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.
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.
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César Aira’s novels are the narrative equivalent of the Exquisite Corpse, that Surrealist parlor game in which players add to drawings or stories without knowledge of previous or subsequent additions. Wildly heterogeneous elements are thrown together, and the final result never fails to surprise and amuse. Aira is wacky enough to play the game by himself, but the reader isn’t left out either. Instead, Aira conditions his readers, writing so that devotees — what Aira calls his “deluxe” readers — can recognize the ingenious repetitions that connect his vast and bizarre body of work.
The author of more than 80 books, most of them short novels, Aira tells interviewers that he writes a page and a half each day in neighborhood cafés of Buenos Aires. He also famously denies revising anything he writes. Instead, as he explained to María Moreno in BOMB magazine, he allows real-life distractions and interruptions around him to appear in his narratives and push them along: “If a little bird enters into the café where I’m writing — it did happen once — it also enters into what I’m writing. Even if a priori it doesn’t relate to anything, a posteriori I make it relate.”
This a posteriori technique of “making it relate” is a modified Surrealist technique that Aira sometimes calls his “flight forward.” It’s a creative process favored not only by Aira himself, but also by some of his characters: the title character of The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira and the Mad Scientist protagonist of The Literary Conference both mention “flight forward” as an element of their respective modes of invention. “Deluxe” readers with more extended immersion in Aira’s zany brain take delight in the metaphysical fugues that result from this madcap method: it is not uncommon for Aira’s unhinged narratives to devolve into delirious flights of reason capable of overthrowing the entire plot, just when the reader least expects it. As Dr. Aira believes: “Reason is one mode of action, nothing more, and it has no special privileges…In order to be effective, one had to depart from the purely reasonable, which would always be an abstract way of thinking devoid of any truly practical use.” Here we have César Aira’s philosophy of fiction, thinly disguised as the professional opinion of “Dr. Aira.”
On a narrative level, “a posteriori” narration seems to work in at least two different ways. Sometimes Aira begins a novel by placing ambitious distance between its starting point and putative end: this is the case in How I Became a Nun, which begins with a male child narrator called César describing his first visit to an ice cream parlor with his father. Other novels begin with a highly improbable combination which Aira then relates, a posteriori, as he goes along. This is the case with The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira, which tells the story of a blundering middle-aged miracle worker beleaguered by his nemesis Dr. Actyn, a conventional MD bent on ruining Dr. Aira’s reputation by using hidden cameras to expose him as a fraud. Employing hordes of extras and elaborately staged verité snares, Actyn has made Dr. Aira’s life a living hell by subjecting him to the constant suspicion that he’s being duped. Miracle work and hidden-camera reality TV shows are far from peanut butter and jelly, but Aira’s flair for a posteriori plotting is seventy-something novels in the making. He pulls it off.
There isn’t much else to the plot. Even if I revealed whether or not Dr. Actyn succeeds, I wouldn’t haven’t spoiled anything. Like most of Aira’s novels, the plot of The Miracle Cures is scaffolding. The book is mostly an erratic hodgepodge of digressive interior monologue, and the tale of the persecuted miracle worker playfully flirts at being nothing more than a metaphor for Aira’s flighty methods of literary creation. For instance, when Dr. Aira gets talked into granting another Miracle Cure after swearing them off, the narrator observes:
Dr. Aira could have gotten out of it by telling them that there had been a mistake, a misunderstanding; he was a theoretician, one could almost say a “writer,” and the only thing that linked him to the Miracle Cures was a kind of metaphor…
Such blunt meta-referentiality may appear tedious, but it’s actually hilarious. The joke will be half-lost on novice, non-deluxe readers, so those new to Aira ought to begin by reading a few of the other novels available in translation. This kind of readerly “training” will reveal that enjoyment of Aira’s novels has much less to do with what happens than with the digressive commentary on and acrobatic connections between what few plot elements there are. As he told María Moreno,
In spite of all my admiration for Surrealism and Dadaism I never liked the mere accumulation of incongruous things. For me, everything has to be sewn together in a very conventional fashion…That sinuous thread in my novels is more interesting to me, more writeable, than a linear plot.
To extend the sewing metaphor: Aira is like Penelope at the loom, but a sort of Penelope on speed. Instead of unraveling his creations in order to avoid completing them, Aira hurtles forward, churning out finished texts that seem to unravel themselves as they’re read.
Over the last twenty years, Aira has made a trademark of writing at a rate that seems intended to prevent readers from ever catching up with him, a superproductivity that has also earned him criticism as a dilettante obsessed with lowbrow genre-fiction. Even for native Spanish readers in Latin America, access to Aira’s total catalog is difficult. He does this on purpose, requiring readers to search him out by favoring what he calls “those independent, almost clandestine publishers” that produce artisanal editions of his novels. This includes the cartonera presses in Latin America, which publish handmade books on recycled cardboard and paper collected by underemployed urbanites. Some of his novels, snatched up by collectors and foreign libraries, are hard to find. This means that Aira’s own method for reading — “when I start on an author I read him completely” — is unavailable to his own readers.
Catching up with Aira in English translation will take even longer. Although he has been publishing steadily since the early 1980s — several novels annually in nearly every year since 1991 — English translations have lagged. The Miracle Cures is only the seventh of Aira’s books to be translated to English. This might have less to do with Aira than with vagaries of the North American publishing industry. New Directions is of course responsible for Anglophone readers’ access to Aira’s work, having published six of the seven available translations. For this we must be grateful. But they also appear to have delayed a more ambitious translation schedule for Aira until they have squeezed every last story and novel out of the desk stuffed with manuscripts that Roberto Bolaño seems to have left behind when he died in 2003. In any case, readers smitten with Aira’s whimsical philosophizing and swerving narratives need not fear further delay: Aira’s star is now on the rise among the Anglophone literati. Varamo, the most recent Aira translation, received praise from The Nation, The New Yorker, The New York Times, and the ever-hip Patti Smith.
Bolaño nevertheless remains a looming presence — he is often mentioned when likenesses to Aira are sought. The comparison is perplexing, though, as the two writers have little in common from a stylistic standpoint. Descriptions of Aira as a 21st-century Borges are also inevitable; comparisons of the two Argentines are instructive, but remain inadequate. A closer resemblance might be Peruvian-Mexican writer Mario Bellatin, whose work remains untranslated but for his novel Beauty Salon and the three others collected in Chinese Checkers. Like Aira, he publishes at a frenetic rate (more than 15 books since 2001), having abandoned the modernist prerogative of the masterpiece novel in favor of larger, complex novel-systems composed of dozens of short novels that intersect and recycle characters and plot elements. Both writers also indulge in a habit of styling their protagonists after themselves, with many a “César” and “Mario” — and the occasional “Dr. Aira” — between them.
These personalized novelistic universes have exploded with a Big Bang in Latin America, where writers struggled for decades to emerge from the long shadow of “Boom” generation writers like Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel García Márquez. Now that the reverberations are finally getting across the language barrier — and getting hyped by Patti Smith — we can anticipate an accelerated explosion of César Aira’s universe in English.
Among this week’s new books we have The Twelve by Justin Cronin (our review), The Fifty Year Sword by Mark Z. Danielewski (our interview), The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira by César Aira (our review), and Zoo Time by past Booker Prize-winner Howard Jacobson. In non-fiction, Mark Bowden has penned an account of the killing of bin Laden.