Negation: A Response to Lars Iyer’s ‘Nude in Your Hot Tub’

I do not know whether I have anything to say, I know that I am saying nothing; I do not know if what I might have to say is unsaid because it is unsayable (the unsayable is not buried inside writing, it is what prompted it in the first place); I know that what I say is blank, is neutral, is a sign, once and for all, of a once-and-for-all annihilation.

—Georges Perec, W, or the Memory of Childhood



If Reality Hunger by David Shields represents one strand of literary prognostication to which Perec’s writing offers a fruitful response, there is another strand that Perec answers just as well: those gleeful prophets of the novel’s death.


In order to tell this story we need to take a step back. Perec’s writing was in sync with its times in the sense that it partook in the epic process of cultural commodification occurring over the second half of the twentieth century. Products, beliefs and fashions that once existed on the boundaries of society were resolutely transformed into mass consumable versions that were bought up by the middle classes. Things, Perec’s best-selling popularisation of the bohemian lifestyle, is one example of how he was part of this process. Another would be Life A User’s Manual, which transmutes into literary gold hundreds of things that one would have never thought to put in a literary novel beforehand.


One important thing Perec helped commodify was negation. Negation was a huge thing in the 1960s, when Perec began to write. It informed and empowered the groups then fighting against capitalistic culture. In his essay ‘E Unibus Pluram,’ David Foster Wallace put forth the argument that the second half of the twentieth century was a time of two great changes: first, the development of this ‘no’ of resistance against capitalistic culture, and second, the co-opting of this ‘no’ of resistance into a catchy sales pitch. Wallace identified the ‘no’ of resistance with irony—long a potent weapon of the oppressed—and then he went on to argue that the appeal of this irony had been taken over by savvy advertisers, who use it to make their products hip. The fiction of irony and ridicule, which he identified with rebellious postmodernists like Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo, had been taken over by TV culture. ‘I’m going to argue that irony and ridicule are entertaining and effective’, he says, ‘and that at the same time they are agents of a great despair and stasis in US culture, and that for aspiring fiction writers they pose especially terrible problems.’


Perec was one of those writers who, in part, made literature from the irony and ridicule of consumer society. One, for instance, thinks of his character Anne Breidel from Life A User’s Manual. Anne scrupulously details the caloric values of everything she eats, but she remains steadfastly overweight. We soon discover why: Perec concludes his description of Anne by having her add her calories with her right hand, while ‘with her left hand she is gnawing a chicken leg.’ It is a fitting, if slightly mean-spirited description of the mindset required by fad dieting, as well as an indictment of a society that makes weight such an obsession. Such ironic negation of the middle-class lifestyle is a core value of Perec’s work. His best writing—including ThingsA Man AsleepA VoidW, or the Memory of Childhood, and Life A User’s Manual—all similarly ironise consumer society.


Yet there is much more to these books than a critique of mass culture. These are books built around missing pieces, feelings of emptiness, unsolvable quests. The same irony that ridicules Anne’s fad diet also gestures toward a heavy, existential sense of void. (Dieting is perhaps the single most widespread, obsessively unsolvable, mass-produced quest of post-capitalist existence.) For instance, in Things the protagonists go to Africa to find a meaning to life that they can’t in France. In A Void the absence of the letter comes to represent the absence of some essential quality in modern life that gives rise to malaise. Reading Perec, one senses an artist self-consciously working on a grand scale to generalise this quality of negation to as many forms as possible—an effort to exhaust negation. Such ambitions are of a piece with the Oulipo manifestos, despite the fact that the manifestos are written with a clear sense of optimism. Aware of the exhaustion of art’s old forms, Oulipo strove to find new paths for the novel. Perec’s optimism in the face of negation is due in large part to how he fought to make negation itself an engine for innovation.


