Monday, November 05, 2018

Harry Mathews, Tlooth (1966)

So I gave Mathews' first novel, The Conversions, a kind of mutedly positive review, but in reading his second, Tlooth, I started to think that I hadn't quite given Mathews his due. Because this kind of sort of anti-novelistic thing, filled with digressive shaggy dog stories, religious arcana, and postmodern conspiracy theories really seems quite groundbreaking. He is, as I noted, doing a somewhat similar thing to what Pynchon did in The Crying of Lot 49, but I think it's most likely more a case of convergent evolution than anyone consciously copying anyone. Whatever the case, as far as I know, there was really nothing like it at the time, in English, at least (what do you want to bet there was some never-translated thing in some Eastern European language?). I don't know what you would've made of this at the time, and the influence on Perec--which perhaps should've been obvious from the tribute I noted--is really enormous. Also, while I complained about the kind of bland, matter-of-fact style at the time, that style combined with all this bizarreness really does create an Effect. No denying it. Very impressive.

So the story of Tlooth, such as it is, is that the narrator is a former violinist whose career was cut short by having had part of his hand cut off by a doctor to provide meat for a cannibalistic deli. Currently, the both of them are in a Soviet prison camp with sections divided according to obscure religious sect. After several failed Rube-Goldberg-esque assassination attempts fail, the doctor, Roak, escapes, our narrator and some others in hot pursuit (okay, "hot" would be pushing it). They traverse Asia and many strange tales of questionable relevance are related. The narrator ends up in Italy, where there are several unbelievably obscene fantasias that turn out to be the scenario that he(?)'s been hired to write for a pornographic movie. He chases Roak some more, to India and Morocco. Things end very inscrutably and anti-climactically. And that is that.

Here's the thing: as I said, I feel like I really started to appreciate Mathews more as I read this novel, but that appreciation does not, in this case, translate into actually liking him any more. His writing remains very dry and alienating, and even if that's the intent, it fails to fascinate me. Don't get me wrong; I love Mathews in theory. It's just that when we get to praxis, things start to get a little more dicey.


Blogger Achille Talon pontificated to the effect that...

Don't get me wrong; I love Mathews in theory. It's just that when we get to praxis, things start to get a little more dicey.

See, this is what I think is the main problem with experimental writers like that. It's Interesting and Groundbreaking that someone Went And Actually Did This, but “This” isn't actually something much of anybody really enjoys reading, so… what's the point of it all, at the end of the day? It's like Perec's Disparition — the most interesting thing to be said about it is its existence, and I suppose many of us are slightly happier for knowing it exists, but actually reading through the damn thing is a chore.

It's the same sort of absurdity that a lot of Guiness's World Records, if you will. It's vaguely amusing to know that a guy managed to balance a pineapple on his nose while juggling peacocks for several hours, but the skill and achievement are entirely, inescapably pointless and you wouldn't find many people willing to even watch through the several hours of peacock-jugglign and pineapple-balancing.

Not that there aren't exceptions. You can be strange and postmodern and experimental, and entertaining. But it's rarely the case, in my experience.

6:09 AM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. pontificated to the effect that...

I definitely hear what you're saying. I've never actually read Disparition (or A Void in the English translation, which seems like it would have to be closer to a complete rewrite than a translation per se) but yes, it does sound like something that would be cooler in theory than practice. La vie mode d'emploi (Life a User's Manual) is bombass, however. That's really what I was thinking of with the Mathews comparison.

But anyway, yeah. Glancing through this blog will no doubt indicate that I have a higher tolerance for this sort of writing than you do, but it's certainly true that it can be a bit...up itself. That may be even more the casein French; I haven't read the likes of Alain Robbe-Grillet or Robert Pinget (yet!), but they strike me as the kind of writers about whom one would legitimately make such complaints. And given that Mathews was the only American member of Oulipo, it's perhaps not surprising that his books would have similar issues.

2:33 PM  

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