It is the vocabulary one expects from a French intellectual in the first years of the Fifth Republic: oblivion, the abyss, la mort. There's a quest for authenticity, with the writer claiming "sincerity" as his ultimate aim. The war years loom large, even as the nation settles into an era of prosperity. But instead of the heroic existentialist writer holding the line against nothingness, we encounter a beguiling magician, a brilliant prankster preoccupied with word games and puzzles, a master illusionist with an introspective bent: Georges Perec, that inimitable amalgam of Kafka and the daily crossword, whose sensibility spans opposing poles of profundity and artifice. Among the ghosts of twentieth-century novelists that still haunt us, his takes its place as the group's ingenious poltergeist, albeit one with a rather melancholy aura. The unruly shrub of hair, the sly grin, the tender, somewhat sad gaze: Perec figures as the impish wordsmith confronting a fathomless void, as if Sartre had cloaked himself in the guise of Pierrot.

Seriousness and play are usually roped off in separate realms; their fusion throughout Perec's writings is a provocation to the way we think about literature. To cite just one example: In 1966 Perec published an entertaining, farcical novella called Which Moped with Chrome-plated Handlebars at the Back of the Yard? It's an engaging yarn about a hapless soldier who, desperate to avoid fighting in Algeria, resorts to injuring himself (or trying to, with the bumbling help of his friends). You won't find it listed in a recent comprehensive bibliography about books on the Algerian conflict, comprising some 2,130 titles. Perhaps its exclusion was an oversight. More likely, it did not seem significant enough for inclusion, because history has little tolerance for playful spirits. We might ask, Does literature? Play seems a self-contained realm, and, like the pleasure it imparts, provides its own justification for being. But, as with pleasure, in thinking about play one is quickly surrounded by a haze of suspicion, a cloud of deprecating connotations—frivolity, caprice, irrelevance. Perec makes such associations appear spurious. Like Joyce and Raymond Queneau, he obliterates the firewall insulating seriousness from the disruptions and delirium that ensue when language is exploited for its own sake. It's a radical program, though it is launched in a conservative spirit, as an attempt merely to set literature back a few centuries and restore the equilibrium of delight and substantiality of purpose that one finds in Rabelais or Sterne.

The reissue this fall of Perec's A Void, English novelist Gilbert Adair's translation of La Disparition, follows recent reprints of three Perec titles in Godine's Verba Mundi series and is evidence of a minirevival, or at least a sign of Perec's staying power in America. This is not as mean an achievement as it may sound: French fiction of the '60s and '70s is rarely even available in English translation and has made almost no impact on American writers (even Claude Simon's winning the Nobel Prize did not deliver him from obscurity). In one sense, Perec has fared as well as anyone in his cohort of French novelists. In the decade or so following his premature death in 1982, the flurry of interest that marked his introduction to English-speaking readers—largely due to the massive labors of David Bellos, whose translation of Life, A User's Manual and indispensable biography Georges Perec:
A Life in Words
were published in 1987 and 1993, respectively—testified to Perec's lure as craftsman, imaginative showman, as a kind of poet of the quotidian, and, in light of the Holocaust background informing his work (his mother died at Auschwitz), as a tragic eccentric. But in terms of his influence, Perec has been all but invisible in America. This contrasts sharply with his stature in France, where his fiction has been gathered in a collected edition, he is regularly the subject of symposia and monographs, and writers such as Jacques Jouet owe a clear debt to him. Here, beyond the work of his friend Harry Mathews and a few Francophile poets such as John Ashbery, substantive interest in Perec, which is to say real engagement with the terms of his achievement, goes lacking. A certain American insularity, even among our writers and literary intellectuals, may be responsible for Perec's remaining little more than a curiosity (and it must be said that if it weren't for British interest, we wouldn't have Perec in English translation in the first place). But there is also something about Perec's brand of postmodernism that seems inimical to many American writers' attitudes toward their craft. The encyclopedic expansiveness of Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, William Vollmann, et al. has never been harnessed to an especially exacting formal rigor, and the impulse of meticulous description so fundamental to a writer like Perec may seem, to native sensibilities, overly fussy, even effete. Put another, metaphorical way, American writers tend toward an expressive register commensurate with the open spaces and endless distances of our continent; Perec's magnitude is no less great, but his vastness is essentially urban, highly structured, and by necessity constrained, entailing complex negotiations and yielding delight in serendipity, surprise, and incongruity.