This is a key difference from writers of our own era: negation has become so thoroughly commodified and distributed throughout society that it is no longer a question to be explored but a default stance, a foreboding and oppressive fact that confronts us at every turn. Negation now lacks the optimism of the striver; instead it finds conviviality with the resignation of the wisened. Let us, for instance, look at a piece of criticism published just last year and written in response to three of the great writers of negation of recent years – Roberto Bolaño, Enrique Vila-Matas, and Thomas Bernhard:


Literature is a corpse and cold at that. Intuitively we know this to be the case, we sense, suspect, fear, and acknowledge it. The dream has faded, our faith and awe have fled, our belief in Literature has collapsed. Sometime in the 1960s, the great river of Culture, the Literary Tradition, the Canon of Lofty works began to braid and break into a myriad distributaries, turning sluggish on the plains of the cultural delta. In a culture without verticality, Literature survives as a reference primer on the reality effect, or as a minor degree in the newly privatised university. . . . Literature has become a pantomime of itself, and cultural significance has undergone a hyperinflation, its infinitesimal units bought and sold like penny stocks.


The title of this essay is ‘Nude in Your Hot Tub, Facing the Abyss (A Literary Manifesto After the End of Literature and Manifestos)’, published in The White Review. Its author is Lars Iyer, himself a successful novelist of the negation genre who has been linked to such great negation-ists as Beckett, Kafka and Thomas Bernhard. Iyer continues his ironically delivered lament for the death of literature by telling us that ‘in the past, each great sentence contained a manifesto and every literary life proposed an unorthodoxy, but now all is Xerox, footnote, playacting. Even originality itself no longer has the ability to surprise us.’


We should be highly suspicious when any writer who has gained as much from the institutionalised negative, as Iyer has, tells us that literature has no future. Iyer is a fine writer—I have enjoyed his novels and his contributions to literary discourse—but, to put it plainly, with these statements he runs the risk, as one commenter to my blog put it, of merely projecting his own limitations.


In fact, it is strange to see a writer with Iyer’s clearly thorough knowledge of the novel decrying its fragmentation as though this were a liability. In truth, fragmentation always has and always will be part of the novel, and this is to its great advantage. As far back as 1920, the cultural theorist Georg Lukács had declared in The Theory of the Novel that the genre’s defining characteristic is the very fragmentation that Iyer bemoans. What’s more, Lukács concluded that this was a very good thing. He compared the modern world to the ancient, contrasting the novel with the epic, and he concluded that Homer’s epics were possible because of the unitary, fully formed world in which they were created. The novel, by contrast, is a product of a hopelessly fragmented world and can only deal with pieces of an incomplete reality. ‘In the story of the Iliad, which has no beginning and no end, a rounded universe blossoms into all-embracing life,’ writes Lukács. ‘The novel is the epic of an age in which the extensive totality of life is no longer directly given, in which the immanence of meaning in life has become a problem, yet which still thinks in totality.’ The completeness of the Iliad excluded any further development of the epic as a form in Greek culture; the very incompleteness of the novel in our own culture is what ensures that it can continually be rejuvenated by innovative new authors.


Among the modern novels that come closest to Lukács’ ‘rounded universe’ with ‘no beginning and no end’ we should count Finnegans Wake and Life A User’s Manual. Both books famously end by pushing us back toward their beginning, implying a circularity. Further, they are books that attempt, like Homer’s epics, to account for the entire civilisation in which they were created. In his Western Canon Harold Bloom sees Finnegans Wake as playing a central place in Western literature, that of an all-encompassing whole that might engender a new genre of writing. Referring to our own era as ‘The Chaotic Age,’ characterised by insurmountable fragmentation, Bloom declares that ‘if aesthetic merit were ever again to center the canon, the Wake, like Proust’s Search, would be as close as our chaos could come to the heights of Shakespeare and Dante.’ Later he recognizes the Wake as ‘a history of the world’ and reflecting ‘a profound desire to play at replacing English with the dialect of the Wake.’ Literary critic and author Gabriel Josipovici explicitly links Life A User’s Manual with Joyce, while also placing it into an entirely different category to other massive, encyclopedic works of the time, such as those of Pynchon and Mailer:


When English or American writers conceive of a Major Novel they can only think of it as an Ordinary Novel blown up (think of Burgess, Mailer, Pynchon). La Vie mode d’emploi is in quite a different category. It is encyclopaedic as Ulysses is encyclopaedic, though in its classic calm it is more reminiscent of earlier encyclopaedic works, such as Dante’s Commedia or Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. This is a large claim to make and I never thought to make it of any book written today.


