A playful illumination of the complexities, mysteries and absurdities of an obscure French organization devoted to “potential literature.”
Serious wordplay abounds within the experiments of the Oulipo, a Paris-based collective devoted to systematic literary exploration, constraints that free the mind and imagination (such as writing a novel without using the letter e), and devising “real solutions to imaginary problems.” The organization’s pantheon includes Raymond Queneau, Italo Calvino and Georges Perec, while fellow travelers could range from Vladimir Nabokov to Paul Auster. Much of the writing focuses on the processes of writing and reading while an emphasis on language as language trumps such conventional notions of “realism” in character and plot. Words on a page may not be more, but they are never less, than words on a page. American author Becker served an apprenticeship as an archivist before joining the organization in which “anyone who asks to be a member of the Oulipo thereupon becomes inadmissible for life.” The author is also the reviews editor for The Believer, and his self-deprecating reminiscences humanize the book well beyond literary theory, while his tone renders even extended examinations of the organization’s theories and history more palatable than expected. One work is praised for the “Zen-by-way-of-Kafka simplicity of its zero-sum goal,” while the masters rise above mere experimentation: “Like Perec, Calvino was great at bringing humanity into what could otherwise be a soulless structural shell game.” There is a strong mathematical, even scientific, component within the philosophies of these theorist-practitioners, whose field of inquiry (like so much else) has been transformed by computer technology. But there’s also a disarming element of whimsy: “Like any literary treatises worth their salt, the manifestos are unsatisfying; their saving grace is [their]…tongue-in-cheek attitude toward the notion of the manifesto in the first place.” Destined to delight a small, select readership—the Oulipo wouldn’t have it any other way.