5/7/21 — This Week’s Reading Review

Michael Ducker
6 min readMay 7, 2021

Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style is 1947 text about the following story. A man with a long neck and silly hat is being jostled on a crowded bus. Believing that his neighbor on the bus is intentionally stepping on his toes, he accuses the man of ill intent. When a seat opens up, however, he quickly abandons the argument and sits down. This event is seen by a narrator who later sees the same man receiving advice from a friend that he should have a button raised on or added to his coat so that the size of its opening might be reduced.

Raymond Queneau’s Exercises de style is 1947 text that contains the preceding story told 99 different ways. The text is a testament to the supreme mediocrity of the French. As if anyone would want to read such a banal story! Style is not substitute for substance. Surrealism, modernism, and postmodernism have destroyed literary taste.

Exercises in Style is a translation of Exercise de style into English. Raymond Queneau and Barbara Wright were involved in this creation. They used pens and paper, typewriters and letters. New Directions Publishing employed lawyers, editors, and publicists to secure the whole affair. They printed it up and sent it out into the world, a world that has not been the same since. To be precise, a text called Exercises in Style now circulates throughout it. Such a statement could not have been made before this event.

Exercises in Style is a book with a simple plot. A young man with a long neck and stupid hat gets on a bus and accuses his neighbor of intentionally stepping on his toes. Before this escalates, a seat opens and he occupies it. Later, he receives sartorial advice from a friend.

Exercises in Style is a book with a complex plot. An event is imagined and reimagined in 99 different ways. An interaction between author, narrator, world, and text occurs in 99 ways. In addition to those interactions, there is the interaction between the 99 narrations of the event. A mathematically-minded critic will delight in working that out. Anyways, not all of the different narrations work well. Some are just obnoxious. Others are worth chuckling at.

Raymond Queneau? What about him? Oh. He was a French writer and translator. Quite interested in mathematics, as it turns out. Did you know he was a member of the Société mathématique de France? It’s true. He also helped found something known as Oulipo. It was a loose collective of writers and mathematicians who sought to use constrained writing techniques to generate literary works. Georges Perec and Italo Calvino were members too. Some of the works produced by members of the collective are closer to, like, performance art. Or, at the very least, you can see the influence of their experiments on performance art. He also worked at Gallimard Publishing for many years. Other fun facts? He edited and published Kojève’s lectures on Phenomenology of Spirit. Well, yeah, of course he was a communist. Weren’t they all? A surrealist? Briefly, but the overemphasis on automatism rather than more externally-constrained inducements to writing didn’t mesh well with his spirit. And he really was scientifically and mathematically minded. I envy that. That stuff all goes over my head. I find it fascinating from a distance, I just can’t personally understand it. So it goes, right? Anyway, Exercises in Style is a fun and funny book that provokes question about the interrelation of narration, plot, and the linear ordering of books. Like, could the 99 exercises have been ordered differently? Probably! There’s a level of indeterminacy there, and that indeterminacy is doubled tripled quadrupled when you consider the permutations the narrations enact upon the simple event. So it seems to be all about a sort of intra-book ambiguity. Books are odd objects, odd events. They supply pretext for style, yet they inevitably use plot to constrain style. There’s an internal dialectic to the whole thing that’s hard to explain from the outside but is remarkably visible inside the book. I don’t just mean this book, I mean all books really, and especially those written since 1900. That’s my review, sadly. I know it wasn’t very informative, I know we didn’t reach any conclusions. But like, that’s the nature of this stuff?

Anyway. That’s one book I read last week. The other was David Foster Wallace’s debut novel The Broom of the System. This summary is just an introductory summary, you can expect further writing on The Broom as well as Girl with Curious Hair next week. At any rate. The Broom of the System is the first novel by David Foster Wallace. The novel began to take shape when Wallace was still an undergraduate at Amherst College. Having completed his first thesis — a monograph criticizing Richard Taylor’s influential essay “Fatalism” — Wallace then turned his attentions toward crafting a novel-length second thesis. Submitted under the title The Great Ohio Desert, the project was awarded and A-plus. After this, Wallace enrolled in the creative writing MFA program and began seeking a publisher for his undergraduate writing project. The project was ultimately picked up by Viking Penguin under the editorship of Gerry Howard, and it is here that it took on its final shape and name.

The novel centers around Lenore Beadsman, an Oedipa Maas-like protagonist who is confronted with the mysterious disappearance of her grandmother — a former student of Wittgenstein also named Lenore Beadsman. Lenore works as a switchboard operator at Frequent and Vigorous Publishing, Inc., an operation that is almost entirely run by the neurotic Rick Vigorous, a man who Lenore is now dating. The tone of the novel is of particular interest. It’s undeniably an “apprentice novel,” and one can feel the young David Foster Wallace working his way through the voices of his various favorite authors. DeLillo is there in the visual precision, the attention to color and light, and the flattened dialogue wherein characters seem to almost talk past each other. Pynchon is there in the zany psychedelia of grotesque situations brought to a feverish pitch, in the cartoonish names and puns throughout; and, to be frank, in the whole general outline of the novel’s plot, which bears a more than superficial resemblance to The Crying of Lot 49. Nabokov is here too, in the overly inflated erotic descriptions of women that serve, more than anything, to deflate the man doing the erotic narrating. For all its mimicry, however, there are undeniably spots of originality here. Although far from a master of tone, one can, at times, feel Wallace moving towards the chatty, erudite, almost-in-the-scene-and-generally-just-psychologically-sensitive (to the point of tending to borrow from the idiolect of characters) narration style of his subsequent writing. This often gets lost in the constant shuffling of imitation and the general polyvocality of the novel, but the promise is still there.

The novel opens in 1981. A fifteen-year-old Lenore Beadsman is visiting her older sister Clarice at Mount Holyoke College. A party rages on the floor below while the girls sit around talking with Clarice’s roommates Mindy Metalman and Sue Shaw. Lenore expresses her desire to attend the party below when the subjects of “Rapes and assaults and stuff” and campus security are raised (9). The girls ultimately agree that it would be fine to briefly swing by the party, but immediately after Lenore has switched into her party dressed, three drunk frat bros barge into their room with an obscene request: the girls must sign their asses as part of a hazing ritual. The scene turns tense, with Sue Shaw brought to tears and Lenore throwing her considerably dangerous footwear at one of the boys. The girls — Lenore excepted — ultimately give in, sign the asses, and this opening chapter of grotesque masculinity concludes. We are then brought up to the narrative present: 1990 in the fictional town of East Corinth, just outside of Cleveland.

Until next week,

Michael Ducker