Antics Roadshow

The Solitary Twin BY Harry Mathews. New Directions. Paperback, 160 pages. $15.

I

OF THE FEW real-life intrusions into The Solitary Twin, the final novel by Harry Mathews, the most unexpected is a cameo by a certain billionaire mayor. Apparently Michael Bloomberg has been a regular visitor to the remote town where the book takes place. Situated “at the end of the world,” New Bentwick was smartly planned by “enlightened capitalists” in the late 1800s and has run like clockwork ever since, without a single murder staining its ledgers.

In the twenty-first century, some of its civic leaders fire up an “innovation lab” to “find ways of renovating the world.” That’s where magic Mike comes in, happy to back them financially.

You’ll have my loan to start with, and as well as paying your star researchers to invent the future, you’ll start a few very small businesses that generate cash streams—I’ll give you specifics another time, things like health kiosks and dating services. Then you’ll be able to make the interest payments yourselves, and meanwhile my notorious name will make the banks feel virtuous and safe—that’s a bank’s definition of happiness. Your worries are over.

His generosity fits in with the rest of this slightly nutty utopia, which can feel like the draft of a rosy afterlife. Mathews, who died last January at eighty-six, has given us a disarmingly gentle last act in which real conflict is absent for chapters at a time. Dialogue clumps together, with lines from different speakers snuggling in the same paragraph. The stakes seem low, even nonexistent, as when a character frets over whether her friend will know how to support a partner on the dance floor: “He did, dropping to his right knee and taking her waist in his two hands to support her arabesque now penché.” Disaster averted!

Or is Mathews up to something else? A pair of newly minted lovers, Andreas and Berenice, have come to New Bentwick in search of John and Paul, identical twins who, mysteriously, have never been seen together. Publisher Andreas hopes to finagle an autobiography out of them, while Berenice, a psychologist, senses the makings of a fascinating case study. But like their musical namesakes, neither John (a fisherman) nor Paul (textile manufacturer) has any interest in a reunion.

Rebuffed by Paul, the visitors befriend a local couple, Geoffrey and Margot. They agree to each tell a story, made-up or real, over the course of several meals together. There are stories within the stories within the story, and the novel hits its delirious peak as Geoffrey recounts the improbable rags-to-riches life of a Polish émigré, whom he once sat next to on a long Pan Am flight. Orphaned by the Holocaust, Malachi thrived in Florida, thanks in part to The Medical Wars of Metro-Dade County, a soap opera he created to promote his car dealership. The episodes “generated instant, intense frustration” by ending on a fragment of a sentence—an unscratchable itch that left the viewer wanting more: “Malachi had discovered that the need to have the sentence completed, no matter how, was as strong as the resolution of psychological suspense.”

Fair warning: Just as we get a hint of Malachi’s elaborate scheme to avenge his parents’ deaths at the hands of the Nazis, Geoffrey stops the tale cold, like “a well-oiled machine breaking down.” Trying to recall Malachi’s surname, he can only scrounge up a seemingly pointless (read: deliciously Mathewsian) clue: The proportion of consonants to vowels was seven to two.

Rollie McKenna’s portrait of Harry Mathews, Key West, Florida, 1993. Rollie Mckenna © Rosalie Thorne Mckenna Foundation, courtesy Center for Creative Photography, the University Of Arizona.

At under 150 pages, The Solitary Twin is even shorter than Mathews’s previous book, My Life in CIA (2005), a memoir of 1973 that jackknifes into loopy fiction approximately every three pages. That was also a story of doubles: the flesh-and-blood author and the “Harry Mathews” who takes the outline of that life and makes hay with it. A longtime resident in France by ’73, Mathews is understood by his adopted countrymen to be an American operative. Hurt by the assumption, he decides to have some fun, acting out in peculiar, spy-like ways. Yet no matter how outlandish the ploy (e.g., founding a bogus travel company that books passage on trains with palindromic departure times), “Harry Mathews” gets taken seriously. Hostile elements have him on their radar. What began as play turns chilling: The hoax backfires, and one or both Harrys must run for dear life.

