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Overview/Review of Daniel Levin Becker's "Many Subtle Channels"

To supplement this week’s podcast, I thought I would post the review I wrote of Daniel Levin Becker’s Many Subtle Channels on GoodReads. Matt Rowe is planning on writing up a full review of this book for Three Percent, but for the time being, here you go:

In reading this charming book, I tried to recall how I first fell in love with the Oulipo. It must’ve been through Dalkey Archive, and probably had to do with one of the wild-eyed booksellers at Schuler Books & Music, but I just couldn’t remember . . . At first I assumed it was through Harry Mathews, whose books were being reissued by Dalkey at the time; it jus as easily could’ve been through Perec’s A Void, since that’s the most patently Oulipian work available in English and I remember pushing it on customers all the time. (And now do the same with my students.)

Then it suddenly came to me: When I was living in Grand Rapids, I went to a used bookstore just to look around, and found a mass market, old-school version of Raymond Queneau’s Zazie in the Metro. For those who don’t know, this part of Michigan is loaded with Calvinists and their moral baggage, so it isn’t all that surprising that someone had scrawled across the title page of this book, condemning it as “erotic trash.”1 SOLD!

But even then, I didn’t really know what the Oulipo was. I mean, I got the concept—use constraints to write “potential” literature—and read almost everything I could get my hands on, but without the Wikipedia of today or knowledge of the French language, figuring out what this group of strange writers was all about was like solving a puzzle without any sort of picture to work off of.

Eventually, the Oulipo Compendium came out as did Oulipo: A Primer, and all the pieces/techniques—lipograms, S+7, complicated algorithms, x mistakes y for z—started to come together. That said, until reading “Many Subtle Channels,” I don’t think I had a sense of how the Oulipo as a group has functioned for the past 50-plus years.

As a member of the Oulipo, and the “slave” who organized its archives, Daniel Levin Becker is in the unique position that he can create a context for this group of writers who, as diverse as their are personality-wise, are connected by their love of puzzles, of new ways to generate texts, of learning, of seeking out puzzles, of creating the linguistic labyrinth from which they try to escape.

For anyone who isn’t already steeped in Oulipian lore, I highly suggest you read this book, then pick up Queneau’s Exercises in Style, Perec’s Life A User’s Manual, Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler, and Mathews’s Cigarettes. After you read all of those—and possibly some of the info you can find online—you’re likely to be hooked on this way of writing and reading for life.

What’s interesting about this book to readers already familiar with the Oulipo and its crazy fun literary stylings is the way in which Levin Becker builds a context around the development of the Workshop while bringing up some really interesting questions about the nature of Oulipian writing: Is it better to reveal the constraints or make the reader figure them out? If the reader knows the constraint, is that the end of their interpretation/enjoyment of the book? How has the group’s dynamics and goals shifted from the post-WWII years to 2012? What’s the point of all this madness?

There’s a lot of great stuff in here worth quoting, both in terms of examples and explanations, but I’ll just end this here with one short paragraph that reminded me of why Lost was so damn good, and why only some people were cool with the eventual ending (I think this proves that I can pull Lost into just about every book discussion):

A good solid search, especially for something you’ll probably never find, drives the plot forward both on and off the page. The less you know, the more you want to know. Hitchcock knew it as well as Homer did: get the audience invested in the pursuit of a puzzle piece, be it the key or the antidote or the identity of the dead man, and they’ll follow you for as long as it remains missing. That’s why it’s so hard to write a satisfying ending: “solutions,” Mathews says, “are nearly always disappointing.”

1 Not exactly true. See this for the correct insult that somebody laid on Queneau’s novel.



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