The End of Oulipo?: An attempt to exhaust a movement

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A Year in Reading: Scott Esposito (Conversational Reading)

I think for my 2012 "Year in Reading" I'm going to try and be topical, since I'm guessing this series will feature enough laundry lists of great books as it is. So, since my book The End of Oulipo? is publishing in January from Zero Books, I'll make my topic Oulipo literature. I've certainly been reading enough of it lately. This is the year I had the great good fortune to discover Harry Mathews, for a long time the only American Oulipo author, and certainly one of the greats of 20th-century literature. For Mathews newbies, I think there are two places to start, depending on your reading habits. If you like to be tossed into the deep end, then go for Mathews's first novel, The Conversions (and read Ed Park's excellent essay on said book). It's, well, a very strange novel about a quest to solve a riddle in a dead man's will, where each chapter becomes a strange metamorphosis of the preceding chapters. It ends with one of the more beautiful extended metaphors I've read all year, and on which I write at length in The End of Ouliopo? If you, alternatively, prefer good old plot, then start with what I and many others consider Mathews's masterwork, Cigarettes, which is one of the most plot-heavy books you will read all year, despite Mathews's insistence that it was his only “properly” Oulipian novel. (On the surface, it will appear much more Edith Wharton than Raymond Queneau.) I then recommend A D Jameson's essay "I Read It for the Plot: The Narrative Artistry of Harry Mathews’ Cigarettes" for a great analysis of just why Mathews's rendition of a plot-heavy novel is so damn literary. Mathews also wrote Singular Pleasures, 61 short accounts of masturbation, along with a collection of other odds and ends. It is more difficult to find than his proper novels, but well worth seeking out. This year I also read virtually everything of Georges Perec's that has been translated (many for the second time). I'll toss out a recommendation for his wonderful collection of essays and miscellaneous texts, Species of Spaces. It includes the story "The Winter Journey," the best Borgesian short story written by a Frenchman. I will also put in a recommendation for Perec's strange short novel W, or the Memory of a Childhood, which always seems to be left behind when people talk about the more bizarre A Void (the novel without the letter e) or the masterpiece, Life: A User's Manual. Then, of course, there are Raymond Queneau and Italo Calvino. For Queneau I'll recommend The Blue Flowers, and for Calvino I'll give you If on a Winter's Night a Traveler. Of the lesser-known Oulipo members, the works of Jacques Roubaud should not be missed. His Mathematics, just published this year, is a great introduction to this writer who marries Oulipo, Proust, and mathematics (it's a strange marriage). Then there is the first book by the second American Oulipo member, Daniel Levin Becker, called Many Subtle Channels. Not a properly Oulipian book per se (if we're defining that as having some sort of constraint), Many Subtle Channels is something along the lines of a memoir spliced with literary criticism, reportage, and good old boosterism of a fantastic body of literature. And lastly, I'll toss in Marcel Benabou's strange anti-novel Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books. And then, after the well-known Oulipo and the lesser known, we get to the authors I regard as somehow being in league with Oulipo, but not actually being a part of the collective. Christian Bök, who has taught microbes to make poetry, certainly must be some kind of kin to the Oulipo. I discuss both his Crystallography and Eunoia (the latter consisting of chapters that only utilize one vowel at a time) in The End of Oulipo? I also regard César Aira is having some relevance here for his "constant flight forward," certainly a writing constraint of a kind. For an idea, have a look at his just-translated Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira. There are lots more out there to find, and many beyond that still only readable in French. Beyond Perec's dream journals (which Levin Becker is translating for Melville House), there's Ian Monk's Plouk Town, (raved by Levin Becker and also called "untranslatable" by him -- just the kind of challenge an Oulipian would relish), an anthology of "sequels" to Perec's "Winter Journey" that is currently being translated, and Anne F. Garréta, whom my co-author, Lauren Elkin, recommends should be translated post-haste in The End of Oulipo? For an idea of the riches that await us, have a look at Drunken Boat's Oulipo feature. More from A Year in Reading 2012 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

