Novelist, poet and essayist Harry Mathews is one of literature's great modern treasures. The deft experimentation which characterizes his work must at least in part be attributed to his association with the Oulipo, a group of French writers and mathematicians devoted to exploring the potential of literature by applying sets of rules, simple and complex, to texts, with the thought that a series of logical steps can lead to surprise. And surprise, as the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan -- among others -- has pointed out, is perhaps the most convincing proof of our unconscious. (Incidentally, out this month from Atlas Press, is the excellent oulipean resource, The Oulipo Compendium, which Mathews co-edited.)
Last year Dalkey Archive Press, another modern treasure, started to reissue a selection of Mathews' out-of-print works, including most recently Cigarettes, his 1987 masterpiece. An immensely readable, densely plotted, slyly subversive novel, Cigarettes is full of surprises. Its chapters center on pairs of relationships between the book's characters who operate in New York City's art and business world in the early 1960s. Chapters are titled after the relationship pairs: Alan and Elizabeth; Oliver and Elizabeth; Oliver and Pauline ...
Mathews weaves remarkable hues of compassion and coercion into his cast of personalities: passively naive, hugely generous or pathologically fearful of being swindled, excluded or duped. Some are able to dwell satisfyingly in ambivalence; others are so frustrated by ambivalence they lunge toward an extreme of kindness or cruelty. The narrative's subplots, which involve scams, seductions, friendships, forgeries and love affairs, are staged against a backdrop of bars, art galleries, country homes, S&M clubs, artist studios and horse-racing tracks -- and are tantalizingly drawn out without being resolved.
There is much to praise in this elegant book, which is wicked and warm at once: the casual introduction of complex ideas, the humor, the Herculean scaffolding of its structure, the skilled blend of language -- gorgeous description, detailed narration and speech. Its direct dialogue ranges from natural (an artist to his assistant: "You are crapping all over the canvas. You know better.") to bizarrely clichéd (a woman discussing horse track betting with the man she's courting: "Wrong nick-name toots. The point is, so far my system's no answer to a virgin's prayer."), to frighteningly incomprehensible (a young artist debilitated by an undiagnosed illness: "Then a nice older piece of lettuce for salad days full of suggestions & spinal trappings.").
For Mathews, language mirrors human conduct and, specifically, communication -- an activity often structured by misreadings of oneself and therefore others. Language and behavior are interconnected enterprises with vast possibilities; both can be executed creatively; both can be played out as unthinking responses to received information. It's a process which sets in place a stubborn assortment of destructive behaviors -- such as parents' possessiveness toward a "favorite child," younger siblings' anger at the older ones who cared for them, and miserable self-absorption -- which require concerted efforts, if not extreme measures, to break.
Among the ways Mathews' characters break that conditioning include: sadomasochistic games (which come off somehow touching and hilarious); physical and mental illness (sickness being an especially violent form of destruction); and the more conventional teacher-student relationships, as between these two writers: "Morris was showing him what writing could do. He advanced the notion that creation begins by annihilating typical forms and procedures, especially the illusory 'naturalness' of sequence and coherence."
But changing habits isn't just about obliterating patterns; it's also about allowing new knowledge in -- and understanding that it dwells nearby -- as the exquisite meditation on death at the novel's end suggests: " ... the dead stay everlastingly present among us, taking the form of palpable vacancies that only disappear when, as we must, we take them into ourselves. We take the dead inside us; we fill their voids with our own substance; we become them."
In Cigarettes, life is a kind of play whose capacity for rapture, longing and pain are limitless. Engaging with it can prove to be achingly joyful.
Harry Mathews will read from his work at 8 p.m., Wednesday, Nov. 18, at Shaman Drum Bookshop, 313 S. State St., Ann Arbor. Call 734-662-7407.