As if to perpetuate the instability, my galley copy has a scrap of paper stuck onto the last page. (I can imagine the meticulous Mathews, in a fit of esprit d’escalier, coming up with the real conclusion, only to find the advance copies had already been printed.) Recently, while I was preparing this review, the old glue gave out; there was nothing underneath. In its earlier state, this frantic autobiographical fantasia ended a paragraph earlier—not with the word “truth,” but with “solution.”

Error has a place in Mathews’s writing. Indeed, it’s something of a hallmark, there from the beginning. In the second sentence of his first novel, The Conversions, the narrator hears the host of a party saying “The cheek of our Bea!” (presumably scandalized by his niece Beatrice’s risqué crooning) instead of simply the title of the chestnut in question (“The Sheik of Araby”). To comic or tragic effect, his characters seem doomed to misinterpret—as are we. “The earlier works were misread by a great many readers because they always thought I must be doing something else than what was actually there,” he told Lynne Tillman in Bomb. “And so they kept looking past what was right in front of them.” Jaw-dropping word puzzles and bilingual puns provided the pleasure, but to a degree masked the emotional depth that was Mathews’s ultimate goal. Who were these people, consumed by their quests, and what was it they lacked inside?

Even with his caveat in mind, and saddened by the author’s passing, I’m tempted to scan the ramshackle advance copy of The Solitary Twin for additional meaning. The bio erroneously makes Mathews a Methuselah, pegging his age as 104 and misstating the publication date of his third novel by nearly twenty-five years. More significantly, it promises an introduction by John Ashbery.

I received the bound galleys last September—in the same week, as it happened, that the poet himself passed away. In that strange new space, amid the keen public mourning, I was selfishly hoping that he’d finished the introduction before he died. Who better to crystallize the oddball virtues of the uncategorizable Mathews than an artistic brother-in-arms of a half-century’s standing? And there would be a poignant irony, the major paying homage to the minor: The most acclaimed American poet of the past several decades would, in a final transmission, illuminate a fiction writer whose recognition lay at the opposite end of the spectrum.

These thoughts were on my mind during the long drive from Buffalo to New York City, as I passed, near Rochester, the sign for Sodus, where Ashbery grew up. Alas, no Ashberian intro graces the finished copy of The Solitary Twin, only a blurb. The novel, which in the end takes a headlong rush into loss, feels doubly posthumous. After all, the titular twin is named John.

II

Harry Mathews: Who was it that said to Pasternak—was it Scriabin or somebody playing Scriabin?

John Ashbery: Yes, that he should simplify—

Mathews: No, he said that he had finally achieved utter simplicity in his last works, which were of an absolutely mind-boggling complexity.

Review of Contemporary Fiction (1987)

“What I think of as my writing life began when I met him,” Mathews (1930–2017) once said of Ashbery (1927–2017). Mathews included his friend in the index for his exuberant epistolary novel The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium (1975). Slyly, the poet is nowhere to be found on the page in question. Instead, deep inside the palace of “noted philanthropist” Miles Hood, a bard plunks a mandolin and sings, “A fine rain anoints the canal machinery.” It’s an uncredited line from “Two Scenes” (which will kick off Ashbery’s Selected Poems). Hood hands the musician a wad of cash.

Mathews and Ashbery, both Harvard men, met in Paris in 1956, the year the poet’s first book, Some Trees, was published. Ashbery was in France on a Fulbright; Mathews had lived in Europe for four years, and would continue to make a home there for most of his life. He had eloped with a childhood friend, Niki de Saint Phalle; his wife’s turn from acting to art, while she was hospitalized for a nervous breakdown, inspired his own switch from music to writing.

