Experimental Fiction, Part Four: Constraint

24 Mar

Constraint in writing is nothing new. Blank verse with its strict rules on syllables per line, the sonnet with its fourteen lines divided into eight and six line stanzas (to which we shall return below), rhyme in itself – all are constraints. They distort language, forcing imagination to grow into new and potentially beautiful mutations.

The Oulipians were the masters of constraint. I’ve mentioned before co-founder, Raymond Queneau retelling the same simple story ninety-nine different ways in Exercises in Style and Oulipo wunderkind, Georges Perec writing an entire novel without the letter ‘E’ in La Disparation, translated by Gilbert Adair as A Void (the first of his works that I read, and despite the brilliance of its execution, to my mind the weakest of his longer fictions) and then putting the ‘E’s back again in Les Revenentes, where they are the only vowels to appear.

The influence of the Oulipians has been felt in the English-speaking world. The American novelist, Walter Abish has dedicated a writing career to experimentation. Alphabetical Africa takes up the Oulipian challenge. In a variant on the lipogram and the acrostic, every word in the first chapter begins with an ‘A’. In the second chapter, ‘B’ is allowed also and so on until we reach the central chapter where there are no constraints. We then travel all the way back again to the final chapter where only words beginning with ‘A’ are permitted. The Canadian, Geoff Ryman set himself the challenge of writing 253 character sketches about passengers and the driver on a London underground train, each in 253 words. Unsurprisingly, then, he called the resultant book 253. Since the chapter/sketches are non-linear, they can, like B S Johnson’s The Unfortunates, potentially be read in any order. Originally published on the Internet, its hyperlinks allowed it more easily to be read in this way. In a haiku-like manner, the 253 words force Ryman to provide an insight for us into each character with great economy. Dan Rhodes – an English writer for whom I have much time – embarked on a similar project in Anthropology, in which 101 women that the narrator has known are each described in exactly 101 words. Over a decade later, Rhodes has written the follow-up, Marry Me, which I’ve yet to read.


Like cultivars of fruit trees…

For myself, I have always made some use of such devices and was doing so long before I’d ever heard of the Oulipo. In my last work, for example, all 158 chapters had three-word titles beginning with the same three letters in the same order (not to mention the contents listing 158 false chapter headings governed by the same constraint). Like cultivars of fruit trees, the titles branched out in curious directions. The constraint forced unusual constructions in order to express the subject matter of each chapter using that limited palette of words. So we have Rigid Adherence Forced, for example, for a chapter about a character arrested by the military police for cowardice, a title that also expresses the self-imposed rule under which I was operating. In the false contents, it becomes Regulations Astringently Followed. Then there are the 85 anagrams of the book’s title with which sections begin. It’s madness, course, but thematic reasons lie behind it. Such techniques also push your mind into territory that it otherwise might not explore. And besides, it keeps you out of mischief of the real world variety…

...the titles branched out in curious directions

…the titles branched out in curious directions

Another interesting ruse, which I first encountered in the early writings of Edward Upward and Christopher Isherwood, is the buried sonnet. Here, the writer composes a paragraph comprising fourteen sentences in which a concealed canonical sonnet – taken from Shakespeare, Donne or the like – is placed. In my abandoned State of England novel, I chose Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella. In Sidney’s great work, the heroine is Stella. My leftist anti-hero, Elver Hodgkin is obsessed instead with Stalin. I leave you with a passage from it. A prize awaits the first reader to identify the sonnet buried within Hodgkin’s speech.

Elver Hodgkin is nearing the peak of another great oration, scaling the snow-capped heights of Stalinist rhetoric in a carefully scripted speech:

“Big Brother, dear comrades, defended hate, because like Marx, grown blacker in his love, with deadly shot had killed the circling dove to keep the peace in that first workers’ state. The boss refused, he feared the Marxist state, which threatened strikes, if push should come to shove: and just in case put steel inside his glove – break strikes, break skulls – where comrades manned the gate…”

As he speaks the neatly trimmed, tangerine art-beard wobbles about on his chin like an orange on the surface of a bowl of water in a Victorian party game. His right hand chops the air to emphasize each point that he makes; the left fiddles around inside his trousers. He is holding forth on the connexion between the CCCP and CCTV:

“Still the police camera is filming it, in Stalin’s brows it sees two hooded crows, and in his eyes the TV’s closed circuit. So now at you he peeps, somehow he knows, and sure enough, like Macbeth in that play, tears to shreds all that might get in his way.”