Bloom, who links Joyce to Shakespeare, and Josipovici, who links Perec to Dante and Chaucer, follow Lukács in construing the forerunners of today’s totalising novels as pre-modern works. Their writing is of a different kind from Pynchon, who writes enormous adventure stories designed to demonstrate the impossibility of narrative. Rather, Perec attempts to encase our fragmented world in forms that hearken back to the beginnings of the modern novel—The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales—when writers still conceived of simple yet powerful structures for projects that summed up their milieu. Complex as they are, Perec’s books lack Pynchon’s willful sense of anarchy, his determination to overload our traditional understanding of narrative so much that it breaks. By contrast, Perec is like an ingenious technician discovering novel new molecules; his apparatuses supplement narrative, letting it hold structures far larger and far more labyrinthine that one thought possible.


In claiming that such projects are no longer possible, nor even aspired to, Iyer gives us a laundry list of symptoms that has two core issues: unification and innovation—unification is no longer possible, which means that innovation remains forever stifled. Perec responds to these notions quite handily. Recognising that the modern world offers no formal unity on which to base a novel, Perec and his fellow Oulipians turned to writing constraints to give their novels unity. The case with Life is typical. It contains over 100 substories, dozens of major characters, and an immense array of quotations gleefully plagiarised from the world’s great books. What draws it all together are the formal constraints. In its encyclopedic nature and its buttress of constraints, Life overcomes Iyer’s complaint that literature has become a myriad of competing tributaries with no discernable authority to make order of them—and it is worth noting here that the encyclopedia itself is a fragmentary work organised by a formal constraint, alphabetisation.


Perhaps if Iyer accepted my appraisal of Life, he would respond by calling it a late masterpiece of a now-lost era. And perhaps he would not be so wrong in that judgment. Of all the massive works of our era, none come to mind that possess the totalising scope of a Ulysses or a Life A User’s Manual. Perhaps the closest, Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, does not strive to be encyclopedic; quite the opposite, it plunges into the void of the individual, of the author, of outright evil. (Bolaño’s shorter and much less single-minded The Savage Detectives has a far greater claim to being a total novel, yet even that book seems to exult too much in its purposeful marginalisation to aspire to the world.) David Foster Wallace’s mammoth book Infinite Jest is much the same, choosing to hone its gifts on a few core questions, even if it does convey a rather robust sense of the times in which it was conceived.


But to search for a totalising book in our own era is to miss a key question: is such a book really necessary to literature? Cannot the sweep of an author’s collected works serve a similar and better function, one more in tune with our distributed reality? And isn’t searching for a book that sums up our world to mistakenly long for something that was dismissed at the beginning of this essay, the realist novel, at the expense of the truthful novel? As much as Life A User’s Manual is a product of its time, Iyer’s essay against the future of literature is a product of our time. We live in the era of the institutionalised negative, when the ‘no’ of protest has become simply the ‘no’ of identity. Iyer’s ‘no’ points not to the limitations of our own literature but rather to the limitations of the inquiry that he makes. To look for a single work that overcomes the fragmentation of our civilisation is to miss the point entirely. It is to ignore the fundamental question – what function is literature to serve today?


The Oulipian who today most energetically rebuts the idea of one gigantic, career-girding mega-work is probably Jacques Jouet. Born in 1947 and a member of Oulipo since 1983, he has reportedly written over fifty books in genres spanning novels, plays and poetry. They are mostly very short works, although some of them approach 1,000 pages in length. Jouet has also, reportedly, written a poem a day since 1992; at the very least we can be certain that in 1998 he published a 1,000-page book of poetry, written in just four years, and has released many subsequent volumes.