Careering across different registers of tone and signification, Perec's games and verbal gambits set the mind reeling, evoking a dazed consciousness rather like that experienced by the unfortunate Anton Vowl at the outset of A Void, when he finds "his head in a whirl," as if drunk. Consider, for example, the elegant phrase Je cherche en même temps l'éternel et l'éphémère ("I seek at once the eternal and the ephemeral"). This sentence, which could serve as Perec's motto, is included as the epigraph for the final chapter of the monumental Life, A User's Manual. It exhibits a lapidary classicism well suited to the chapter that follows, which describes the death of Percival Bartlebooth, an eccentric millionaire whose life has been entirely given over to the completion of jigsaw puzzles cut from watercolors he painted years before. But notice that the chapter's epigraph contains just one vowel, an e. Readers who know something about Perec's career will recall that he wrote A Void without a single e, and followed it up with a raucous novella, Les Revenentes (the English translation, The Exeter Text: Jewels, Secrets, Sex, is included in the collection Three by Perec), in which e was the only vowel he permitted himself to use. And indeed the chapter's epigraph is quoted from Les Revenentes, plucked from a wildly discordant context, a lengthy and preposterous account of an orgy that is surely the strangest pornographic tale ever written. The citation serves as a subterranean link between the two works, but it's an open question what Perec intends with the reference. Is it meant to show a hidden affinity between the staid Bartlebooth's single-minded obsession with puzzles and the sexual hijinks of Les Revenentes? Or is the epigraph meant ironically, emphasizing the absolute gulf between the ecstasy of the revelers in Les Revenentes and the death about to be described? Is it merely a sly wink, a joke for Perec and a circle of knowing insiders to enjoy? Or does Perec, who liked to copy passages from existing texts the way artists employ found objects, breathe new life into his previously spent utterance by simply regarding it as a string of words with many potential uses, making irrelevant its earlier context?

The answer to this characteristic Perecquian conundrum, if one is possible, is probably "all of the above." But for this riddle, unlike the notoriously challenging crosswords he created for the weekly magazine Le Point, whose clues yielded solutions for those diligent and clever enough to work them out, no definitive clarification really exists. This is not surprising. As distinct from the actual puzzles and games scattered throughout Perec's writings (which have solutions), the pervasive metaphor of the puzzle, his central trope, is founded on the recognition that resolution or closure will always be denied. Experience resembles a puzzle, but without the security and promise of a final answer. Instead of the tacit understanding that the puzzle can be solved, there stretches a minefield of potential deceit, an abyss of hoaxes and trails going cold. The preamble to Life, A User's Manual spells out this arena of deception: "The art of jigsaw puzzling begins with wooden puzzles cut by hand, whose maker undertakes to ask himself all the questions the player will have to solve, and, instead of allowing chance to cover his tracks, aims to replace it with cunning, trickery, and subterfuge. . . . The organised, coherent, structured signifying space of the picture is cut up not only into inert, formless elements carrying little information or signifying power, but also into falsified elements, containing false information." This warning explains why the "ironical thing" at the end of the novel, the revelation that Bartlebooth, duped by the puzzle cutter Gaspard Winckler, has been sent a puzzle impossible to complete, "could have been foreseen long ago."

Je cherche en même temps l'éternel et l'éphémère: The puzzle, the modest diversion of an idle hour, serves as an existential paradigm, a figure of abandonment, of a shattered covenant not unlike the broken compact of A Void, in which the Creator has withdrawn his e and left the novel's characters on a bewildering comic quest for the source of their afflictions. Regarding Perec's unfinished novel "53 Days", Jacques Roubaud remarks, "Life appears as a puzzle endlessly destroying its own solutions." Yet a potentially ponderous outlook never hardened into a gloomy philosophy, for the simple reason that Perec had no interest in speaking as a philosopher. Nihilistic and even merely pessimistic tendencies in his thinking are swept up in the work of being a writer. It is a transfiguring process: La Disparition, for example, is an exhilarating book, written, by Perec's own account, in bursts of jubilation. "There's only one important thing in life," he advised his goddaughter Sylvia in 1969, "and that's energy": For Perec, writing operates as a sort of metabolism, as perception and memory are transformed into words only to be superseded by whatever next captures his restless attention. He was fascinated with works that were self-consuming artifacts: Bartlebooth's puzzles are designed to be destroyed, and "53 Days" was structured so that everything that happened in its first part would be undone in the second. In this sense writing is always a mode of performance, a way of being in time.

