Saturday, March 26, 2011

Permutations of Mathews

The wealthy amateur Grent Wayl invited me to his New York house for an evening's diversion...

I picked up this volume in the Strand Bookstore in the mid-1970s, and it's been a favorite ever since. They had a stack of them that day, laid out on a table among the hardcover Cortázars and other good things that were being remaindered in those days, and I've always regretted that I didn't buy the whole lot and bring them home so that they could live together happily and maybe even multiply.

I don't believe I had ever heard of Harry Mathews at the time. It wouldn't have been likely; he wasn't part of any recognized "canon," not even an incipient "postmodern" one, and they certainly weren't writing about him in the book sections of the magazines I was reading. The cover looked interesting -- there was that wonderful Jim Dine illustration with a strangely animate pair of scissors whose blades seemed to be oriented in defiance of their intended purpose -- but I think I hesitated at first.

For one thing, there was the matter of the title. In addition to the obscure allusion to Kafka's equally obscure odradek, and the puzzling issue of how a stadium could "sink," there was the subversive notion embodied in the words "... and Other Novels." A "novel," at least a serious novel, was supposed to be "total," to encompass multiple levels of reality in some sort of approximation of life itself; it wasn't supposed to admit the possibility of being just one invention among several. The blurb on the back, though, was pretty promising:
For several years Harry Mathews has enjoyed a growing following among college students, artists, other poets and writers, and fans of the obscure who have never been able to buy his books. This volume is meant to satisfy their needs: it brings together his two out-of-print novels -- The Conversions (1962) and Tlooth (1966) -- and his latest fiction, The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium. Mathews' work is virtually indescribable in brief. His is a genius of wild invention presented in a kind of meticulous deadpan narration that leaves the reader howling, amazed, and exhilarated. Beneath the brilliance of his elegant language and intricate constructions, Mathews is writing avant-garde fiction of starting originality. This omnibus volume gives ample evidence of Mathews' significance in the world of contemporary literature: it is time for a major assessment of his extraordinary work
"College students, artists, other poets and writers, and fans of the obscure" seemed to fit me fairly well (except for the "artists" part -- neither then nor now have I been able to draw a line) and I plunked down my two or three dollars and took the book home.

Harry Mathews is a bit better known today, having published two or three more novels (depending on whether you think My Life in CIA is fiction or not), several volumes of short stories and poetry, and various essays and the like, and he's even been the subject of a monograph in the Twayne's United States Authors series, but in spite of all that I suspect that even now most readers of "serious fiction" -- whatever that means these days -- still wouldn't know his name. To a degree that's understandable -- initially, at least, his novels can appear to be as disorienting as the cover of this book -- but it's also a shame, because at his best Mathews is a hoot, a master storyteller whose books are crammed with ingenious inventions, jokes, red herrings, anagrams*, and eccentricities but who is also just downright entertaining. "Meticulous deadpan narration" is right on the money; his narrators share a kind of tunnel vision diametrically opposed to the "realistic" psychology and self-awareness that have largely characterized the modern American novel. It is the reader, not the narrator, who undergoes development. Even the curious title of one of these novels -- The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium -- reveals something its epistolary narrators never learn.

Describing any of these novels in this space is a hopeless task; Wikipedia has brief summaries and Warren Leamon's Harry Mathews in the Twayne's series provides quite detailed ones. All three have to do with improbable quests of some kind, either for treasure, for knowledge, or, in the case of Tlooth, for revenge, but it is the diversions and digressions, the hidden pitfalls, that lay along the route that make them so enjoyable. I've read each of the three components of this volume three or four times -- The Conversions maybe six times -- and I'm still discovering things in them I never noticed before. Mathews' technique consists not of revealing secrets, but of constructing a labyrinth so intricate that even as we progress through it the presumptive "solution" to its enigmas only recedes further into the distance.

The Conversions first saw print in the pages of Locus Solus, a short-lived literary magazine Mathews published himself with money he obtained from an inheritance. It was then published in full** in The Paris Review (#27) and in book form by Random House in 1962. Both Tlooth and Odradek were also originally serialized in The Paris Review.

The omnibus edition from Harper & Row is long out-of-print. Carcanet in the UK put out individual editions in the 1980s, which have since been superseded by those published by Dalkey Archive Press. Reading the three novels together, and in chronological order, though not necessary, is still the best way to enjoy them.

The bibliography of writings by and about Harry Mathews is now quite substantial, but in addition to Leamon's dated but still-valuable critical study the book-length issue of The Review of Contemporary Fiction (Fall 1987; Vol. VII, No. 3) devoted to Mathews deserves particular mention. The Paris Review (No. 180) featured an excellent interview with Mathews as part of its longstanding "Art of Fiction" series, and that interview can also be read online.

*To cite just one, the puzzling "Mundorys Lorsea" of The Conversions transforms into "Raymond Roussel," although I am also fond of the possibilities of "snarly dormouse."

** Not quite correct; some sections of the novel were summarized in the version printed in the Paris Review.


Levi Stahl said...

I've had Harry Mathews on my mind this week, too: I wrote a post on Friday about an event he did at a bookstore I used to work at (and about the Oulipo's N+7 game). He was a real pleasure to work with for the event, charming and fun.

I didn't know about the Paris Review interview--thanks for the tip!

Chris said...

I wish I'd been there!

zoe said...

oh....this sounds fascinating, i'm going to have to look for his work. thanks!