Jouet is the originator of what he calls a ‘metro poem,’ which is a poem written while riding the Paris subway. Per Jouet’s rules, a metro poem has as many lines as there are stops on the trip one makes; the would-be poet thinks up a line in between stops and then furiously scribbles while the train is waiting in the station. Jouet once spent 16 hours in the Paris metro on a route that took him through all 384 Parisian metro stops, creating the supreme maximalist iteration of the genre. Discussing these poems in Many Subtle Channels, the American Oulipian Daniel Levin Becker makes these poems sound like the least pleasurable kind of automatic writing: ‘the time strictures make it less like a Surrealist free-association exercise and more like a suicide-aerobics drill for the parts of your mind that usually make observations into ruminations and ruminations into language. Later Levin Becker quotes Jouet himself on the harried composition of the metro poem: ‘There is no question of correcting ones composition, beyond the time of composing the verse, which means that the time for premeditation is reduced to a minimum.’


Although Levin Becker is circumspect and quite fair-minded in his remarks on Jouet, he does level the criticism that the metro poem sounds somewhat ‘fishy’ and that it breaks from traditional Oulipian form by having the constraint be ‘unverifiable.’ (One could just write the poem anywhere and claim that it’s a metro poem, which Levin Becker suspects of some of Jouet’s lines, arguing they are too long to be scribbled while the subway waits at a station.) Insofar as I have read them in translation, the metro poems appear of little literary value; the quality is so middling that I find it all too believable that Jouet hurriedly jotted them on the train. They have the mealy-mouthed quality of a first draft, the easy satisfaction and facile profundity that tends to characterise jottings.


These shortcomings are also present in the novels of Jouet’s that have been made available in English translation, which range from divertingly pleasant to downright awful. Jouet is the author of many, many short novels, and in this his graphomania recalls Belgian Georges Simenon, who lived much of his life in Paris and wrote in French. Simenon was the author of some 200 novels, some of them quite good, and I bring him up here because there is some evidence Jouet courts the comparison. As Levin Becker relates in Channels, Jouet once spent eight hours writing a novel in public in a tent, allowing passersby to watch his progress on a screen. This brings to mind nothing so much as the apocryphal—yet utterly infamous—account of Simenon writing a novel in a week inside of a glass booth in full Parisian public view. This story so delighted French intellectuals that, years later, several offered eye-witness accounts of this event that never took place.


But if Jouet sees himself as a novelist in the tradition of the great novelists of French literature, the translations offer little textual evidence for it. Upstaged, probably the best of the translated novels, is a fun little book of 87 pages about an assailant who incapacitates an actor just before a performance and takes his place on stage. The book is part of Jouet’s ongoing, multitudinous Republic series, which is his main claim to being the most ‘political’ Oulipian currently writing; in the case of Upstaged, the political critique comes from a stand-in, who subtly changes certain lines of the play to make social points. As agitprop, Upstaged would stand somewhere in the vicinity of a dare-based social documentary like Super Size Me and Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion—a fun knock at the ruling order, but hardly revelatory, or memorable. To go back to Simenon—the author of more than a few sharp political novels—his books offer the stiffness and density that make their points stick in one’s throat. Simenon could conjure characters that were pitiable, loathsome and truly despondent; by contrast, the individuals in Upstaged are scatterable abstractions.