What is most seductive about Perec is not his virtuosity but the liveliness that makes such mastery possible. The vitality that crackles through Life, A User's Manual and the essays collected in Species of Spaces and Other Pieces is rooted in attentiveness, not only to language but to mundane phenomena, the everyday minutiae that, when filtered through Perec's sensibility, seem more significant than we've previously come to regard them. His entire corpus can be described as a process of absorption, a means of assimilating his life's totality, from physiological trivia—one of his essays purportedly records everything he ate and drank in 1974—to an ineffable sense of void. This interplay between the meticulous evocation of particular things and intimations of loss and absence makes reading his memoir, W, or The Memory of Childhood (1975), such a wrenching experience despite—or perhaps because of—its evasions, gaps, and inaccuracies. The impulse to incorporate everything extended to his reading and accounts for the primacy of collage among his techniques. "For me, collage is like a grid, a promise and a condition of discovery. . . . It is the will to place oneself in a lineage that takes all of past writing into account. In that way, you bring your personal library to life, you reactivate your literary reserves."

The words of writers who meant the most to Perec are appropriated and brought directly into his books, sometimes by simple transcription but more often through an alchemy of adaptation that is also a mode of homage. In A Void, passages from Adolfo Bioy Casares's Invention of Morel and Melville's Moby-Dick are rewritten, without, of course, the letter e; one of the numerous rules governing Life, A User's Manual dictates that each chapter include two unacknowledged quotations. The collage novel A Man Asleep (1967) is a seamless fabric of fragments lifted without attribution from Kafka and Joyce, among others, that he distorted and made so inconspicuous that most of the book's readers have been unaware of them. Putting plagiarism in the service of a dazzling originality, Perec simply refused to respect the usual conventions separating his own writing and that of others. And, in a related vein, there is his eagerness for enumeration, which he regarded as a lost art. He loved to compile lists, and in doing so he seems less a shaping artist than a simple conduit for being, occupying a peculiar middle ground between authorship and pure receptivity, in which the relation between world and writer is akin to that between text and copyist.

Writing, if not quite identical to being, was as fundamental as breathing for Perec. He rejected what seemed to him false boundaries erected between life and literature. As he wrote in an early essay, "Literature is not an activity separated from life. . . . Literature is indissolubly bound up with life, it is the necessary prolongation, the obvious culmination, the indispensable complement of experience." One responds initially with skepticism to these rather rhetorical invocations of the grand abstractions "life" and "experience," particularly as written by a young man who in 1962 was still making his way in literature, having completed such apprentice-level work as the unpublished novel Gaspard pas mort (renamed Le Condottiere). But even in these remarks, made years before he joined that remarkable conclave of writers known as Oulipo and embraced their playful notions of writing as praxis, Perec identifies literature first and foremost as an activity, hinting at his later sense of writing as the mode d'emploi giving voice and shape to la vie.

He was well on his way to becoming an Oulipian writer before being invited to join the organization in 1967, when it was still a select and semisecret group. The year before, he and his friend Marcel Bénabou, another future Oulipian, had embarked on a series of experiments in the "automatic production of French literature," which transformed well-known quotations by substituting their constituent words with definitions from the Larousse, demonstrating how, as Bénabou described the process, "word-meanings, as given by dictionaries, are such uncertain things as to allow any utterance to be translated into any other." The collaboration manufactured chains of metamorphoses that produced an absurdist equivalence of disparate statements: "Workers of the world, unite!" was shown to be a "translation" of Mallarmé's "The presbytery has lost none of its charm nor the garden its splendor." Which Moped with Chrome-plated Handlebars at the Back of the Yard? romps through traditional figures of rhetoric, more than 130 of which are given in an index—though, in keeping with the mischievous tenor of the book, the index simply stops in the middle of the letter p with an abrupt "etc, etc, etc.," terms are cross-referenced to others that aren't listed, and certain figures are included only to prompt a "!" or "There aren't any" from the sly indexer. (It's worth noting that by the time he wrote Which Moped, Perec had for several years been installed at the day job that supported him for most of his career: He worked as a modestly paid archivist for a state-funded neuroscience research lab.)

