"Upstaged" by Jacques Jouet [25 Days of the BTBA]
As with years past, we’re going to spend the next three weeks highlighting the rest of the 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.
Click here for all past and future posts in this series.
Upstaged by Jacques Jouet, translated by Leland de la Durantaye (which sounds like an Oulipian pseduonym)
Publisher: Dalkey Archive Press
Why This Book Should Win: Oulipians have the most fun.
Today’s post is written by John Smieska, MPAS PA-C, whom I met when working at Schuler Books & Music approximately 29 years ago.
When you read any text produced by a member of the Oulipo group, there is an invitation to read with an awareness of the construction, an alertness in the background of the experience. Oulipo is an exclusive challenge-society, a think-tank that seeks to generate narrative constraints; these constraints spur the private literary ambitions of its members, and subvert the aesthetic traditions of narrative and language. Some works of this group are front-loaded, with the constraint or device announced in tandem with the debut of the text—this allows the act of reading to be textured with an editorial or fact-checker’s spectatorship. In other works, like Upstaged, the constraint is not made explicit, which allows the act of reading to be infused with a cryptographic undercurrent, a puzzler’s inquiry.
Upstaged by Jacques Jouet, to my best reckoning, is about a theatre and its doubles. (Indeed, there is some vulnerability in publicly proposing a solution to any puzzle that may or may not be absolutely correct.) The narrative folds around pairs; it splits and replicates like a feral blastomere, or like a work of dialectic origami. The narrator is the director’s assistant (herself, the self described factotum/factota of the playwright/director) during a routine performance of a play that becomes unsuspectingly vitalized when an unknown performer, known as “the Usurper,” invades the zona pellucida of a principle actor’s dressing room, and in the tender moments before his entrance, binds him naked to a chair and proceeds to hijack his role. (This all occurs in the national theatre of a Republic that is a double of the real—as much as politics are fictions used to organize, compel, and interpret events.) The play is a political play about a leader who disguises himself in order to mingle with the citizens, but who, while soliciting prostitutes (the doubles of intimacy?), encounters his estranged brother who was once united in a common cause, but has now split to lead the rebel faction.
The Usurper disrupts the timing (the seconds?), the delivery and finally the plot—which forces improvisations and the continued splitting and shifting of roles. At the end of the second act (rescued from chaos by the improvisational skill of the second prostitute) the Principle actor is released from his bondage, and the Usurper has disappeared (along with the second prostitute who may or may not have been in her dressing room). The show must go on, and the troupe must coalesce, and take new roles, the director and assistant even take to the stage as actors, to salvage the third act. The resulting performance yields a unique, inspired and resonant plot, favorably reviewed as a new and burgeoning aesthetic by one of the two present critics.
To hold even this key (although it may be a false one), even in a very general retelling, the plot hums and pops, restrained from your knowledge, with new hidden doubles and splits, I restrict from you an active but private hive of details, a mania of inquiries we might well discuss and connect. (Are the teller and voyeur split? Is the voyeur split into the role as cameraman/camerawoman? Is the inverse of the riddle gametogenesis? Are we, as readers, part of the double structure? Are we the double of the rat pulled across the boards by invisible strings? Does speculating the value of the structure make us the double of the critic? Etc. etc. ) This is a plot where even the title bestowed to express one’s singularity and uniqueness is split into halpax or unicum depending on who crowns you with it.
I recommend this book as an adventure, an adventure whose calling intensifies in recollection as much as it does in reading. It is an adventure into the aesthetics of Oulipo and it is a treasure map into the theatre of its doubles.