Unlocking the Cupboard

Harry Mathews
Harry Mathews; drawing by David Levine

If you consider that it sums up more than three decades of work in short fiction, Harry Mathews’s The Human Country: New and Collected Stories seems a small book. Bulk is deceptive in this case, however. Mathews’s fiction has a way of compressing immensities into the tiniest of compartments.

Like his literary master Raymond Roussel, the French poet, novelist, and playwright who committed suicide in 1933, he prizes what the English poet Mark Ford describes, in his recent magisterial study of Roussel,1 as “relentless concision…a manner so terse as to verge on the elliptical.” In Mathews’s four-page story “The Novel as History,” for example, an encounter between two men in Detroit in 1938 spins, through a recapitulation of their antecedents, backward in time as far as the Hundred Years’ War, and then forward again to the construction of a bridge which is about to be inaugurated just as the story is being told.

By Mathews’s standards the story is a finger exercise, but in small compass it demonstrates his pattern of excavating, within the present moment, infinitely receding perspectives of space and time, of the imaginary and the freely associative, only to circle back to the present again. Sometimes the effect is of a conjuring trick or a deftly executed round of double talk; sometimes it is more as if the bottom fell out of the world, only to be restored a moment later as if nothing had happened, leaving only an aftertaste of unappeasable disquiet.

Like Roussel, whom (along with Kafka and S.J. Perelman) he has acknowledged as his literary ancestor, and like the other writers of the Oulipo group in Paris (of which he is the only American adherent),2 Mathews relies frequently on the use of constraining procedures to generate and structure his fictions. (Georges Perec, for instance, wrote an entire novel, La Disparition (A Void), forgoing the use of the letter “e,” while Raymond Queneau wrote a sequence of ten sonnets all of whose lines can be interchanged in any order without affecting rhyme scheme or grammatical correctness, thus yielding 100,000,000,000,000 Poems.)3 Roussel revealed to Mathews that “the writing of prose fiction could be as scrupulously organized as Sir Philip Sidney’s double sestina” and that “writing could provide me with the means of so radically outwitting myself that I could bring my hidden experiences, my unadmitted self into view.”

That the imposition of self-invented rules should be the means to undreamed-of freedom of expression, that there is indeed no greater freedom than to choose one’s own constraints, might appear a rarefied kind of dandyism. But Mathews’s work, like that of his friend and sometime collaborator Georges Perec, demonstrates that the real can be found at the core of the apparently fantastic, and that what seem like literary games can be more serious than the most ostensibly solemn undertaking. Indeed, just as Perec in his mathematically constructed…

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