"Ruthlessly simple and mind-boggling"
September 12, 2009 12:54 PM   Subscribe

Never Again is a novel in which no word occurs more than once. Published in Ubuweb's contemporary collection.

The post title comes from Harry Mathews' description of the novel's constraint in The Oulipo Compendium. However, the author, Doug Nufer, is not a member of the Oulipo.
posted by kenko (101 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite

 
The author must have spent ages deciding where to put the one "and" he got. I also see he got the "the," "I," "a," and "to" out of the way in the first sentence. It's pretty much gibberish after that point.
posted by The Devil Tesla at 12:59 PM on September 12, 2009


The beginning makes the most sense, but as you get further along and they have to avoid using basic words it gets incomprehensible.

I like the idea, at least.
posted by Askiba at 12:59 PM on September 12, 2009


Ow.
posted by Casimir at 12:59 PM on September 12, 2009


I imagine this is a lot easier to do in languages that don't use articles.
posted by thisperon at 1:00 PM on September 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


There are some neat neologisms and puns: "Fetish peculiarities assignating peculiarized delectability reformulate unworn Bible-era lingerie: Jerusalem bratichokes, Galilace pantiocs, etslutera."

Leave aside "etslutera": "Jerusalem bratichokes" is something else.
posted by kenko at 1:01 PM on September 12, 2009 [2 favorites]


Cute. But what's the point? Like this one. Gadsby, which doesn't use the letter "e."
posted by John of Michigan at 1:01 PM on September 12, 2009


Since when do books need a point?
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 1:03 PM on September 12, 2009 [2 favorites]


Before you ask "what's the point?" about Never Again, consider Name, A Novel. (Actually, don't bother.)
posted by kenko at 1:04 PM on September 12, 2009


What's the point of any book?

Also, this is an easy condition to meet FSVO "novel":
never used baby shoes
posted by DU at 1:10 PM on September 12, 2009


painful, from the first
posted by whimsicalnymph at 1:11 PM on September 12, 2009


What's the point of any book?

I think that, without going out on too much of a limb, I can safely say that it varies book to book.
posted by kenko at 1:12 PM on September 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


I was going to proclaim it a work of genius, until I noticed that he counts "window" and "window's" as different words. Now it's nothing to me.
posted by moonmilk at 1:13 PM on September 12, 2009 [4 favorites]


Is this literature's answer to strict dodecaphony? Original idea, but I don't think it's going to catch on. Let's face it, it's getting a bit confusing as the novel goes on.
posted by Matthias Rascher at 1:14 PM on September 12, 2009


I liked the part where the author didn't repeat a word
posted by Spatch at 1:16 PM on September 12, 2009 [6 favorites]


Correlatively, belches retaste pancaked eggyolky bacon-greased caffeinistic acridity, heartburn’s feasted recall transforming corrosive breakfast.

Astounding.
posted by nervousfritz at 1:16 PM on September 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


I gotta say, if I were the author, I would have saved up words like "the", "but", "is" and "a" and such for later on in the story, to give me something to look forward to - a treat for myself.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 1:17 PM on September 12, 2009 [4 favorites]


“Burns burn.” (pg 15)

I consider that cheating.
posted by Eumachia L F at 1:17 PM on September 12, 2009


I do like the concept, too - the story is about not repeating anything - but it is a difficult read. At the same time, so was The Ticket That Exploded, and I really enjoyed that.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 1:19 PM on September 12, 2009


I am tempted to paraphrase that famous quote about jazz: "if you have to ask, it was not written for you". That does not mean you will never know, just that you don't (yet?) read in the way that makes this kind of work rewarding. And honestly, yes, there is a kind of reading for which this kind of literature is well suited.

A Void was readable for me as a regular novel, and got quite good toward the end, once I got used to the restrictions of the style and the plot really engaged me.

Novels are for different kinds of reading. One does not write something like this with any hope that it will "catch on". Experimental literature (actually truly experimental art of any kind) is a good example of the "long tail" existing before the Internet.

I don't imply here any inferiority of other kinds of writing and reading - this is different, not elite or somehow "over your head". Just something you may not understand yet.
posted by idiopath at 1:23 PM on September 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


I consider that cheating.