Hinting at the acrobatics to come in works like A Void, the pirouettes of Which Moped, his second published book, were a departure from the resonant sentences of his debut novel, Things: A Story of the Sixties, with its sober cadences and nearly glacial detachment on Perec's part. Things is a fascinating study in Perecquian prehistory, a "straight" novel without the ludic cadenzas or formal hurdle-jumping that would become his trademark. It provides no inkling that he would become anything but an earnest writer. Often it reads more like an extended essay than a work of fiction. Looking back at it with the author's later writings in mind, it may seem impoverished in its unabated seriousness, but it remains a remarkable achievement, one of the most astute books of its era and, despite its iciness, an affecting account of youthful aimlessness. As the subtitle indicates, it was meant to be a work of and about its time, but it's not as if the situation it describes—the way consumer goods, fads, and a knowing sort of hipsterism absorb the energies of the young and encourage, so to speak, a mode of being that lacks depth and understanding—has become outmoded.

Among the various topical concerns voiced in Things is an anticolonialism rooted in Perec's schoolboy friendships with several Moroccan students and a year spent in Sfax, Tunisia, the basis for the second part of the book. Outraged by the debacle in Algeria, Perec devoted a chapter of Things to exploring the stance toward the conflict taken by his protagonists Jérôme and Sylvie, who stand in for much of their generation. Their wistful admiration for the French Resistance and Republican antifascists in the Spanish Civil War is cast as myopic and "slightly hypocritical" in light of a war that at first "hardly affected them; they took action on occasions, but they rarely felt obliged to do so." That the young couple assumes a "virtually automatic allegiance to moral imperatives of a very broad and unspecific kind" is a measure of their superficiality; as the conflict lurches on toward its grim denouement, they experience the tumult tearing France apart primarily as a horrific distraction from private anxieties:

The events of 1961 and 1962—from the Algiers generals' putsch to the massacre at Charonne metro station—which heralded the end of the war enabled them, temporarily but with uncommon effectiveness, to forget, or rather, to suspend their habitual concerns. Their gloomiest forecasts, their fear of never making it, of ending up in some obscure and narrow rut, looked a good deal less dreadful, on some days, than what was happening before their eyes, than what threatened them day by day.

* * *

Jérôme and Sylvie and their friends are not always unsympathetic characters. Based largely on Perec's own circle, they are never the caricatures of satire, and Things is often a scarcely fictionalized portrait of his youthful circle, many of whom were quick to identify themselves in its pages. But the book's dissection of the insubstantial personalities of Jérôme and Sylvie, its laying bare of their obsession with possessions and other trivia, would be tedious if not for Perec's ability to give amplitude to their situation through what he evokes but does not quite say. Here, as throughout his work, Perec's art is predicated on obliquity. In the chapter on the Algerian war, years of crisis are manifested as impressions filtered through Jérôme and Sylvie's limited consciousness, and yet the sweep of history nonetheless asserts itself, moving like a hidden epic figured only in evanescent shards: images of gleaming police helmets and housewives hoarding foodstuffs, paranoid fears of being trailed by the authorities late at night, an uneasy feeling of bewilderment at a rain-soaked demonstration near the Hôtel de Ville. And though the couple's perceptions, tastes, and fixation on possessions are almost always presented without differentiating between Jérôme and Sylvie, their erotic lives seem haunted by something looming yet unarticulated. In a book about youthful desire—for goods, for a way of carrying oneself among friends, for future security—intimacy is almost completely displaced. There is exactly one reference in Things to sex, jarring in its abruptness, in the midst of a visionary passage that evokes a fantasy of plenitude and boundless contentment: "They would drift from marvel to marvel, from surprise to surprise. All they had to do was to live, to be there, for the world to offer itself to them whole. . . . They knew countless joys. . . . From an outcrop they saw hillocks covered in the flowers of the field. They walked through unsignposted forests. They made love in rooms thick with shade, thickly carpeted, on deep settees." The dream of fulfillment raises the specter of its opposite, a frustration that can only be alluded to indirectly. It's as if buried within Things is a psychological novel that was impossible for Perec to write.

