Apr/May 2012

Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature

Atossa Araxia Abrahamian

When Daniel Levin Becker was sixteen, he made a mixtape that included only songs and artists whose names did not contain the letter e. Soon after, he read Georges Perec’s La Disparition, a novel written entirely without the offending vowel. Levin Becker spent a good part of his formative years “making the numbers and letters on license plates into mathematically true statements,” so he was heartened to discover that he was “not alone in appreciating naturally occurring palindromes, or knowing a shorter sentence with all the letters in the alphabet than The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog, or suspecting it’s no accident that typewriter is the longest English word that can be written on the top row of a QWERTY keyboard.”

His kindred spirits were members of the Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, or Oulipo, a collective of writers and mathematicians formed as a subcommittee of Alfred Jarry’s Collège de ’Pataphysique. (Incidentally, Oulipo can be typed using only keys that are immediately adjacent to one another on most keyboards.) Since the group’s formation in 1960, members of the Oulipo, most of them authors and mathematicians, have been concocting playful and sometimes hilariously intricate challenges: poems in which each word rhymes with the corresponding word on the following line, passages in which every word begins with the same letter, entire novels structured around movements on a chessboard. The idea is that these “constraints” actually open up new possibilities for expression. Raymond Queneau, the group’s cofounder, wrote that Oulipians are “rats who build the labyrinth from which they will try to escape.”

Many Subtle Channels is Levin Becker’s personal history of this literature and his tribute to the people who helped create it, including Perec, Jacques Roubaud, Italo Calvino, and Marcel Duchamp. Levin Becker’s own trajectory makes him well suited to write this book. For starters, he’s the youngest-ever member of the Oulipo, and only the second American ever to be elected into the group (the first was Harry Mathews). In what is perhaps the most enviable postcollegiate gig of the past decade, Levin Becker went to France after graduating from Yale in 2006 to study the collective on the Fulbright’s tab, and ended up working as the Oulipo’s “slave.” For a year, he sorted through Oulipo archives, catalogued old correspondences, went to writing workshops, and ate and drank with members like Mathews, Marcel Bénabou, and Olivier Salon, all while partaking in verbal challenges like the metro-poem, a classic Oulipian exercise in which an author composes a poem on a subway by quickly writing a line each time the train comes to a halt.

Levin Becker gets Oulipian obsessiveness on a gut level, and his delight in palindromes and lipograms (texts that, like the Perec novel, are entirely devoid of a particular letter) vividly comes to life in his writing. But the book’s most revelatory moments come when Levin Becker suggests that this obsessiveness comes hand in hand with a deep need for guidance. Perec once said that “the intense difficulty posed by this sort of production . . . palls in comparison to the terror I would feel in writing ‘poetry’ freely.”

The constraints the Oulipians place on themselves and on each other are by nature arbitrary. Sometimes, the texts end up tricking unwitting reviewers—one unsuspecting critic missed the conceit of La Disparition completely and panned the novel for being “stilted”—but mischief, writes Levin Becker, isn’t really the point. Oulipian texts existed for decades before the collective was formed and will likely continue even if the collective disbands. Random as Oulipian practices may seem, they actually embody one of the most fundamental challenges that all writers face—to test and push the boundaries of language.