Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Harry Mathews, The Conversions (1962)

Here's the coolest thing that happened reading this novel: I came across a story about a guy travelling across Africa trading cowry shells to different tribes for different cowry shells with the ultimate goal of making a profit, and I had the damnedest sense of deja vu: why do I have this nagging feeling that I've read this before? I know this is my first time reading this book. THIS IS WEIRD ARGH. Then I realized: Mathews was the first (and for a long time only) American member of Oulipo, and he and Georges Perec were friends and mutual admirers. Life a User's Manual contains sundry tributes and references to other writers, some of which I got and some not, and BAM: I retroactively realized that one of them was to this very book. COOL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Well. Mathews isn't exactly well-known in this day and age, and I doubt he was especially well-known back in the day either, but he had a long and prolific career, and was writing up until his death in January of this year. This is his first novel; I heard about it in the comments to a Guardian article commemorating Thomas Pynchon's eightieth birthday. It seemed interesting, so I read it. Bam.

It's about an unnamed guy who wins a ceremonial adze from an eccentric millionaire. He (the millionaire) dies the next day, and wills most of his fortune to whoever owns the adze, provided that he's able to answer a series of gnomic questions about its background. So begins our quest, which takes us hither and yon, figuring out, or maybe figuring out, various conspiracies and listening to a bunch of shaggy dog stories.

There's certainly a superficial resemlance to The Crying of Lot 49 here--person tries to execute a rich man's estate and gets drawn into historical conspiracies--but it's more different than similar. The aforementioned shaggy dog stories are definitely Pynchonesque (and generally pretty entertaining), but the approach to the subject matter is very different. In Pynchon's novel, the paranoia is much more highly-developed and the whole mystery seems much more plausible--and, perhaps most importantly, it goes on; the point of the unresolved ending is that it's unresolvable, but that there's a kind of valuable energy and generative power that comes from following it. Whereas in Mathews' novel--can I say?--the narrator is pretty sure it's all been meaningless and just gives up. Anti-climactic, if not nihilistic.

And then there are other comparisons where Mathews doesn't come out looking that great: Pynchon's Oedipa Maas is a sympathetic and relatable character, whereas Mathews' protagonist is...basically nothing. Also, Mathews lacks Pynchon's poetic facility; this is generally pretty dry intellectual stuff, which isn't necessarily a negative for me, but THE POINT IS, it's easy to see why The Crying of Lot 49 is widely-read and The Conversions is not (though not that widely-read--I always realize what a friggin bubble I live in when I meet new people and mention Pynchon and a few of his books and always or almost just get blank looks).

Dammit, that last paragraph sounded more negative than I wanted it to. It's just that people make the comparison and I can't help but want to clarify it. So let me say that in spite of however it might suffer compared to certain other books, I basically enjoyed this--at least enough so that I may well seek further of Mathews' works. Also, there's one thing it does that I've never seen done before, possibly because it's dumb and pointless, BUT STILL: there's one chapter that's a story allegedly translated from a German manuscript--and then, in the back of the book, there's the full text of the alleged original German. Maybe there are secrets in there for German speakers; maybe not. Regardless, I thought it was cute. La.  


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