I noticed he used 'racetrack' in the first sentence and 'racetracks' in the last. Cheaty cheaty cheater.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 1:23 PM on September 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


I got an unsolicited manuscript recently about the 2009 New York Yankees lineup that did not use the letters S or I. I can't decide whether to talk about its awful pointlessness in this thread or the "I will not read your fucking script" one.
posted by stargell at 1:25 PM on September 12, 2009


Matthias Rascher: "Is this literature's answer to strict dodecaphony? Original idea, but I don't think it's going to catch on"

Meant to cite this comment above. Also not that original, this sort of thing is about as old as strict dodecaphony.
posted by idiopath at 1:26 PM on September 12, 2009


Holy shit. I actually happen to own this book, and I never get to talk to anyone about it.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 1:26 PM on September 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


Also, having read some more of this text, and thinking more about that dodecaphony comment, an old friend, William Gillespie, invented five vowel poetry, where each vowel would have to be used in series before any could be repeated, using the classical serialist techniques of inversion, retrograde, etc. to compose poetry in a manner perfectly analogous to serial music.
posted by idiopath at 1:32 PM on September 12, 2009 [3 favorites]


"I got an unsolicited manuscript recently about the 2009 New York Yankees lineup that did not use the letters S or I."

That would have to be the "New York Yankee" lineup then, wouldn't it?
posted by mr_crash_davis mark II: Jazz Odyssey at 1:32 PM on September 12, 2009


idiopath: Experimental literature (actually truly experimental art of any kind) is a good example of the "long tail" existing before the Internet.

I don't know if I'd be charitable enough to call this sort of thing 'experimental'. To me, this is more of a stupid human trick sort of thing - kind of like running a marathon backwards, or doing a bicycle race on a unicycle. It's kind of cool as a historical one-off to prove it can be done, but after that, there's no point anymore. Except as a potential personal challenge, a word-game that borders on the epic.

Or, to put it another way - I'd be more impressed by this sort of thing if the quality of work that resulted could stand on its own.
posted by Mitrovarr at 1:36 PM on September 12, 2009


most experiments turn out that way, in the arts
posted by idiopath at 1:38 PM on September 12, 2009


Also, so far, I disagree about the quality. I am sure someone else could potentially write a better novel given only one chance to use each word, but most professional writers would have made something much worse than this.
posted by idiopath at 1:41 PM on September 12, 2009


"Holy shit. I actually happen to own this book, and I never get to talk to anyone about it."

that's not a bad thing, you know.
posted by HuronBob at 1:47 PM on September 12, 2009


That would have to be the "New York Yankee" lineup then, wouldn't it?


I suppose so. I confess I wasn't paying that much attention after the first couple sentences.
posted by stargell at 1:48 PM on September 12, 2009


This is the danger of word processors.
posted by TwelveTwo at 1:48 PM on September 12, 2009


idiopath: Also, so far, I disagree about the quality. I am sure someone else could potentially write a better novel given only one chance to use each word, but most professional writers would have made something much worse than this.

That isn't what I meant. A work like this should be able to stand on its own as a work of literature - it should be good in comparison to normal books, not what other writers could do within the same constraints. Have any been written that were? (It does sound like 'A Void' might have possibly succeeded, but I don't know.)
posted by Mitrovarr at 1:58 PM on September 12, 2009


"I suppose so. I confess I wasn't paying that much attention after the first couple sentences."

posted by stargell


So, let's suppose it was about the Pittsburgh Pirates?
posted by mr_crash_davis mark II: Jazz Odyssey at 1:58 PM on September 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


"I got an unsolicited manuscript recently about the 2009 New York Yankees lineup that did not use the letters S or I."


because there is no "I" in "team"?

unless it's an autobiography of that one damn yankee.
posted by lapolla at 1:59 PM on September 12, 2009


The thing is that an experimental novel still has to succeed as a novel; this clearly does not. While it is true that most writers would undoubtedly have written something that failed even more spectacularly as a novel, that doesn't make this a success. It's like stealing a television and then saying, hey, at least you didn't kill anyone.

This isn't actually a novel that doesn't reuse words. It's more of an epic poem. Which is great, but calling it a novel simply because of the word count is misleading.
posted by Justinian at 2:02 PM on September 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


"Repetitionless blue novel reads painfully."
posted by Sova at 2:03 PM on September 12, 2009 [3 favorites]


Stunt novel is stuntish
posted by EatTheWeak at 2:09 PM on September 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


Mitrovarr: "Have any been written that were?"

Of the experimental fiction I have read (a genre I have read and enjoyed but I am not expert on), the two novels that work most similarly to the way a regular novel would are A Void (this one was even thought to be worth translating), and A Humument.