Things was hailed for its insights into a contemporary malaise, and after winning one of the few significant literary awards in France, the Renaudot prize, Perec was catapulted for a short time into literary celebrity. It was not a role that suited him, as enviable as his sudden stardom might seem for a young man whose first novel's success exceeded everyone's expectations, above all his own. He chafed at the pigeonholing Things received from those who would flatten out its nuances: "People who imagine I have denounced consumer society have not understood a thing about my book," he protested, even as translations of the purported anticapitalist tract were rushed out all over the Soviet bloc. He judged that the pervasive desire to portray Things as a novel encoding a particular ideology was a travesty of serious thinking. Even if he was hardly to blame for the misreadings that irritated
him, he would never again write a book susceptible to reductive interpretations. Not that he had many readers: After the buzz surrounding Things died down, Perec sank into obscurity until he won his second major prize, the Médicis, for Life, A User's Manual, in 1978.

To be a man of letters, in fact, was largely incompatible with Perec's sense of his vocation. He engaged in little of the public posturing that usually accompanies an author's career, particularly in France. After an abortive attempt in his twenties to found with his friends a magazine that was to be called La Ligne générale, he lost all interest in becoming a literary personage, at least one in the mold of writers like Sartre or Robbe-Grillet, the latter of whom he dismissed as early as 1958 as "a technician who confuses creation and laboratory work." His capacious knowledge of painting, film, and books—not just literature but detective novels and adventure stories, "the sort of books that are devoured lying face down on your bed"—did not bring forth a substantial body of criticism as an adjunct to his fiction, plays, essays, and assorted jeux. As his career went on, he largely eschewed the opportunity to flesh out his judgments about other writers, even in conversation, and instead divided the cultural landscape into stark opposing zones of preferences and dislikes. He simply asserted his tastes, without qualification. Politics, too, receded after the waning of his early Marxism, though he remained somewhat vaguely a man of the Left.

It's not, of course, that he couldn't hold his own arguing about politics or culture: Perec's curiosity extended to the most mundane phenomena, and in Things the dispassionate sociopolitical observations put forth in the guise of a generational portrait are quite subtle. Rather, the distance he kept from such debates embodied a desire to focus on his writing to the exclusion of all else. He approached his craft with a fixity reminiscent of Melville's Bartleby (Bartleby le scribe in French), whose story Perec wished he had written and whose name, fused with that of Valéry Larbaud's Barnabooth, graces the central figure of Life, A User's Manual. Self-effacing yet wholly inflexible, expressing through his modesty a kind of inverted megalomania, Melville's doomed clerk was defined by paradoxes that resonated with Perec. Didn't he, the humble archivist, share affinities with the gaunt, melancholy scrivener? But whereas Bartleby's sole aspiration was to draw out his imperturbable spirit of refusal to its inevitable conclusion, Perec had never abandoned his ambition to write something on the order of his other Melvillean touchstone, Moby-Dick.

A mere scribe, Bartleby is an unlikely figure for an imaginative writer to identify with, but Perec had for a long time doubted his powers of invention and had even believed, early on, that he had no imagination. Given the riotous creativity of the works he'd go on to write, such anxiety beggars belief, but the dread of an inner chasm was at the core of Perec's image of himself. In the opening pages of W, or the Memory of Childhood, he actually claims that he had no childhood memories, a statement belied by the excavation of his past that follows—even if those memories turn out so often to be slippery, faulty, embellished
in the recalling, or indistinguishable from fantasy or fabrication. Feeling that he was denied access to realms of imaginative profusion and the recollection of his most intimate past, he thought himself bereft of what was simply given to other writers. His introduction to Oulipo, followed by the group's swift acceptance of him, was thus a propitious stroke of luck (though a meeting would probably have happened eventually, since he was friends with the brother-in-law of one of the group's members, Jacques Roubaud). The Oulipian ethos, which rejected the romantic cult of art in favor of a working regimen oriented toward craft and play, was liberating because it allowed Perec to cast aside, at least temporarily, the potentially stifling onus of imagination and self-reflection so that he might channel his considerable energies toward the solving of discrete formal problems. In more extreme manifestations, his attraction to elaborate structures and self-imposed constraints would seem to all but annihilate the possibility of subjective expression. What could the creator of the longest palindrome ever written ("The Great Palindrome") possibly want to say—other than an exultant "I did it!"—in such an exercise? Such gamesmanship appears to deny the writer's role as a meaningful authority about the world. Abdicating the post of self-appointed privileged observer, the writer adopts instead the persona of verbal wizard, orchestrating words into previously undreamed-of patterns and permutations, delighting in the quasi-mathematical elegance resulting from the solution to a linguistic problem or gleefully indulging the implications of skewing existing conventions or texts.

