“Morphism / Homomorphism / Endomorphism / Automorphism.” For readers with a yen for continental esoterica, this gathering of work by the Oulipo writers of the 1960s and beyond is just the thing.
Founded in 1960 as a descendant of the Dada-like “pataphysical” school of Alfred Jarry and company, the Oulipo (Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, or Workshop of Potential Literature) movement experimented with mathematical formulas, palindromes, wordplay, language games (such as George Perec’s Les revenentes, the only vowel in which is “e”), and other such proto-postmodern pursuits. Sometimes the effects were arid, sometimes entertaining. Sometimes, as editor Monk writes of the opening piece by Oulipo co-founder Raymond Queneau, the results even approached an “elliptical evocation of the whole of existence,” though that may be a rather grand claim for prose that includes the line, “I also pooed: in my linen.” If anything, forced by its constraints, Oulipo work is often absurd, with an anthropologist-from-Mars quality: “The nail varnish to the left of the machine is not exactly nail varnish,“ writes Michèle Audin, “but a product of the same kind, called a ‘corrector’ and intended to make good the ‘typing errors’ on the fine stencil sheets.” Or, as a poem by Daniel Levin Becker has it, “I barked like a bear, skipped like a spud. / I braised a baked Alaska. / I parked a kids’ bike beside a biker bar.” And so on. Readers attuned to the playful excesses of Situationism or to the goofier of Andrei Codrescu’s essays will enjoy Monk’s anthology, but newcomers will probably feel as if left slightly on the outside of a private joke. As always, some pieces are better than others; as movement member Jacques Duchateau notes, “some tricks are traps; some writers are bad.” He then goes on to wonder, “But, if all literature contains artifice, since artifice can be mechanized, at least in theory, does this mean that literature in turn can be mechanized as well?” It’s worth pondering….
Admirers of Calvino, Perec, Duchamp, et al. will enjoy the literary lunacy.