The start of an experiment

(Because sometimes we are better at starting than finishing?)

The writers in the OuLiPo group (it’s a French acronym, roughly meaning “workshop of potential literature”) believed in taking on a range of challenges in their writing to spur their creativity, and to push their production beyond the bounds of what they might normally be capable.

Perhaps the most notable work produced by any of these writers was Georges Perec’s novel “A Void,” a full-length novel that does not contain the letter “e” — the most common letter in both English and French writing! (Ironically, the plot revolves in part around the vague sense that something is missing, though no one can figure out what…).

A Void - Wikipedia
The cover of Perec’s book. Image credit:

Inspired by Perec’s experiment, as part of my daily writing I thought I’d spend some time trying out paragraphs in this style, each omitting a different letter of the alphabet. Here is my beginning. (If you bear with me a few letters, you’ll see a story beginning to emerge, one which will continue on future days…)

No A: Tricky, this one. Common yet sometimes hidden, frequent yet it might turn out to be the truth that its commonness is less so if we just try, judiciously. I’d been down, been blue, been thinking nightly, been drinking frequently. I don’t possess the druthers to effectively tell you, this is like the other thing, this is more, this is less, there’s just too much missing, too much empty inside my mind, my body, even my muscles. I’m depressed, it’s true, keep hoping to rhyme, not quite on purpose, but not quite not on purpose either. The end of December is close by, lingering on the doorstep, loitering just beyond where my senses might detect it, even my Spidey sense, which is not so strong, since being bitten by spiders is something I try to keep from occurring. Let’s be honest, some tenses find themselves off limits now, like the end of the month they linger just beyond the threshold, it is difficult for me to begin doing something that I wish to continue, to hold something tightly in my fingers, like droplets of rain it simply slides out between the flesh, the fingertips try but in the end, they hold onto nothing. On Mergot Shore I don’t find connecting nothing to nothing possible, or it might turn out in the end that connecting nothing to nothing is the only thing we possess the strength to do, to misquote Eliot terribly. Connecting nothing to nothing, like spiders hurling lines into the void, noiseless spiders seeking to tie the emptiness together. 

No B: Simpler, an easier task, clearly, though it foxes some of our range of action, our range of prepositions, things can take place with or against or happen for or through. Some of our objections are cut off as well, and one (minor?) tense, as well as the world of the infinite — or at least the world of the infinitive. Yet I don’t feel so alone anymore, don’t feel as incapacitated, or as challenged by my lack of range of motion. Perhaps (sigh with relief when uttering that ever so useful word!) it is like having one’s range of motion restored after an accident, having one’s speech or leg musculature now again freely open to oneself (so formal, all these “ones” and “oneselves,” just the way the cookie crumbles, I suppose). Walking is certainly an improvement over having found oneself confined to a chair, stationary, stuck in one place, although equally certainly there are plenty of folks who have found ways to make themselves free, having ended up confined to a chair, a seat, a place from where there was no standing or rising — freedom is always freedom within a range; as I used to say to my students when teaching English, the possible interpretations of a work of literature is indeed infinite, yet at the same time it has endpoints, in the same way that there are an infinite number of points sandwiched amidst zero and one on a line of integers, yet that range is confined within those endpoints. So too the possible interpretations of a work of literature finds itself within the range that the text allows: if you cannot find textual support for an interpretation, that interpretation cannot stand. If you can find textual support, even if it is partial or meagre, then that interpretation at least can claim that it is worthy of consideration, even if ultimately we dismiss it as lacking the proper support to find itself upheld.

No C: Lost at sea, ship tossed upon the waves, brought down by the hammer fist of a white-tipped indifferent hand of water, smashed to bits, floating upon bits and shards, flotsam and jetsam. He wakes to find himself rimed with salt, dried out and feeling like half a man and half a kind of squid jerky, not unlike that sold down at the piers by young boys bearing sticks of white-yellow  formerly live, lively and brightly darting sea beings. It seems funny, in a way, that the sea is our setting here, perhaps (though I admit I’m not sure about this) one of the more difficult ones for this task, seemingly abundant with “sea” life. He drifts amidst the junk, sometimes rising high atop swells that lift and fall, sometimes settling into a gentle sleep when the water is almost tender in the way that it bears him, swings him like an infant borne along on its mother’s breast, bound there by swaddling. Finally, he is borne into a bay, settles upon the shore of an island, pulls himself with difficulty up the hot, heavy sand, and awakens next with his head set down upon moss beside a small brook that empties into the sea. He must have drunk, he must have sought shade, for he is burnt and dried out, he gulps water vigorously, at first using his hands to bring it to his lips, slurping it from them, and then when he feels able sliding his head nearer to the water and drinking directly from the stream.

When he wakes the next time his body is throbbing with burn, but his head isn’t hurting the way it was, and his eyes feel less dried out, more able to look around and see. He pulls himself to a sitting position and eases his tender spine, and the flesh around it, whose redness he hasn’t seen but is easily able to imagine, against the rough trunk of a nearby palm tree, supporting his weight. He shuts his eyes again. When he opens them it is later, nearly dark, at ground level everything is a hazy patina of shadows against shadows, ebon on ebon, though when he lifts his eyes to the sky he sees a deep blue, the first stars or planets just winking into visibility.

Next post — Oulipo continued!