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An American in Oulipo

From the Quarterly Conversation‘s symposium on Harry Mathews:

One might more broadly argue that one of Modernism’s legacies has been to render plot something vulgar, more appropriate for popular genre works than artistic literature. Hence the truism that one should read fiction not to find out what happens (since any sophisticated reader understands that these stories are all invented), but rather for Hawkes’s verbal and psychological elements: complex characters bobbing in a sea of lyric descriptions, wordplay, themes and motifs, and the dazzling execution of poetic constraints and concepts (which can structurally replace plot). Such fiction’s worth, we’re told time and time again—as though we keep forgetting—that the words on the page are just words on the page, “mere language.” At best, we’re given guilty apologies for plot, as I was when I asked a college professor what he thought of Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day, which he was reading for the first time: “I don’t know yet. I’m still reading it for the plot, and I know that’s not what matters.”

Even Harry Mathews has said “I think situations are more important than plot and character.” And while his 1987 masterpiece Cigarettes is, at first appearance, a collection of situations, reading it quickly reveals that one of its chief pleasures is the (re-)construction of its plot: learning who its characters are, what they do, and how they are related.

First posted: Friday, September 7th, 2012.

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