But ultimately the rigor demanded by Oulipo did not serve as a pretext for an escape from the self. Quite the opposite. Perec's brand of circumspect autobiography, in which disclosure alternates with concealment, and ultimate revelations are always deferred, is dependent on constraints as essential structuring components. The formal strictures mandated, as if by the force of law, a necessary element of impersonality, of distance, without which Perec plainly would not have been able to write as much or as well as he did. To create without restrictions was to find oneself in a vast field of options that mirrored the silent void at the heart of being. The apprehension of an abyss of arbitrary possibilities led back to the self, because, as the son of immigrants who claimed his earliest memory was identifying a Hebrew letter while surrounded by his family in a room "with Yiddish newspapers scattered around me," Perec was keenly aware that he could have been an American or Israeli writer, had his family's chance fate been different: "I might have been born, like my close or distant cousins, in Haifa or Baltimore or Vancouver, but one thing alone in this almost limitless range of possibilities was forbidden to me, that of being born in the land of my ancestors, in Poland, in Lubartów, Pulawy, or Warsaw, and of growing up there in the continuity of a tradition, a language, and an affiliation." This realization led to a longing for impossible places, "stable, unmoving, intangible, untouched and almost untouchable, unchanging, deep-rooted; places that might be points of reference, of departure, of origin."

The wily literary trickster carried within him unspeakable burdens of the past, of rootlessness, bereavement, and loss. He was consumed by the essentially accidental nature of his life in France, a life that, given a different roll of the dice, might have ended at Auschwitz, as it had for his mother and other members of his family. He had avoided deportation and probable execution by the Nazis in part because of an unlikely linguistic coincidence, and thus for him wordplay was bound up with the fact of his survival as a child—the surname Peretz was rendered Perec for young Georges and thus sounded plausibly Breton, so his name did not attract suspicion when German troops came to the Alpine village where he spent the war. He felt consigned to be part of an arbitrary history whose flux was based on an ineradicable certainty, the fact of exile. What is A Void but an outrageous inversion of this dynamic of fixity and randomness? The formal conceit of the novel, its originating premise, is wholly adventitious; in creating a book-length lipogram (a text without a given letter), Perec chose to omit the letter e for the challenge of writing without the most frequently occurring vowel in French, but this rationale doesn't alter the arbitrary nature of the decision to write a lipogram in the first place. Once he accepted the task of writing under this particular constraint, he essentially banished the aleatory from the novel, in that every word in A Void has a simple and intelligible raison d'être: None contains the letter e.

A Void
is a sublimely silly whodunit, in which Perec's mastery of his constraint inspires amusement, admiration, even awe. But in successfully pulling off his lipogrammatic stunt, the author does something far more audacious than simply thwart the alphabet's natural tendencies. It's as if Perec were playing a practical joke on his own history, supplanting an unutterable grief with madcap laughter. Disparition: The word was officialese categorizing those deported to concentration camps during the war, as Perec's mother had been, and whose deaths were never confirmed; he possessed a copy of her acte de disparition, the document marking the last bureaucratic evidence of her existence. Later, he dedicated W, or The Memory of Childhood to "E.," which Perec said stood for eux, "them," his murdered mother and the father who was killed fighting the Germans as they advanced in 1940. What, exactly, is Perec up to, with these half-buried autobiographical markings in a book that, written in a surge of euphoria, seems a testament to pleasure and fun?

The answer is elusive, yet another Perecquian puzzle. A Void is not "about" the Holocaust, but it is not free from it either, and this returns us to the question of the accepted barrier between seriousness and play, and to the status of the comic writer. The Holocaust has come to represent a sort of degree zero of seriousness, its discourse governed—at least since Adorno's notorious dictum that pronounced it barbaric to write poetry after Auschwitz—by highly charged standards of decorum about what one can say and how one may say it. There's something nearly blasphemous about the traces of the Holocaust in A Void; Perec, though lured to constraints as formal devices, would not be hemmed in by a sense of appropriate utterance. At once a transgressive and an affirmative writer, he insists on the messy totality that is the comic writer's true domain. He liked to quote Kafka: "In the battle between the world and you, back the world." He hands the world back to his readers, but it is not quite the one we're accustomed to; it is ever so much wider, and an odd, mysterious, hospitable place.

James Gibbons is a frequent contributor to Bookforum.