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They word-play by their own rules

The 'constrained literature' crowd celebrates experimental writing -- say, a mystery novel without the letter E -- at REDCAT.

October 28, 2005|Christopher Reynolds | Special to The Times

Authors, be composing dramatic encryptions, for, good heavens, intellectually joyous knotty language makes new opportunities possible.

This, more or less, is the position of the writers and academics who will gather downtown today for "noulipo," a conference and celebration of experimental literature. The sponsor is the CalArts master's degree writing program, which began this newfangled tradition last year. The setting is REDCAT at Disney Hall.

"It's like Impressionism," says Christine Wertheim, a CalArts instructor and co-organizer of the conference. "The Impressionists took away the smooth surface of the salon painting, because they wanted the audiences and themselves to see how painting actually worked, that the image was made up of brushstrokes on a canvas." Once a writer starts experimenting with form, Wertheim says, "you don't forget that it's letters and words on a page."

The term "noulipo" is an adaptation of Oulipo, which is the name of a literary movement born in France in 1961. (It began as Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle -- workshop of potential literature.) Only three-dozen writers and thinkers worldwide have been named full-fledged Oulipians (Italo Calvino is one), and most are dead now, but interest in their ideas has mushroomed in recent years, especially among North American writers and small avant-garde publishers.

Beginning at 12:30 p.m. today and continuing Saturday, more than a dozen of these writers will compare notes, argue aesthetics (one discussion will consider "aleatorics versus automatization") and read excerpts.

What these new writers like is the idea of "constraint" as a liberating device. That is, instead of always using 26 letters and standard punctuation, these wordsmiths change the rules. The change might be as simple as starting words with consecutive letters (see the top of this story) or as brave as an entire mystery novel without the letter E -- a feat accomplished in 1969 by the late French Oulipian hero Georges Perec in the volume "La Disparition."

Some 25 years later, a masochistic Briton named Gilbert Adair actually translated the work from French to English, retitling it "A Void." An excerpt:

"Noon rings out. A wasp, making an ominous sound, a sound akin to a klaxon or a tocsin, flits about. Augustus, who has had a bad night, sits up blinking and purblind."

Oulipians and their ilk contend that these experiments serve at least two purposes: to remind readers just how many conventions they follow every waking minute, and to sprinkle little seeds of challenge and surprise in a world of glum predictability. Paul Fournel, president of the Oulipo since 2003 and a visiting professor at Princeton University, likes to say that "Oulipians are rats building up the labyrinth that they have to get out of."

Los Angeles poet Harryette Mullen compares the Oulipian constraints to the structure of a standard blues song, "which uses a strict, conventional form to express humor and playfulness as well as the deepest pain and sorrow."

Indeed, for all the gamesmanship involved, Mullen and other constrained contemporary authors do explore solemn themes. Loss, for instance, and alienation, and the sense of grief and incompleteness that lingered in rubble-strewn Europe after World War II. Both of Perec's parents, in fact, were killed in that war, which lends rather a darker overtone to the absence of E from his masterpiece.

Perhaps the most famous Oulipian constraint is known as N+7: You construct or borrow a passage of writing, then go to the dictionary and replace all the nouns (or every word, if you like) with the word found seven entries ahead. Or three behind (which would be N-3). Whatever, as long as you're consistent.

Thus, using Webster's New World Dictionary and N-7 methodology, the Shakespearean sonnet opener "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun" becomes the pleasantly post-modern "My mistle thrush's exurbanites are noted like the sump pump."

When the professionals get to playing with constraints, however, the going gets considerably weirder. For instance, a 117-page book that consists of a single sentence, which occurs in the mind of a critically wounded World War I soldier. That's "Dies: A Sentence," published in July by Los Angeles writer Vanessa Place. An excerpt:

"The maw that rends without tearing, the maggoty claw that serves you, what, my baby buttercup, prunes stewed softly in their own juices or a good slap in the face, there's no accounting for history in any event, even such a one as this one ... "

Last year's constrained sensation was Doug Nufer's "Never Again," the tale of a gambler who loses control of his life. In 202 pages, no word is used more than once. Then there's Toronto poet Christian Bok, who made his name in 2001 with a five-chapter, 112-page novel titled "Eunoia." Each chapter in Bok's book uses just one vowel along with the usual consonants.

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