27 June 2009


A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

His Wikipedia entry makes a comparative reference to Thomas Pynchon. The back of the book says “He is like Pynchon, Barth, and William Gaddis.” But Harry Mathews is no Pynchon, nor a Barth or Gaddis for that matter.

It was back in late-April that I heard Mathews’ short story Country Cooking from Central France: Roast Boned Rolled Stuffed Shoulder of Lamb (Farce Double) read on the Symphony Space program “Selected Shorts” (and available as an MP3 here; I highly recommend it). I had never heard of him, and after digging up his biography online, I was both comforted in my ignorance and surprised, given the odd pathways of literature that I have followed, not to have found him earlier. I bought three of Mathews’ books, and have just finished Tlooth, his second novel, originally published in 1966 and (in the case of my copy) republished in 1998 by Illinois State University’s Dalkey Archive press. And off we go...


“Fully dressed, Dominique had worn sixteen garments and ornaments. She shed four of them on the first day, three on each of the next four days, and at the end she danced naked, shielded only by her hands and hair. Every piece of her jewelry and clothing had been fastened with an inextricable knot, from which one or several tassels hung. The dancer’s enchantment worked yeastily through her audience while for hours she slowly tried, with shakings and suave caresses, to pamper loose one cluster of dangling strands. When the voluptuous ferment became unbearable, the girl, turning away with a mild complicit shrug, would draw from a scabbard fixed upright near her a wicked blue scimitar, and slice the knot. The sword, always visible to the crowd, gathered terrific significance as the moment of its use approached; and each severing of trivial cords fell on the tormented mass like a scourge, exciting hysterical shrieks, fits, faints, onsets of importance, confessions of speakable crimes, miraculous cures, numberless psychic and physical traumata, and the exchange (settled by the unpredictable time of the event) of millions of francs among the slightly cooler-headed gambling element.” (Pages 151-152)

This might be one of the most inspired, enervating paragraphs I have read in a long time, alive with words not often found in fiction (“yeastily”! “traumata”!), combined with a description of a series of acts of such improbability that it still comes as a surprise to learn in the next paragraph that Dominique the stripper has died on the sixth day of her marathon dance session. One has a sense of Dominique as trapped by these knots she cannot remove, and yet empowered to remove them; she is performing, voluptuously, but also bored, as the shrug suggests This Moroccan stripper’s is, on the one hand, considered so tangential that it is entirely parenthetical. On the other hand, Mathews’ frames her death as of such magnitude that “she was proposed to Rome for canonization.” It hadn’t once occurred to me she might be a Catholic.

If Mathews owes a debt to anyone, it is Georges Bataille and his Story of the Eye. Tlooth is less aggressive (if no less violent) but just as manic in its appetites, and just as absurd in its approach to the same. A long section—at least, long in the context of this story—in the middle of Mathews’ novel is itself another fiction, a living walkthrough of a movie script, highly pornographic, that the narrator has been hired to write. I call it a “living walkthrough” because, as the reader, you lose your own sense of whether you’re reading the script that Mathews’ protagonist has written, or if that same protagonist is now actually in the story.

We get references to how the camera should pan in one direction or the other. We get a mixture of highly specific, scene-setting detail—from clothing to the use of Wedgwood china to the acts being performed and in which locations—and at the same time a glib skipping over of any kind of context that might help the reader establish a genuine point of reference. It doesn’t really matter. And still, at the end of the whole section, after so much absurdist human interaction, it comes as a surprise to find the script completely dismissed by the crazy Count who commissioned it: “It’s interesting. But where is the character development? In the last scene we do not really know anything more about Sister Agnes than we did in the first.” (Page 136)

Indeed, we do not learn much at all about Sister Agnes. The character development is ours, the readers’. We learn something of ourselves from Tlooth, as we do from most difficult (and may I here use the word surrealist?) works. Yes, we learn about ourselves and our ability or willingness to read through challenging literature. More importantly, I think, are what novels like this teach us about our sense of self: whether, in wading through complicated, deeply layered and hidden ideas, we find things at which to smile or laugh, and whether we can see in small, absurdist details, analogies to how most of us also fixate on the little bits of errata in our daily lives. We just don’t normally see such things as particularly absurd—but perhaps we should. We might be happier that way, and more alive.

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