For all its shortcomings, Upstaged is high art compared to Jouet’s My Beautiful Bus, which reads like the worst kind of self-indulgent nonsense. (It is so bad that one must wonder why the normally razor-sharp Dalkey Archive Press chose to publish it in translation; surely Jouet’s long backlist holds less offensive quantities.) Early on Jouet confides with seemingly boundless confidence that he ‘supplied the label “novel” regretfully’ to this book because he is ‘searching for a new form for narrative.’ He had better keep looking. Loosely based around Jouet’s titular bus and its driver, a purposely flat character known as Basile, the book is full of digressions like the following:


Puss in Boots is not a cat. He would have four boots if he were a cat. Puss in Boots is the author of an adventure who may spend his entire life giving his language to the narrative cat.

Let’s sum it up.

Times are tough and the setting is a mill in the impoverished countryside. The miller dies, leaving behind three children. The eldest and the middle child band together to secure inheritance of the means of production and trade—the mill, and the donkey. But the least fortunate of the three heirs, the youngest, is left to starve day in, day out.

As each day fails to fulfill his desire, he remembers the brewing hunger of the evening before; he’s still hungry for the following day, and the day after that, and so on until eternity. Even if he were to skin and eat the only inheritance left in his name, a cat, he would still be hungry. Puss in Boots swings a satchel over his shoulder, puts boots on his feet, and sets off on a hunt. He tricks a rabbit into his trap.


One imagines Jouet feeling pleased with his ingenuity for putting Puss in Boots into his novel as a character, but there is nothing innovative here. This tiresome exercise typifies the ‘experimentalism’ going on in Bus, which feels more like a very willful attempt to force innovation than the actual thing. By the evidence of this novel Jouet hasn’t found anything good to replace the plot that he’s out to destroy.


Levin Becker notes that Jouet is the only working Oulipian to ‘make his living solely as an author,’ and this seems right; not only does Jouet provide a steady stream of texts for his adherents to purchase, he also specialises in clever ideas that transport well. Above all, his conceits are simple, beguiling creations that enable his followers to believe that they too can create literature, just like he does. While such a democratisation of the literary should be applauded for demystifying literature, opening it up to new audiences, this can be taken too far. One should never lose sight of the line, no matter how ill-defined, between true literature—which requires much dedication, persistence, and struggle—and the merely passable simulacra that any intelligent reader might create. Jouet destroys any semblance of this line. His work shows itself to be more about mechanically filling in the blanks of a clever conceit than about marshalling the necessary perseverance to push said conceit into interesting, new terrain. A more authentic poet might take a metro poem not as an endpoint but as a starting point, a brisk brainstorm that clears the way for the real work of the imagination. Yet Jouet is off to the next poem before the last one has even had a chance to cool.


The only grounds on which the metro poems might be interesting as art is as conceptual art. Levin Becker gives probably the strongest possible reading of them as such: ‘This has . . . changed what it means to characterise something, whether a text or a gesture or a person, as oulipian . . . First came thinking about the constraint, then the actual production of texts reflecting that constraint, then the actual production of texts whose constraint is their production.’ In other words, closing the distance between the text and the constraint has taken the thought out of Oulipo: instead of a constraint that forces you to wrack your brains for words without the letter e, the metro poem is more like a video game where you have to jot down line after line before the buzzer sounds. Levin Becker is right to call this a democratisation of Oulipian procedure—certainly more people are inclined to try and write a metro poem than to write A Void—and he is also right that the poems suggest Oulipian production is just another part of everyday life. The observations, while valid and probably the most that can be wrung from the metro poems, are far from interesting. Such ideas have been in circulation for some time and have no need for Jouet to propagate them.


By contrast, in Notes on Conceptualisms, Vanessa Place and Robert Fitterman put forward a more interesting direction that Oulipo might take. They argue for a kind of conceptual writing that shuttles back between the micro of language and the macro of structure, creating a tension and instability in the text: ‘Conceptual writing mediates between the written object (which may or may not be a text) and the meaning of the object by framing the writing as a figural object to be narrated.’ The writings of Oulipian Jacques Roubaud and of Christian Bök (who is not an Oulipo author but acknowledges his great debt to the movement) have fulfilled some of this promise.


