Harry Mathews is the sole American member of the French avant-garde literary society Oulipo (Ouvroir de LittÚrature Potentielle, or "workshop for potential literature"), a group that has included such beguiling and inventive figures as Raymond Roussel, Raymond Queneau, Georges Perec, and Italo Calvino. How cool is that?
TrŔs cool, I'm sure you'll agreeˇand we'll get back to the Oulipo connection in a moment. But first this reviewer must confess that the experience of reading Mathews's The Human Country: New and Collected Stories (Dalkey Archive Press, $14.50) and reacquainting himself with the novels so thoughtfully brought back into print by the Dalkey Archive Press inspired a mood of melancholy nostalgia for a period in American fiction when the big aesthetic questions of form and meaning were up for grabs and being worked on and out by a dazzling array of talents. I speak, of course, of the late '60s and early '70s. The international giants of postwar fictional innovation, Jorge Luis Borges and Vladimir Nabokov, still walked the earth, and each new novel or story collection from the likes of Robert Coover, Ronald Sukenick, William Gass, Donald Barthelme, William Gaddis, Walter Abish, Stanley Elkin, John Hawkes, John Barth, Gilbert Sorrentino, and Mathews himself could make your head spin in the most pleasurable fashion with their subversions of the ordinary reading experience, narrative conventions, and the very nature of language and communication. While in some cases the impulse to reinvent fiction ran ahead of its justification, the pace and scale of invention was nevertheless genuinely impressiveˇand exciting to experience as a young reader.
Fiction had reached a stage of fecund self-consciousness that the visual arts had entered a decade earlier, when the work of art became an investigation of, and in some cases entirely about, its materials and its aesthetic presuppositions. Furthermore, because fiction was conventionally understood to offer a realistic window on a solid, comprehensible world, this assault on its unthinking assumptions was felt to have an antibourgeois and political dimension. But a literary culture can stay in a state of aesthetic high alert for only so long, and 'round about the time of Raymond Carver's second story collection, the energies of first-stage postmodernism (let's call it) began both to sag and to be absorbed into the academy. Charles Newman offers a rather mordant critique of the pretensions of this movement in his Laschian 1985 study, The Post-Modern Aura, calling it "an ahistorical rebellion without heroes against a blindly innovative information society"ˇan early intuition that postmodernism's pervasive irony would in fact be attractive to a wised-up mass-market culture. But it was a hell of a lot of serious fun while it lasted, especially when viewed from a time when cultural-studies majors end up deploying their deconstructionist and high/low strategies for hip ad agencies. The work of Harry Mathews floats free of such folderol in a blessed realm of aesthetic self-sufficiency.
Of all the first-stage American literary postmodernists, Mathews is at once the most exotic and the most cosmopolitanˇthe happy result of his having been based in Paris since the early '50s after studying music at Harvard (excellent training for a future literary abstractionist, traces of which grace his fiction). Originally a poet, Mathews was having trouble making a desired transition into prose fiction until his friend John Ashbery introduced him to the work of Raymond Roussel, who in Mathews's words "showed me that you can generate prose works with the same kind of arbitrariness that you use in verse." It was a lesson well learned.
Mathews was an Oulipian avant la lettre, having formally joined the group only in 1973, after publishing his first three novels, and then mostly for reasons of friendship with Georges Perec. But he had already thoroughly absorbed the group's method of jettisoning the conventional furniture of realistic fiction in favor of setting artificial conditions, often linguistic and mathematical in nature, that the prose work had to satisfy. Mathews has said that the adoption of constrictive forms is paradoxically liberating, in the same way that fulfilling the formal requirements of a sonnet or sestina in poetry or a fugue in music can be. The results certainly show itˇthere may be no more salutary example of homo ludens in American literature. Eschewing for the most part the crutch of conventional fiction's trompe l'oeil effects, Mathews must fall back all the more on the aspects of style, inventiveness, parodic facility, linguistic resourcefulness, expert timing, and an astonishing range and depth of cultural reference. Doing so he evinces the sort of suave, unflappable attitude that comes in handy when you are strolling along a high wire without a net. This confidence may be ascribed to his deep roots in the French avant-garde; he shares the attributes singled out by Roger Shattuck in The Banquet Years, a study of the French avant-garde's inventors in the fin de siŔcle, particularly the steady pushing of humor toward the absurd and the monstrous (see Erik Satie and Alfred Jarry) and the ambiguity of all attempts to communicate meaning (see Apollinaire). It is Satie, author of such compositions as True Flabby Preludes for a Dog and Bureaucratic Sonatas, whose deadpan drollery seems most consonant with Mathews'sˇMathews writes the way Satie sounds.
Mathews is also somehow French in his variousness; his work cannot be reduced to a formula or a subject. It includes, for example, a collection of unblinking and surprisingly tender fictional vignettes about masturbation, Singular Pleasures (1988); 20 Lines a Day (1988), a journal of entries of at least that length, per a dictum of Stendhal's; and the quite moving La Ronde˝like novel of love and adultery among privileged Americans, Cigarettes (1987), which reads like an Oulipian variation on a theme by Jane Austen. But if he can be said to have a preoccupation, it is the indefatigable need of human beings to discover a pattern in and impose a meaning on the phenomenal worldˇand the absurd lengths they'll go to do so. His first novel, The Conversions (1962), announces this concern immediately. The inheritor of a mysterious adze (won in a worm race!) is set on a lunatic quest to answer three gnomic riddles relating to the artifact, questions so vague that almost any piece of evidence, however arcane and obscure, can be considered relevant. The narrator's mad ingenuity is of a piece with Charles Kinbote's cracked exegeses of John Shade's poem in Pale Fire. My personal favorite of Mathews's novels, Tlooth (1966), uses the pretext of a vendetta as the occasion for a similar odyssey and string of inspired digressions, as a violinist interned in a Russian prison camp for odd Christian sectarians seeks revenge against a surgeon who mistakenly amputated her ring and index fingers. Tlooth contains my single favorite Mathews conceit, a philosopher-dentist, King Dri, who by "addressing [teeth] as sensible beings in need of consolation and reassurance" persuades them to heal themselves. A talking cure for diseased molars! It also offers a paradigmatic Mathews moment, in which the most strenuous interpretive efforts, expended on a riddle discovered in a library, turn out to have been wasted on a simple exercise in German grammar mistakenly left in a book. The world according to Harry Mathews is an immense booby trap set to snare those convinced that it possesses a pattern or a messageˇa theme he shares, of course, with Gaddis and Pynchon.