I’m very much in favor of honest, critical reviews to help stem the tide of boosterism that one sees on so many “literary” websites these days. But when one encounters a negative review this off-base, one wishes for the facile simplicity of boosterism. At least it causes less harm.
Brian Kim Stefans’ review of Daniel Levin Becker’s Many Subtle Channels, his memoir-cum-study of the Oulipo, confounds and mystifies for a number of reasons. I’ll only go into a few of them here.
This feel-good tone is a little surprising considering how esoteric and even — when it comes to that bête noire, chance — mystical the interests of the Oulipo are. Many of the early twentieth-century avant-garde writers who originally inspired the Oulipo’s experiments — Lautréamont, Alfred Jarry and Raymond Roussel in particular — were singular iconoclasts, not quirky humanists. In Becker’s book, the wild speculation that comes out often in encomiums to the French avant-garde by Americans — such as Henry Miller on Arthur Rimbaud in The Time of the Assassins or Susan Sontag on the Marquis de Sade, whose works she called “the Wagnerian music dramas of pornographic literature” — is entirely absent. In its place is something much milder, as if all of these committed derangers of the senses and their living progeny were merely a collection of bizarre but lovable uncles. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course — Becker seems intent on making his favorite French avant-garde tradition more popular and accessible, a noble enough aim — but it does seem to neutralize the exciting, life-changing (dare we say, with Andre Breton, “convulsive”?) beauty he wants to claim for the Oulipo’s work.
The problem might be that the book’s tone is entirely, even extremely, informal — showing none of the beautiful rigor of the work it describes; it’s like a guide to the architecture of Venice written by a diehard burner. Perhaps reflecting the concern inherent in the McSweeney’s camp to seem too highbrow or, worse, ironic, Becker is always at pains to make it sound like he is talking to you, that he’s just telling you a story. He writes of first discovering Perec’s A Void, the novel without the letter e: “That is, I thought to myself without hyperbole, one of the five coolest things I have ever heard” — an enthusiastic and honest response, but one which makes a truly singular work of art sound like a recommended link on MetaFilter or BoingBoing.
Okay, there is nothing wrong with registering your wish that an author had written a slightly different book than the book that he did write, but say it and move on with your life. Don’t harp on it throughout the review and attempt to review the book by the standard of the book you would have attempted to write. Not to mention, I don’t see how Levin Becker’s response to A Void denigrates that book. Are we to only talk of art and literature in hallowed tones? (And if so, why does Stefans violate his own injunction many times in his review?) Nor do I see (in this cherry-picking review) any mention of the deep, rigorous insight Levin Becker provides on many Oulipo works.
Then in the very next paragraph:
Another problem is chronological: through no fault of his own, Becker has missed the Oulipo’s glory days, when bona fide geniuses like Perec, Calvino, and Queneau were all alive and working. There are a lot of descriptions of the rather dilapidated nature of the present-day group — now “a sort of literary supper club” at which, Becker notes, attendance is a “crapshoot” — and sometimes you become aware of Becker’s own lack of a compass when trying to weigh the value of the warts-and-all present to the immortals of the past.
Again: review the book you are reading, not the book you wish you were reading. Many Subtle Channels purposely focuses on the present-day Oulipo because it is a book about Levin Becker’s personal experience with the group. It’s not meant to be about the legends of Oulipo, and wisely so, since there is quite a bit of writing on Perec et al. at this point. To complain that Levin Becker has “missed the Oulipo’s glory days” is to entirely ignore what the book is attempting to accomplish.
And then there’s this:
There are many things to recommend this book — it’s well-researched, readable, even beach-worthy if you’re summering on the shores of Amherst halfway through your creative writing MFA. Becker does get in some good digs, such as when he notes in a rather cute footnote: “It may have escaped your attention that the frequently open-shirted French public intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy courted quite a lot of ridicule in 2010 when he earnestly cited Botul’s writings in an essay on Kant” — Jean-Baptiste Botul being an entirely fictional “Kantian aphorist” created by a group related to the Oulipo, the Collège de ‘Pataphysique. Perhaps David Foster Wallace, master of the cute footnote, is to blame for the sprawling, generous, rambling, encompassing, sincere, entertaining, journalistic nature of this book — none of which are qualities that I associate with Oulipian writing at all.
Way to turn a compliment into an insult! What does David Foster Wallace have to do with any of this, any why is this book to be critiqued because it does not sound like Stefans’ impression of an Oulipo book? That entire last sentence makes no sense. And please: Oulipo writing isn’t “sprawling, generous, rambling, encompassing, sincere, entertaining, journalistic”? Uh, really? It’s pretty easy to provide examples of all of those, even the “journalistic” one.
I really don’t know why the LA Review published this review. Reading Stefans’ introductory paragraphs, it’s pretty clear that he either misunderstands the Oulipo or has an ax to grind against it, two things that would call this review in for greater editorial scrutiny that this review appears not to have received. I’m all for honest critiques of books, but this review serves no purpose: its critique is so far off the mark that it can say nothing substantive about the book.
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