The experimental Argentine author César Aira offers an example of what the fulfillment of Jouet’s aspirations might look like. Like Jouet, Aira writes very brief novels and has published many of them. Aira even works within some constraints—he calls them ‘the continuum’ and ‘the constant flight forward’—both dealing with the fact that he never goes back and revises, instead working within improvisation to keep his texts feeling light and perpetually under construction. This is how he once explained these concepts to me in an interview:


The continuum is an idea, or barely a pretention, a theory. An attempt to put in the story’s path, without interruptions, cuts, or jumps, those things that give literature its shape: fiction, the reality that inspires fiction, writing, reading, ideologies, effects, caprices, dreads, concepts; also, the struggle and the resultant work, the production and the product. The corresponding figure is the Möbius strip. I discovered this idea, and was seduced by it, while reading a book by [Gilles] Deleuze on film, where, for instance, talking about the film Cleopatra, he breaks in with an analysis of Shakespeare, the Hollywood studio system, montage, use of colour, flashbacks, Roman history, Elizabeth Taylor’s divorces, [Joseph] Mankiewicz’s cinematography. It became my goal to do something like this in a literary story. But all of this, like all theories, falls under the rubric of intentions, and in literature intentions don’t count. More than this: I believe that literature begins to be worthwhile when it exceeds the state of intentions. The constant flight forward would be the mental attitude of whoever wants to mount the continuum. But I fear that it is less of a theory than an excuse to avoid the hard work of revision, self-critique, et cetera. Writing for me has always been the search for happiness, and so it must be done rapidly to cover the most distance possible and without worries of professional scruples.


Notice Aira’s words: ‘all of this, like all theories, falls under the rubric of intentions, and in literature intentions don’t count. More than this: I believe that literature begins to be worthwhile when it exceeds the state of intentions.’ Notice also Aira’s justification for his constant flight forward: ‘to cover the most distance possible.’ True to these words, Aira relentlessly combines genres in a very postmodern frenzy of activity, but the books that emerge from this process feel remarkably whole, and they frequently partake in an original lyricism that pays due heed to the jouissance of fiction. Reading Aira’s novels Ghosts and An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, it is difficult to believe that he did not go back and revise them, for they are so carefully layered, their central images so elaborately constructed over the course of the novel.


The yield from Aira’s experimentation is a distinct, idiosyncratic feeling of lightness that infuses his prose, as well as an openness to juxtaposition that creates unusual metaphors and novelistic structures. The ideas of spontaneity and improvisation are constant tropes in Aira’s literature; he has claimed that when he writes in cafés he regularly puts into his fiction whatever he happens to observe, no matter how incongruous to whatever he is writing at the moment. But this is far from the semi-automatic writing of Jouet: a day’s work for Aira will occasionally yield a page of writing, and he has stated that he throws away far more novels than he completes after being disappointed with his results. Aira relies on his eccentric method to spur his intellect and harness improvisation, but he does not subsume his creativity to it. Also in contrast to Jouet—fêted as a member of the Oulipo and published by France’s most prestigious presses—Aira is constantly at odds with the market, viciously satirising literary culture and artistic pretension while publishing his books with tiny micropresses on the margins of the Argentine scene. Aira has tipped the sacred cows of Latin American letters and argued passionately for new heroes; his authentically polemical spirit puts the lie to Jouet’s critiques from within the mainstream.


