s worth saying that true to Perec’s vision of the OuLiPo, the originating constraints should, as far as possible, remain concealed. The novel should therefore read in an entirely conventional way"), and the story and writing wasn't compelling enough, in an entirely conventional way, to make it of sufficient interest to stand on its own.

Perhaps of more interest will be X-20: A Novel of Not Smoking, Beard's first OuLiPo book, which I have in my to-be-read pile. He says:

I wanted the novel to share the same patterns as the inside of a smoker’s mind. Even stranger, the mind of a smoker in the process of kicking the habit.

To achieve this, I devised an OuLiPian system of structural constraints which determine both the mood and the plot of the story.

The novel follows the first 20 days of Gregory Simpson’s attempt to give up cigarettes after smoking 20- a- day for ten years. Every time he craves a cigarette, he occupies his hands by writing something down instead. The first chapter, the first day, has twenty separate sections of writing.

As Gregory’s cravings decrease, so do the number of times he needs to write something down. On the second day, the second chapter, he only thinks of smoking nineteen times, and writes nineteen sections. On the third day, eighteen, and so on. By the twentieth day, the final chapter of the novel, Gregory only craves a cigarette once in the day, and has only one final section to write to complete his story of (not) smoking.

Because he only writes when he wants a cigarette, everything Gregory writes down has something to do with smoking. The novel therefore recounts the story of his smoking life, and cigarettes turn out to have featured centrally at every significant moment.
The novel also, he tells us, has a subplot designed around the OuLiPo 'fetish number' 20. Mm.
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