It is a pity that there is no-one to hear him in the front room of the rented house in Dog Lane.

All text and images © PSR 2013


10 Responses to “Experimental Fiction, Part Four: Constraint”

  1. Mari Biella March 24, 2013 at 4:08 pm #

    Is it Sonnet XVII: ‘His mother deere, Cupid offended late…’?

    Loved what you did with it there. Paul, one way or another you have just got to get something published – I cannot wait to read some of your work in full. In the meantime, it’s great to have a place like this to visit. So many writers’ blogs and forums focus on sales and publicity, which I find both boring and depressing. This is what it’s all about, IMHO: the sheer joy of creativity.

    Interesting background on Ryman’s 253, and its original publication on the internet. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how the internet is affecting literature – and not just in the most obvious ways, such as the ease of digital publishing. I’ve recently become quite interested in the Alt Lit movement, for example. There’s a lot of potential for cross-pollination there, and it will be interesting to see what happens next.

  2. Paul Sutton Reeves March 24, 2013 at 5:59 pm #

    Aaarrgh! Right first time!

    Hi Mari, and many thanks for your kind words of encouragement.

    I’d rather like to see my fiction published at some point too, but persuading the ladies and gentlemen of the publishing world of my work’s merits is proving rather troublesome thus far! I’m not holding my breath. A long, long time ago, I came really rather close to having a novel published – one that I’ve since totally disowned. Now I don’t seem to be able to get my work anywhere near anyone that might take notice of it. But, as you say, in the end it’s all about the joy of creativity. It’s just what I do. And there’s also the knowledge that what I’ve written has given pleasure to my minuscule but hugely valued readership, both of my fiction and of this blog.

    Yes, you’re right, Mari. Computers, the Internet, mobile phones, e-books… they’re all altering our thought processes, changing our language, interceding in the creative process and the reading experience in unpredictable ways. I still write down key passages in a notebook, carried with me at all times, and remain convinced that the best things I write come straight from the pen. And yet, without all of that technology, there’d be no blogs and no discussion with like-minded individuals around the globe…

    The Alt Lit movement? Again, you’ve introduce a new phenomenon to me! I shall have to investigate.

    I shall have to go and have a rummage in the prize cabinet…

    • Mari Biella March 25, 2013 at 3:47 pm #

      I only discovered Alt Lit recently myself, and it’s quite a new phenomenon anyway; it dates back to about 2011, I think. I’m still in the process of finding out more about it. It interests me, however, because it seems to represent the first generation of writers who find a natural home on the internet. I feel a blog post coming on…

      • Paul Sutton Reeves March 25, 2013 at 6:24 pm #

        I looked it up on Wikipedia, the font of all knowledge… It seemed to suggest that there was a Taoist sensibility behind it all. Can that be right? I suppose all of us on WordPress are a part of the phenomenon in a way, then. Anyway, I’m looking forward to your post and being enlightened by you!

  3. PK Read March 25, 2013 at 2:24 pm #

    Hi Paul – I agree wholeheartedly, the imposition of constraint(s) can lead to completely unexpected results. On some level, the type of constraint doesn’t really matter – what matters is choosing to find a solution to a problem you have set yourself.

  4. Paul Sutton Reeves March 25, 2013 at 2:39 pm #

    Hi there, PK and thanks for commenting.

    I think you’re right. Anything that pushes the mind to think beyond the ordinary is likely to prove worth the effort. Having dabbled in a dilettante-type and incompetent manner in other areas of the arts, it seems to hold true elsewhere. I’d be interested to know what you have tried and what the results were.

    • PK Read March 25, 2013 at 2:52 pm #

      Well, one exercise I enjoyed was trying to apply basic rules of music composition to a theme. So, for example, taking a children’s rhyme and expanding it out into a fugue form, building the variations into more complexity and then scaling them back down to the original. That kind of thing.

  5. Paul Sutton Reeves March 25, 2013 at 2:58 pm #

    Wow, PK that sounds fascinating. I salute a fellow experimentalist! Were you pleased with the results?

    • PK Read March 25, 2013 at 3:05 pm #

      I was actually quite pleased. Would like to do a waltz next, just looking for the right rhyme for the dance. 😉

  6. Paul Sutton Reeves March 25, 2013 at 6:19 pm #

    You’ll have to post the results on your blog – I’d love to see them.

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