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Out, Out, Brief Cigarette : THE CONVERSIONS by Harry Mathews (Carcanet Press: $8.50, paper; 182 pp.) : TLOOTH by Harry Mathews (Carcanet Press: $8.50, paper; 188 pp.) : CIGARETTES by Harry Mathews: (Weidenfeld & Nicolson: $16.95; 288 pp.)

October 11, 1987|Tom Clark | Clark is the author of "The Exile of Celine" (Random House). and

"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.

A close cousin in form to "The Conversions," "Tlooth" is a picaresque tale of escape and revenge that begins in a Siberian gulag called Jacksongrad and winds its uproariously unlikely way through Afghanistan, India and Morocco before ending up in France (a country this New York-native author has taken as his part-time home, even as he's taken its 20th-Century writings as his prime models).

The self-enclosed verbal performance of "The Conversions" and "Tlooth" strains linguistic reference to its limit, creating a subjective universe in which the mind's ceaseless inventiveness runs up against an opaque barrier of "facts" and "words." Mathews' heroes are detectives of the absurd who don't realize they're trapped in this baffling puzzle-universe; the task the novelist has assigned them is to discover and investigate a world that gradually reveals itself to be a compound delusion. In "Cigarettes," this tragic joke turns unexpectedly into something that for all its elegance, sophistication and irony looks suspiciously like real tragedy.

For "Cigarettes" is about nothing less than the built-in impossibility of human relationships. Our addictive drive to know and understand each other not only consumes us, Mathews seems to be saying in his new novel, but does so with as little real meaning as the consumption, one by one, of cigarettes from a pack: flaring glow, some smoke, and then gone. The only truth perceptible by the light of this brief flame is that subjectively tilted "deformed truth" defined so well by Freud as the product of wishful thinking; trapped inside the mirror-filled halls of their wishful illusions, Mathews' characters struggle valiantly but unsuccessfully to relate, each speaking a language of Self that may sound clear but ultimately proves as unintelligible to the surrounding selves as Esperanto to a Martian.

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