Today is the day of publication for The End of Oulipo? Please buy it. As incentive, here’s a list of every book I discuss in the book, in order, with some explanation of why and how.
I discovered an interesting thing after The End of Oulipo? began making its way out into the world. That is: if you title a book, “The End of [Literary Movement]?” people associated with that movement—or even people who merely happen to like that movement—begin to think that you have something against said movement. In hindsight, I suppose this reaction should have been obvious (although I thought the question mark would have carried more weight than it did).
In any event, this is not a book against the Oulipo, which I think the below list will make quite clear. Even more than that, this is a book about how vital I find the Oulipo’s ideas to interesting literature today. Yes, I do in part make the argument that most of the exciting Oulipo-esque literature going on these days is happening outside the strict confines of the group, but that is only because the group has become so wildly successful that its ideas have transmitted far beyond what any of the founders could have imagined or hoped way back in 1960. And, of course, there is much to be excited about in the group as well.
So, really, this book is a celebration of the Oulipo’s success—a celebration the ideas that it put into motion throughout the literary cosmos, an exhortation to experience some of the following authors yourself, and my dear hope that the Oulipo’s ideas continue to stay vital for another 50 years. I hope this inspires you to read some of these books, and maybe even my book.
The book begins with epigraphs by from Mimesis by Erich Auerbach, Prose of the World by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Georges Perec, A Life in Words by David Bellos. There are also epigraphs to many of the subsections in the book. I think I developed my love of epigraphs after seeing Wayne Booth employ them. I love writing down quotes from things I read, and I’m always on the watch for an opportunity to employ them.
Reality Hunger by David Shields. As far as I’m aware, this is the thrid time I’ve discussed Reality Hunger in a formal venue. I reviewed it at The Barnes and Noble Review upon release. I discussed it in an essay in The Point Issue 3, and now I use it to lead off a discussion of the ongoing debate about what realism is and how it relates to what literature attempts to do. Hate that book or love it, any title that has continued to be such a point of discussion feels very successful to me. Although, as I note in The End of Oulipo?, it’s a very notable omission that nowhere in the book does Shields ever quote an Oulipo author, certainly a huge and inexplicable gap, given the Oulipo’s interest in appropriation and the role that concept plays in Shields’ theory.
Changing My Mind by Zadie Smith. I briefly reference Smith’s essay on Reality Hunger, collected in this book.
Life A User’s Manual by Georges Perec. This is the first of many mentions of Perec’s magnum opus. There is no colon in the title. This must be the most common titular misspelling after putting an apostrophe in Finnegans Wake.
Things, A Man Asleep, A Void, Species of Spaces, W, or the Memory of Childhood, Les Revenentes, The Exeter Text: Jewels, Secrets, Sex, An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, 53 Days, all by Georges Perec. I discuss these all quickly in an overview of Perec’s career, as his work forms the backbone of what I have to say in The End of Oulipo? Most of these books I come back to for deeper discussion at some point. A Void is a book where the only letter not employed is the letter e, Les Revenentes is a book where the only vowel employed is e, and The Exeter Text: Jewels, Secrets, Sex is Oulipian Ian Monk’s impressive English translation. 53 Days was Perec’s unfinished, posthumous manuscript, lovingly edited by his close friend and occasional English-language translator, the great Oulipian writer Harry Mathews. I was fortunate to be able to read the work of Perec over many years as I formed as a reader. My thanks to the many publishers who have kept his immensely important writing in print.
Netherland by Joseph O’Neill. Referenced in passing as a title that absolutely embodies the realist aesthetic, which, of course, most Oulipo titles don’t. Not that I dismiss all strictly realist writing; to the contrary.
Correction by Thomas Bernhard. Discussed because Ben Marcus discusses it in his 2005 Harper’s essay “Why experimental fiction threatens to destroy publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and life as we know it,” a defense of experimental literature. I discuss this in the context of the “realism vs experimental” debate and note of Marcus’s somewhat unsuccessful evocation of Correction’s redeeming qualities, “Challenging literature would surely get more readers if its erstwhile advocates stopped attempting to praise it by making it sound like a form of sadomasochism.”
How Fiction Works by James Wood. Discussed as part of the “realism vs experimental” debate.
Gaspard by Georges Perec. Perec’s never-published first attempt at writing a novel.
“E Unibus Pluram” by David Foster Wallace. Not a book, but an important, very long essay by David Foster Wallace on the future of fiction, published in 1993. I discuss Wallace’s discussion of the creation and co-option of irony from 1960-1990. Collected in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.
The Theory of the Novel by Gerog Lukacs. Lukacs’s essential book on the classical vs the modern narrative, which I invoke in a rebuttal to Lars Iyer’s essay “Nude in Your Hot Tub, Facing the Abyss (A Literary Manifesto After the End of Literature and Manifestos),” published by The White Review. I first heard Luckacs’ theory as popularized by the Spanish novelist Enrique Vila-Matas in an hour-long interview he gave. He’s an author I wish I could have worked into this book somewhere.
Finnegans Wake by James Joyce. I cite it as an example of a modern novel that comes close to embodying the pre-modern way of construing the universe, represented in great narratives that preceded the novel, for instance, Homer’s the Iliad.
The Western Canon by Harold Bloom. Brought in as part of this discussion. I make that argument that Bloom, in labeling our age “The Chaotic Age,” implicitly recognizes that fragmentation is an essential part of our literature, and hence, the most modern form of literature, the novel. Whatever you think of Bloom as a human being, his criticism is a revelation.
In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust. Quoted in a quote from Bloom’s Western Canon.