He began The Conversions in 1958, under the spell of the French writer Raymond Roussel (1877–1933), whose truly surreal plays and novels he learned of via Ashbery. Though deluded as to the potential popularity of his work, Roussel was convinced of his own brilliance, and lucky enough to have the money to subsidize his peculiar art. (Reading accounts of the hostile reception to his plays brings to mind Tommy Wiseau’s self-financed film The Room.) In 1920 he took a trip around the world, passing through Asia and the Antipodes. “Now, from all these travels I never took anything for my books,” he insisted. “It seems to me that this is worth mentioning, since it clearly shows just how much imagination accounts for everything in my work.”

Secret processes gave his writing its unique flavor, and the results were patient, intensely surreal, and nearly insane. (His methods were not revealed until after his death.) “Roussel showed me that you can generate prose works with the same kind of arbitrariness that you use in verse,” Mathews told Ashbery. “I’d always thought that to write fiction you had to write more or less autobiographical stories, or stories of things you’d observed in the world. It’s terribly hard to do that; at least it was terribly hard for me—to make it sing and glow.”

It can be a fine line. In The Solitary Twin, the invention can feel arbitrary, in ways both liberating and artificial. Is Malachi’s aborted tale leading anywhere? Does the chapter-filling life story of the local free spirit, cumbersomely named Wicheria, matter in the end? Then again, life itself can seem like a series of non sequiturs, its thematic shapes only apparent at the conclusion.

In 1959, while still in Paris, Mathews received an inheritance from his grandfather. He used part of it to start a literary magazine with Ashbery, Locus Solus, titled after a Roussel novel; the two other names on the masthead were Ashbery’s friends Kenneth Koch and James Schuyler. In The Last Avant-Garde, David Lehman writes that “perhaps no better introduction to the poetry of the New York School” exists than the first two issues of the journal. Its contents included writing by the three editor-poets; an excerpt of A Nest of Ninnies, Ashbery’s sublimely goofy novel collaboration with fellow poet Schuyler; and the first part of The Conversions, which Random House would publish in 1962.

The Conversions is Roussel with an American engine. Its antically pedantic paranoia anticipates such slim but spectacularly dense novels as Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), Robert Kelly’s The Scorpions (1967), and Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo (1972). If you lock into the cool strangeness of the voice, the ride will make you giddy. In the first fifty pages alone, Mathews presents all manner of strangeness, including a woodwind-driven worm race, a booby-trapped coffin, and best of all Limnisse, a marvelous dog only four inches long, trained to measure “all distances from a foot to a mile with a margin of error of only one-sixteenth of an inch.”

The nameless protagonist stands to receive a fantastical sum from an eccentric millionaire’s will, if he can answer three cryptic riddles. He sets off on his quest, diligently tracking down a “minor novelist” who might possess some crucial information. I love how the writer modestly, hopefully asks the narrator, “Perhaps you’ve read it—a short novel called The Sores?” The answer is presumably no, and so he proceeds with a detailed summary of the book.

The cheek of our Harry! Before The Conversions can get rolling, we hit the first interruption of this first novel, in the form of . . . another novel. This is the litmus test for the reader, not just for The Conversions but for all of Mathews’s work: You have to be willing to go where he leads, to appreciate the detour for its own particular, meticulous scenery. I haven’t reread all of The Conversions in years, but I often turn to The Sores for a hit of pure, sure-footed prose. The plot itself is inspired, daft, unexpectedly moving: Three strangers on a flight bond over their shared love of obscure old German music. (“Why that’s Wehe Wintgen Wehe! . . . This is too good to be true.”) After the plane crashes in the Arctic, The Sores turns into a tale of survival and sabotage, set down with confidence and panache. It’s a first glimpse of Mathews as a master in the art of interruption, and as emotionally involving as anything else in the novel. Its howl of misery somehow reaches the reader intact.

