Thursday, February 14, 2013

It Must Be Style: On Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau

Exactly what Tim Gunn is talking about
It is often said there are really only X number of stories, two, four, seven. A man goes on a journey and a stranger comes to town. Sometimes the idea will be varied to conclude that every story has already been told, probably by Shakespeare, or some other dead guy who is no longer trying to make a living. I think there is some truth to this idea, but too often the implications of this idea don't move beyond a vague acceptance of the impossibility of originality. Then we try to be original anyway. If there are a limited number of stories, than the distinguishing feature of all stories, what separates them, what makes one narrative good and another not good, is style. How the story is told becomes the absolute defining feature of a work of narrative. It's not that originality is entirely impossible, but that it rests solely in the realm of style.

I'm not sure I agree with the absoluteness of storytelling archetypes beyond a kind of conversational shorthand. To me, the idea of the limits of plot originality is as much about the way we organize the world into patterns as it is about, well, the limits of plot originality. Essentially, there are an infinite number of stories that can be told and in order to get a handle on the storytelling beast dwelling in the labyrinth of our brain we categorize, organize, and limit.

Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style confronts the idea of absolute patterns in storytelling and then reduces the idea absolutely. A banal story is told in 99 different ways. (Queneau, like Jay-Z, did not have a “bitch” problem.) A young man with a long neck and a strange hat believes a man standing next to him on a bus is purposefully treading on his feet every time someone gets on our off the bus. When a seat opens up, he sits in it. Later that same day, the narrator sees the young man somewhere else, and notices a friend of the young man advising him on the placement of a button on his overcoat. Using constraints, formats, styles, voices, substitutions, translations, and other techniques, Queneau writes a kind of Metamorphoses, transforming a single event into an exploration of the fundamental actions of telling others about a single event. Like If on a winter's night a traveler, and other works by Oulipo, Queneau breaks apart the act of storytelling into its constituent parts. He splits the atom of narrative.

Queneau was also a pioneer in photo booth vaudeville
I think it makes for a freaking awesome book. Funny, insightful, weird, baffling. Why do words produce certain effects? What is plot if it can be surrounded by infinitely mutable style? How do words come to having the meanings they do? Patterns of speech. Political leanings. Poetic forms. In essence, Queneau has produced a nearly definitive text book on how to get an event out of your head and into the world. But Queneau doesn't quite go all the way into the land of textbook. In the original edition, (the new one from New Directions has additional exercises both by Queneau and some of today's best and brightest) Queneau manages to create a surprise ending. Yes. The 99th permutation of the same banal story has a totally realistic, totally believable, totally shocking, surprise ending. (That sound you heard a couple of weeks ago, might very well have been my brain exploding.) Still I could see why some (OK, many) people would not be interested enough in the gears of the literature machine to read an entire book about them.

And that is fine by me. However, just become one might not be interested in the book, doesn't make the book self-indulgent or pretentious or any of the other pejorative words often thrown at experimental writing. Sure, it probably is most interesting to readers who write and/or readers curious about writing, but that doesn't mean Queneau was just showing off. Here's how I think about this idea; I don't read the Lancet, but I'm glad my doctor does. Even though articles in the Lancet would be totally impenetrable to me, filled with references, jargon, allusion, and extremely complex sentence construction, it doesn't mean the authors are just “showing off,” and it doesn't mean those who read the Lancet are “showing off.” In every profession, there are experts who do stuff to make everybody else in their field better at what they do. We don't dismiss their materials. We probably don't read them very much, but we don't dismiss them. In some ways, “specialist” literature is even more accessible, democratic, populist, than any other specializations, because you can use basic reading skills to teach yourself how to read and appreciate them. The Lancet is pretty much always going to be impossible for me to read, but anybody could reach a point in their reading lives, if they want to put in a bit of effort, where they can read and enjoy Exercises in Style. But even if few readers decide on that course, the writers who have read Exercises in Style will write better and more interesting books. Because of Queneau and Oulipo and every other writer who has experimented, dared, pushed the limits, made mistakes, failed at creating a new form, wrote something terrible in the process, mainstream books get better. Like labs and the Lancet, books need Raymond Queneaus.

But, beyond all that “gears of literature” stuff (or maybe because of it) I think there's another ultimate truth expressed in Exercises in Style, one connected to some of the other great works of literature, Don Quixote, Tristram Shandy, Ulysses, and In Search of Lost Time. (Don't look at me like that.) We have very little control over what happens to us in life, but we can decide how our life is told. To put this another way. Plot constrains, style frees.

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