It is all but certain that Aira will never write a mega-novel like Ulysses or Life A User’s Manual, but one hardly sees the need for it in his case. The handful of Aira’s books to be translated so far range from the Argentine hyperinflation of the 1980s to satires of literary conferences, sci-fi horror movies, Carlos Fuentes, Adam and Eve, cloning, theatrical theory, extra dimensions, 19th-century landscape painters, the paranormal, coming-of-age stories, transgenderism, surrealist automatic writing, Latin American literary cliques, the grandeur of the pampas and the Andes, architectural theory and a real-life incident involving ice cream poisoned with cyanide. Despite the great range in material, all of the books at one point or another profoundly comment on spontaneity and its role in creation—their fixation on this theme is so strong that they can be seen as various points on one career-spanning arc that reveals Aira’s general theory of art. This could well be extended to the public image Aira crafts in interviews and his novels, the latter of which often feature him, or some Aira-like dopplegänger. His literature is truly suited to our era of chaos and fragmentation, and his persona embodies the life of a writer who eschews mercantile gain and trend-chasing in favour of pursuing his textual vision. Through the redundancy, flexibility and sheer quantity of his messengers, Aira has succeeded in spreading his influence with the force of an avenging angel like Ulysses. It is a form of literary influence fit to an age which gave rise to The Matrix and flashmobs. What’s more, Aira’s influence, profound as it already is, continues to grow: just in the last two years he has begun to seriously invade the North American continent, and he has now been loudly praised by the United States’ leading organs of literary opinion. As they are often the last to get the news, this seems undeniable proof that he has arrived.


Aira’s multitudes bring to mind the ‘great fire of London’ series by the Oulipian Jacques Roubaud. Seven books long, the series, or ‘project’ as Roubaud frequently calls it, has seen three of its ‘branches’ appear in English. It is, by a long shot, the most exciting and impressive work by an Oulipian author to be occurring in English at this time. As with Aira, the works are thematically connected but distinct, and they can be read in any order. Taken collectively, they might be imagined to constitute a mega-novel similar to Ulysses or In Search of Lost Time, yet they are not a single novel. They are seven distinct books that Roubaud has grouped for personal and thematic reasons, and as such they once again point toward the fallacy of requiring unity in literature.


Roubaud was the very first writer to be ‘co-opted’ by the Oulipo. In his early writings Roubaud combined math, poetry, and the rules for various games into a rigorous and satisfying form of writing that attracted the attention of Oulipo co-founder Raymond Queneau. Levin Becker reports that it is now common for French critics to proclaim Roubaud the greatest living French poet, and he has for years been the unofficial leader of the Oulipo, playfully called the ‘Oulipope.’ A professional mathematician who for years supported his literary habit by teaching math, his biography simply reads ‘Born in 1932. Mathematician.’


The ‘great fire’ project has the feel of a mathematics textbook in possibly the only way that such a claim could be a statement of praise. The books are broken out into numbered sections, with arrows pointing the reader toward footnote-like ‘interpolations’ and ‘bifurcations.’ As with a maths textbook, when reading the project one has the feeling that each section builds upon the previous ones in a logical, but subtle and elusive way. The books convey a body of knowledge bit by bit (in this case the ‘knowledge’ is Roubaud’s memory), even as they quietly turn the gears of larger structural movements. Roubaud is greatly adept at ‘speaking’ through the macro structures of his books, suggesting feelings and ideas through juxtaposition, narrative gambits that unfold over the course of chapters and an associative logic that plays on the formalism of math.


What most makes the ‘great fire’ project rewarding is the sense of a search. Roubaud mysteriously embarked on the project after abandoning his novel The Great Fire of London (which itself was suggested to him in a dream), and reading the project conveys the distinct feeling that Roubaud is unsure why he feels compelled to resurrect his lost work. Although he has claimed that the ‘constraint’ he imposed for the project was not to plan any of it in advance, it still feels very Oulipian in the sense that the vastness and unpredictability of memory are corralled by the rigours of a mathematical logic. The books exist within precisely that overlap of freedom and constraint on which the Oulipo has discovered its most worthwhile projects. In a very real sense they are Oulipo, just as they are Jacques Roubaud.


This essay is an extract from The End of Oulipo?, edited by Scott Esposito and Lauren Elkin.



is the co-author of The End of Oulipo? (with Lauren Elkin; Zero Books, 2013). His writing has appeared recently in Music & Literature, Drunken Boat, and The Point. His criticism appears frequently in the Times Literary Supplement, the San Francisco Chronicle, and The Washington Post.



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