A Year in Reading 2012

The end of another year is here (so soon? Ah, I'm getting old), and with it a flood of valedictory lists and wrap ups, accountings and scorecards. Each year, as these lists spill out across the landscape, the onslaught becomes difficult to parse and begins to feel suspiciously (to us, anyway) like a marketing boondoggle to support the promotional-book-cover-sticker-and-blurb industry. There are so many "best of the year" lists that everything is the best (and sometimes also the worst). So, how can we have some year-end fun while still extracting something meaningful from the effort? We readers tend to be a thoughtful bunch, noting down the titles we have read or lining them up one by one on a shelf. We are intellectually omnivorous as well and not too overly prejudiced toward the new or the old, picking up a 130-year-old classic of Russian literature and then following it up with the bestselling, beach read of the moment. Taken together, a long list of books read is a map of our year, and the best of these books are the year's pinnacles, and the challenging books, its rewarding treks. The "10 best books of 2012" list is so small next to this. And so in preparing our annual Year in Reading series, we've asked our esteemed guests to take us on a tour of these pinnacles and to give an accounting of these treks. With this in mind, for a ninth year, some of our favorite writers, thinkers, and readers will look back, reflect, and share. Their charge was to name, from all the books they read this year, the one(s) that meant the most to them, regardless of publication date. Grouped together, these ruminations, cheers, squibs, and essays will be a chronicle of reading and good books from every era. We hope you find in them seeds that will help make your year in reading in 2013 a fruitful one. As in prior years, the names of our 2012 "Year in Reading" contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we publish their contributions. You can bookmark this post and follow the series from here, or load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed and follow along that way. Stephen Dodson, co-author of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat. Ben Fountain, author of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. Emma Straub, author of Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures. Choire Sicha, co-proprietor of The Awl. Jeffrey Eugenides, author of Middlesex. Madeline Miller, author of The Song of Achilles. Gideon Lewis-Kraus, author of A Sense of Direction. Rob Delaney, comedian and writer. Nick Harkaway, author of The Gone-Away World. Tania James, author of Atlas of Unknowns. Alexander Chee, author of Edinburgh. Maria Popova, founder and editor of Brain Pickings. Lauren Groff, author of Arcadia. David Vann, author of Dirt. Helen Schulman, author of This Beautiful Life. Roxane Gay, author of Ayiti. Hari Kunzru, author of Gods Without Men. Rachel Fershleiser, co-editor of Not Quite What I Was Planning. Bill Morris, author of All Souls' Day, staff writer for The Millions. Scott Esposito, co-author of The End of Oulipo?, proprietor of Conversational Reading. Nick Moran, social media editor for The Millions. Emily St. John Mandel, author of The Lola Quartet, staff writer for The Millions. Edan Lepucki, author of If You're Not Yet Like Me, staff writer for The Millions. Janet Potter, staff writer for The Millions, blogger at At Times Dull. David Haglund, writer and editor at Slate. Zadie Smith, author of White Teeth. Chris Ware, author of Building Stories. Kevin Smokler, author of Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books You Haven't Touched Since High School, on twitter as @weegee. Thomas Mallon, author of Watergate. Geoff Dyer, author of Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room. Susan Orlean, staff writer for The New Yorker, author of Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend. Michael Schaub, book critic for NPR.org. Matt Dojny, author of The Festival of Earthly Delights. Nell Freudenberger, author of The Newlyweds. Ed Park, author of Personal Days. Hamilton Leithauser, lead singer for the rock band The Walkmen. Meg Wolitzer, author of The Interestings. Sheila Heti, author of How Should a Person Be?. Paul Murray, author of Skippy Dies. Elliott Holt, author of You Are One of Them. Jami Attenberg, author of The Middlesteins. Antoine Wilson, author of Panorama City. Paul Ford, author of Gary Benchley, Rock Star, writer at Ftrain.com. Garth Risk Hallberg, author of A Field Guide to the North American Family. Lydia Kiesling, staff writer for The Millions. Mark O’Connell, staff writer for The Millions. Christian Lorentzen, editor at the London Review of Books. Michael Bourne, staff writer for The Millions. Emily M. Keeler, editor of Little Brother Magazine. Elizabeth Minkel, staff writer for The Millions. Nichole Bernier, author of The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. Alix Ohlin, author of Inside. Lars Iyer, author of Exodus. Robin Sloan, author of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Malcolm Jones, senior writer at Newsweek/The Daily Beast, author of Little Boy Blues. Susan Straight, author of Between Heaven and Here. Christine Schutt, author of Prosperous Friends. Patrick Somerville, author of This Bright River. Lydia Millet, author of Magnificence. Jennifer duBois, author of A Partial History of Lost Causes. Nick Dybek, author of When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man. Reif Larsen, author of The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet. Megan Mayhew Bergman, author of Birds of a Lesser Paradise. Ellen Ullman, author of By Blood. Jane Hirshfield, author of Come, Thief. Michael Robbins, author of Alien vs. Predator. Jeet Thayil, author of Narcopolis. Thomas Beckwith, intern for The Millions. Benjamin Anastas, author of Too Good to Be True. Kate Zambreno, author of Heroines. Carolyn Kellogg, staff writer for the LA Times, a vice president of the National Book Critics Circle. Buzz Poole, author of Madonna of the Toast. Robert Birnbaum, editor-at-large at Identity Theory. Brian Joseph Davis, creator of The Composites, co-publisher of Joyland Magazine. Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr. Year in Reading Graphics by LK Magee
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