"Cigarettes" is Harry Mathews' fourth novel, his first in 12 years. It follows "The Conversions" (1962) and "Tlooth" (1966), both now resurrected from out-of-print oblivion by the same publisher that recently also reissued Mathews' third novel, "The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium" (1975). That early trio of books can now be seen as a unit, and probably a closed chapter in the novelist's career.
Certainly their shared characteristics make them unique in American fiction. A blend of wild intellectual comedy and bizarre fantasy, arcane data and flamboyant verbal gamesmanship, they are disarming and delightful works with few precedents in the language. If "Tristram Shandy," "Finnegans Wake" and Lewis Carroll's "Alice" books perhaps broke some ground for the early Mathews, one must search beyond the bounds of English for closer analogies. Borges and Calvino, to whom Mathews has been compared, were never this weird; and Raymond Roussel, the turn-of-the-century herald of French surrealism ("Impressions of Africa," "Locus Solus") from whom Mathews did indeed borrow the anti-referential, language-playing elements of his early style, was never quite this funny.
In "The Conversions," Mathews sets his narrator-hero off on a hopeless intercontinental problem-solving quest that involves retrieving a "golden adze" (whose confusing figuration he must somehow decipher) and responding to several Zen-like riddles in order to inherit an enormous fortune bequeathed by a mischievously nutty millionaire (who reminds us a little of God, and a little of the novelist himself). The theme of inheritance is one readers will run across again in "Cigarettes," where it's explored in much greater depth as a factor in human behavior. Here it's merely a mechanical device, employed to trigger a hilarious wild-goose-chase of a plot.