Since 1962, Harry Mathews has published more than 30 works of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, many of which blur the lines between the three so effectively it’s difficult to say which genre they fall into. Born and raised in New York City, Mathews attended Princeton before leaving for the Navy and later receiving a B.A. in music. He spent several years associating with other future literary icons like John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch, and also became the first American author admitted as a member of France’s influential Oulipo movement.
Those who work in the school of Oulipo are well known for applying constraints to guide their work. The N+7 method, for example, is where one replaces a word in a sentence with whatever other word appears seven entries later in the dictionary. Like many Oulipians, Mathews’s sentences are totally enigmatic, often so unusual in their syntax that you could stop and read most any of them over and over again in search of what they really mean. And yet, there is something living and breathing at the center of his concepts. Each of Mathews’s works are so distinct in approach that the reader is left constantly updating his expectations of what might appear, while at the same time finding in every book a syntax so assuredly composed in its own image that it couldn’t have been written by anyone else.
Below are some of the highlights of Harry Mathews long career.
The Conversions (1962)
One of the storytelling tactics Mathews is most adept at is providing the appearance of a noir-like narrative, which he employs more as a cover to pull the reader through a much more bizarre and shifting world than they might have expected. Expository premises in Mathews novels rarely play out the way one would expect, often making his scenes work like a series of rooms each with a false floor, underneath which is another set of rooms possibly falling into another—kind of like how dreams continue to spill away from what they appeared to be at first. Even the names of his characters seem like mirages; codes for something else. The Conversions, his first novel, might be the most confounding in this way. The book begins with the gift of a piece of jewelry to a woman at a dinner party. The woman is told that if she can solve the mystery of the relic’s place in history, she will inherit a fortune. As the narrative piles on, each of the woman’s questions opens into even more complicated questions, social histories, and unsolvable maps. The whole book is a puzzle in itself, and the longer you spend trying to solve it, the harder it gets.
Opening sentence: The wealthy amateur Grent Wayl invited me to his New York house for an evening’s diversion.
The book opens in a prison camp designated for religious heretics, where our narrator is coerced into joining a baseball league on a team of ex-Baptists. The narrator is an ex-violinist, forced to quit his instrument after a prison doctor accidentally removed his fingers during surgery. Hellbent on revenge, when the doctor is released from confinement the narrator escapes to go after him, opening again a sort of chase on which the book shifts through a wide array of strange locales. If it sounds convoluted, that’s because it is: the story itself is only a puppet through which Mathews spins his tricks of form and language. But again the plot has countless collapsing floors. Each chapter piles together an even more arcane-seeming series of wordplay, plot holes, maze images, and jury-rigged genre expectations assembled into a narrative that never stops shifting its feet. Sometimes the sentences seem to have written themselves, as the logic forced into them is so unfailingly alien. Tlooth, perhaps more than any of Mathews’s other novels that I’ve read, demonstrates the author’s ability to pull the weight from almost any style or formal device, and accumulate it into the never-ending hole of his own imagination.
Opening sentence: Mannish Madame Nevtaya slowly cried ‘Fur bowls!’ and the Fideist batter, alert to the sense behind the sound of her words, jogged toward first base.
Cigarettes, more than any of Mathews’s other works, is about characters and their relations, how the networks of people knit together over a life. Compared to his previous novels, it feels like a more traditional, almost Elizabethan mode of style. But again, just under the surface, it is clear the author is up to something different: the characters are presented almost like icons in a chess set, played out in Mathews’s imagination in a series of formal integrations. Each of the novel’s 15 chapters—titled, simply, Allan and Elizabeth, Oliver and Elizabeth, Oliver and Pauline, etc.—explores the connection between two recurring characters over a stretch of 40 years. Slowly the manias, evils, desperations, illnesses, and all other sort of hidden human issues manifest themselves and combine over the framework of something larger about death and money and fraud and art. While Mathews is masterful at mimicking the serial manner of 19th century novels, he constantly injects his little puzzles, small sticky scenes, and knobs of language that throw the balance off of itself over and again.
Opening sentence: “What’s he mean, ‘I suppose you want an explanation?’”
20 Lines a Day (1988)
Written during the year in which he wrote Cigarettes, 20 Lines a Day is something of an exercise journal for the author. The book is a cataloging of his thoughts and linguistic energies into a series of paragraphs, following his life. It takes its title and format from a writing rule proposed by Stendhal: “Twenty lines a day, genius or not.” Mathews employs the idea more as a dump bucket for his brain, which is by turns practical, bizarre, quotidian, comforting, and inspiring. He often writes about his progress on Cigarettes, providing a rare look into the inner workings of his process and daily life.
“Mastery is not knowing what you’re going to do next,” he quotes himself, from a public lecture he had given.
“No accumulation of knowledge can guarantee you’re not a fool.”
Other pages are Oulipian formulas, philosophical digressions, descriptions of food, dreams paraded on paper, stream-of-consciousness brain dumps, raw ideas… The vast catalog of logic, styles, playfulness, and intuition is a great source for those interested in seeing a master at work, perhaps at the height of his career.
Opening sentence: The cats, the women, and the lizards have elongated heads.
The Journalist (1994)
Easily my favorite of all Mathews’s work, and probably of all I’ve read from the Oulipo, The Journalist is the most concretely formulaic of his narrative concepts, but also his most expansive. Almost like a mirror to the practice found in 20 Lines a Day, the narrator of The Journalist begins writing down his thoughts about what happens to him every day. The act is meant to be a system of relief for the writer after having just come out of a nervous breakdown, but as the book goes on the narrator’s mania for his recording project grows and grows. Soon he’s not only notating where he went and who he saw, but every action he remembers, such as the minor gestures used to make an omelet: “beating—high heat—stir in pan; beating—high heat—let set then jiggle—beating—high heat—stir in pan.” With each notation in the journal comes an appending set of paranoias and desperations over the narrator’s increasing anxiety about writing everything down before he forgets it. Eventually, the novel breaks down into more and more maniacal threads and fragments, somehow building under Mathews’s careful hand into a portrait of anxiety and mental illness so exacting it’s almost terrifying to read. In the cause of trying to write an exciting book about contemporary boredom, The Journalist conquers all.
Opening sentence: The rain had stopped.
Previously by Blake Butler - Everyone Is a Plagiarist