The Small Time
Klawans, Stuart, The Nation
The Small Time
Surely it is too late in the day for me to add to the literature on Harry Mathews, America's most celebrated unknown writer. So here goes:
Half a decade ago in Paris, a short fiction titled "Plaisirs singuliers" appeared, rendered into French by the novelist Marie Chaix. The publisher was obscure; theoriginal story, in English, remained unseen. Already, the situation resembles something invented by Harry Mathews. Perhaps in his version a curious scholar would set off to examine the original manuscript, only to learn that Marie Chaix had never possessed it; her translation would turn out to be a series of notes on the anonymous, obscene photo calls she had received from an American who seemed to have the wrong number. Imagine the possibilities! But I am bound by reality and must report only that "Singular Pleasures," a story by Harry Mathews, does exist and has at last appeared in its native English in the Winter 1988 issue of Grand Street.
The formula for "Singular Pleasures"--there is always a formula of some kind with Mathews--is relatively simple. There are sixty-one paragraphs; each mentions a character (with his or her age), a city and a method of masturbation. In general, the characters are alternately male and female, though this rules is not strictly enforced. One can, of course, read the whole thing as a metaphor for literary creation itself, and in paragraphs forty-four through forty-eight Mathews encourages just such an interpretation. That section deals with the activities of a group called Masturbation and Its Discontents, or MAID, "a quasi-subversive organization" that "encourages its members to invent obstacles to overcome while masturbating": for example, completing the act while reciting Milton's "Il Penseroso" to no fewer than three listeners. At this point, we are not far from a literary group to which Mathews belongs, the Oulipo. This real organization--at least it pretends to be real--encourages its members to invent obstacles to overcome while writing: for example, composing a whole novel without using the letter "e."
To Mathews's detractors, this identification of literary artifice with masturbation might seem an apt judgment on his own sins of emission. If only Mathews were less clever, his critics say; if only he were less inventive, les erudite, less adroit--then he'd be a good writer. Rather than attempt to answer this criticism--it really is too late in the day for that--I will direct the reader to the Fall 1987 issue of The Review of Contemporary Fiction, which is devoted almost in its entirety to Mathews. There, in the text of an address delivered to a college audience, Mathews justifies himself, beginning with a sentence that is, even for him, a surprise: "I intend to talk to you seriously."
This is not what one expects from a writer known for his preference for imagination and wordplay over direct addresses to the real world. But Mathews's writing has always had its social side. At times, he has legislated a literary Utopia where the race or sex of a character is of so little consequence that the categories have disappeared. He has similarly consigned to oblivion the distinction between homosexuality and heterosexuality. And, of course, he is unfailingly entertaining, a sure sign of a writer who truly cares for the reader. This aspect of Mathews comes forward in his address to the college audience, as well as in interviews with John Ashbery and John Ash. The Review of Contemporary Fiction also contains appreciations by fellow novelists Georges Perec, Edmund White, Frederick Ted Castle and Joseph McElroy, and, among other essays, one that I found particularly charming: an analysis of the arcana in Mathews's first novel, The Conversions, by Tomasz Mirkowicz, who had the audacity to translate the thing into Polish.
Thanks to the Anglo-American publisher Carcanet, it is once again possible to own a copy of The Conversions and of Mathews' next two novels as well: Tlooth (a picaresque tale on the horrors of dentistry) and The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium (written partly in the language of the Southeast Asian nation of Pan-Nam). …