His early period culminates with The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium, serialized in the Paris Review thanks to Maxine Groffsky, his then girlfriend and future agent. The subsequent two decades would see just one novel apiece from Mathews, Cigarettes (1987) and The Journalist (1994), plus any number of miscellanies fore and aft: the short story “Country Cooking,” a recipe for insanity that pops up in John D’Agata’s argument-starting anthology The Next American Essay; the hundred-odd pages of forced writing 20 Lines a Day; and Singular Pleasures, sixty-one paragraph-long fictions on self-abuse. His friendship with Georges Perec led to induction in the Oulipo, the Paris-based “workshop” dedicated to the concoction and identification of literary constraints. Mathews was its great Anglophone proponent, and his Oulipo Compendium (compiled with Alastair Brotchie) is an encyclopedia of its techniques that reads like a report on an alien world.

Cigarettes and The Journalist were in some ways less satisfying than his earlier novels, but they also showed him extending the uses of interruption. In particular, Cigarettes boasts a calmer, more traditionally “elegant” style, and anatomizes the moneyed set from which Mathews hailed. (Before Harvard was a stint at Princeton, before Princeton was Groton, before Groton was the Upper East Side and prep school at St. Bernard’s, where George Plimpton was a friend.) But the story isn’t told straight; rather, each chapter focuses on a pairing (e.g., “Allan and Elizabeth,” “Irene and Walter,” “Owen and Phoebe: II”), disrupting the natural rhythm that we’re anticipating.

“In 1952 I ran away from America,” Mathews said to Ashbery in a conversation around the time of Cigarettes. “Which was not America: it was the milieu in which I’d been raised, and I thought that’s what America was, that is to say, an upper-middle-class Eastern WASP environment, which I read as being extremely hostile to the poetic and artistic enthusiasms that I felt were most important at the time.” (His mother was heir to a real estate fortune, and his father was a prominent architect; the magic of Google fetches a recommendation he wrote for someone hoping to join the Century Club, addressed to no less than Allen Dulles, head of the CIA.) Mathews interrupted college to elope with Saint Phalle, and to join the Navy; he interrupted his American life to move to France; he interrupted his musical ambitions to write. At every stage he slipped away from what was expected, refusing—in what could be seen as a kind of oedipal rage—to be pinned down by geography or biography, as in the “upper-middle-class Eastern WASP environment.” (According to Ariel Levy’s New Yorker profile of Saint Phalle, Mathews’s family “all but cut him off financially, and the newlyweds got in the habit of shoplifting books and luxurious foods that they could no longer afford.”)

Toward the end of The Solitary Twin, the voice switches abruptly from third person to first—Berenice confesses herself the author of it all. The story becomes warmer, and the change anticipates the climactic fit of violence to come. In a way, it’s a classic Mathews ending; as the disconnected stories fuse into a shocking whole, and the true identities of certain characters come to light, a murderous, literally oedipal rage overwhelms the sanitized life of New Bentwick. In 20 Lines a Day, Mathews worried that his novels might be cop-outs, “in the way their austerity gives way at the end to one great burst of feeling.”

The ratcheting of the drama does feel sudden, but perhaps we’re witnessing a Scriabin-like late style, “utter simplicity” masking “mind-boggling complexity.” Namely, what to make of a book in which “John” gets erased at the end? Is there some buried grudge against Ashbery, his more famous friend? In the ’60s, the other Locus Solus editors swiftly became major names in twentieth-century poetry; by comparison, Mathews’s role as the publisher can make him seem like the man in the palace in Odradek, subsidizing the mandolinist with the limpid lyrics, the Mike Bloomberg to their innovation lab. (Speaking of which: To what degree has Mathews’s association with the Oulipo—a sort of literary laboratory—overdetermined the reception of his own works, few of which were explicitly Oulipian? What’s important about The Orchard isn’t its adherence to Joe Brainard’s “I Remember” format, but how beautifully it memorializes his best friend and fellow Oulipian Georges Perec.)

Perhaps The Solitary Twin works best as a kind of jolly death pact, an unconscious and serendipitous collaboration between these two old friends-slash-dignified-weirdos. Ashbery’s line of praise, his only remark on a book in which “John” proves to be a phantom, a crutch, a construct, reads like a knowing wink: “I believe this novel is his finest.


Ed Park is the author of the novel Personal Days (Random House, 2008).