Dante’s Commedia and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Quoted from an essay by Gabriel Josipovici about Life A User’s Manual, originally published before that book was available in English and arguing that it forms a bridge between the classic and modern narrative. Josipovici is another essential critic, even if in a review of Life he dings Bellos’s “translation” at points when Perec is actually plagiarizing Joyce.
The Decameron by Boccaccio. A book, like the Commedia and the Canterbury Tales, that I see as both being encyclopedia in nature and anticipating the modern novel, and toward which Life A User’s Manual throws back. I read this book about being away from all soceity on the shores of a magnificent, largely unpopulated lake in Guatemala, a perfect setting.
2666 and The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano. The first I cite as a maga-novel without ambitions toward the encyclopedic; the second, which I regard as Bolano’s best work, I argue as having a much greater claim toward being a “total[izing] novel.”
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. Another meganovel, which, like 2666, I regard as not having ambitions toward the encyclopedia. The Kindle edition of this book costs $3.99. Strange times.
Many Subtle Channels by Daniel Levin Becker. Published in 2012, a book by the second American Oulipian, which, to quote the subtitle, is “in praise of potential literature.” From Levin Becker’s book I cite a description of Oulipian Jacques Jouet’s metro poems, which I claim “sound like the least pleasurable kind of automatic writing.” When was the last time an Oulipian book was originally written in English? And when does the French-language edition publish?
Upstaged by Jacques Jouet. A book that I discuss as an example of the kind of entertaining but ultimately disposable literature that represents a by-the-numbers kind of Oulipo that does not honor the ambitions of its experimental founders.
My Beautiful Bus by Jacques Jouet. A book that, to say the least, I do not have a favorable opinion of.
Notes on Conceptualisms by Vanessa Place and Robert Fitterman. From which I draw a description of conceptual art that I think the Oulipo should aspire toward. I counterpoint this to the books of Jouet’s that have been translated, which I do not find to be interesting as conceptual art. I discovered this book at the Ugly Duckling Presse booth at the AWP Conference, a valid argument for attending AWP.
Ghosts and An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter by Cesar Aira. I discuss him as an author that is clearly influenced by the Oulipo, but who would never be suitable as an actual member of the group. I regard these two books, ans others of his, as successful conceptual art, as well as of demonstrations of the interesting potentials authors might explore with the fragmentary novel these days, as opposed to attempting to write an encyclopedic novel. The first Aira I read was Como me hice monja in Spanish. Despite my shaky grasp of the language, I was riveted by that novel’s opening anecdote. Now that’s good writing.
The Great Fire of London and Mathematics by Jacques Roubaud. Cited as part of a discussion of Roubaud’s “great fire of London” project—often shorthanded as an Oulipian In Search of Lost Time. I regard these as a highly interesting, absolutely worthwhile combination of Aira’s fragmentary novels and Perec’s encyclopedia Life A User’s Manual. I also cite Roubaud as evidence that the group is still doing interesting work. These books look imposing and somewhat scary, but once you begin reading them you wonder how you lived without them.
The Winter Journey by ?????. A book invented by Perec, discussed in his short story “The Winter Journey,” the most Borgesian text ever written by an Oulipo author, as far as I’m aware. In the story this is the book from which the great modernist French poets plagiarized their best work. Collected in Species of Spaces. When I first read this story I sat dumbfounded in my kitchen and knew I was going to write about it some day.
Ulysses by James Joyce, “Endgame” by Samuel Beckett, and The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud. Three “supremely different” major 20th-century works that Harold Blooms claims Shakespeare to have inspired. If the Bard has left this much room for creativity in Western literature, then we need not fear that the novel is at an end, and we must look forward to all the room left in the Oulipo for staggering works.
The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason. Cited as an example of a book that “makes new forms from Homer.”
Remainder by Tom McCarthy. Discussed for its affinities with Perec’s work, particularly Life A User’s Manual. This is the first of three authors I discuss in depth as being non-Oulipo Oulipian authors; i.e. bearers of the movement’s torch despite the fact that they will probably never be part of the movement. Although I find McCarthy’s work very interesting, I think Remainder is a flawed novel, and I do not think C quite comes off, despite some strong parts.
Autoportrait and Suicide by Edouard Leve. Leve is the second of the three authors I discuss. Sadly, he took his life in 2008, leaving just four work of literature (2 translated into English, 2 slated to be translated). Judging by these books, he surely would have made some astonishing works. We are all the poorer.
Je me souviens by George Perec. As yet untranslated, I compare it to Joe Brainard’s I Remember and Leve’s Autoportrait. We could have a whole genre of writing that is nothing but memories, flatly delivered, embellished.
Crystallography and Eunoia by Christian Bök. The third of the three authors I discuss. I find his Xenotext Experiment particularly interesting as an example of writing under constraint. In it he gets a microbe writes poetry. In an interview, I read that Bök (whose name is pronounced “book”) occasionally has people ask him if he is the Christian Bök. To which he claims he replies, “No, that’s the Bible.” The interview is a number of years old. I wonder if he still does that.
The Conversions by Harry Mathews. Mathews’ first novel, surely one of the strangest debut novels ever. I compare it to Perec’s 53 Days and then go on to interpret the lengthy image with which The Conversions ends, which I regard as a sort of metaphor for the innovative author’s struggle. This is how I conclude my half of The End of Oulipo?, giving way to Lauren Elkin’s “Oulipo Lite.” Reading Mathews was a revelation to me; that books like that might still exist for me, unread, is an inspiring thing.
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