The first problem with this is defining "good".

The problem I have with rating experimental fiction in this way, is that very few mainstream novels would be worth reading if I applied the standards I apply to experimental fiction. I am convinced that quality in literature is at least multifaceted if not completely nonlinear. There are different qualities and experiences to read for, and readers are not unanimous in their relative importance.

To use your own metaphor, but with less inflammatory examples: I enjoy watching a bike race. Other people enjoy a car race. What would be a reasonable response if someone asked me "have I ever seen a bike race as good as a car race?". One kind of honesty would have me tell them "yes, every bike race I have ever seen was better than a car race". Because that is my honest experience and personal judgment. I also know that this gives very little information to the person asking. They are different animals, they are experienced in different ways, and require different background knowledge. I don't have any reason or proof to assert that bicycle races are better than car races, and I doubt anyone else does, nor for the contrary.
posted by idiopath at 2:09 PM on September 12, 2009 [3 favorites]


I gotta say, if I were the author, I would have saved up words like "the", "but", "is" and "a" and such for later on in the story, to give me something to look forward to - a treat for myself.

"say", "will" and "be" aren't until the last sentence... The excerpts in this thread made it seem terrible but when I took a look starting from the beginning, I found it much more readable. I didn't get that far before just curiously skimming, but I'm not a big fiction reader these days anyway. I did find that anytime he used a smaller / more common word, I was surprised it hadn't already been used, though...

This wiki answer says that an average professor only has 15K words in their vocabulary, so just coming up with enough distinct words, let alone putting them in a sensible order, is a pretty tall order... I know he used a bit of german in the beginning and clearly allowed plurals to count separately, but even so, at 166pp, this is probably 60K words...
posted by mdn at 2:12 PM on September 12, 2009


never used baby shoes

"For sale: baby shoes, never worn." Hemingway. Full of meaning, and a powerful use of words.
posted by Houstonian at 2:18 PM on September 12, 2009


an old friend, William Gillespie, invented five vowel poetry, where each vowel would have to be used in series before any could be repeated,

I once did something not entirely dissimilar, albeit less sophisticated (I knew even less about tone rows then than I do now) and no doubt much sillier.
posted by kenko at 2:20 PM on September 12, 2009 [2 favorites]


One-sentence summary: "Hyperordered strictures posit antipredictability, perhaps."

It's pretty painful to read, but even so I feel a bit cheated by alternate spellings and contractions counting as distinct words.
posted by Dirac Delta Blues at 2:22 PM on September 12, 2009


clearly allowed plurals to count separately

Yeah, he apparently uses a strictly orthographic method of word individuation: as long as the sequence of letters is different, it's a different word.

I can't really say that I can hold it against him.
posted by kenko at 2:22 PM on September 12, 2009


Interesting concept, a book made up entirely of hapax legomena!
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 2:27 PM on September 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


the two novels that work most similarly to the way a regular novel would are A Void (this one was even thought to be worth translating)

La Disparition has a companion text, Les Revenentes, in which the only vowel used is "e"; it was also translated, as "The Exeter Text", by, I believe, Ian Monk; however, I think it's significantly shorter, being at most novella-length and perhaps not even that.

It's somewhat interesting, I think, to look at formal poetry here—like really formal poetry, sestinas n'at, which leave your humdrum sonnet form in the dust. There are some quite good sestinas! But it would be odd, I think, to ask, "have you ever read a sestina that was as good as a villanelle?" (Or as good as a sonnet.)

Oulipian poetry is far more common, I believe anyway, than oulipian fiction; this epithalamium by Harry Mathews (try to guess the constraint!) stands up by itself, apart from an interest the constraint might generate. (In fact the constraint in use means that the form is more suited to the content than is often the case.)
posted by kenko at 2:29 PM on September 12, 2009 [2 favorites]


Is this just an arty version of Just a Minute?

(Excerpts: 1 2 3 Some insane person has transcribed a lot of episodes here. )
posted by Grangousier at 2:33 PM on September 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


Herman's penile-implanted slabs prove sexily uninvolving. Desensitized lipids fattened libidity's sheath, necessitated hydropump engorgement accessorization. Magnanimous Vasoline lubricious greasings unseated foreplay's panties. Unpopular mechanic dickerings docked painless copulation. Estrogen native-gland effluences dried, intimated desertion's clefting rift. Pre-operative copulating loomed memorably happier, procreating recriminated realizations: implant router wasn't sex-driven; endowment's abstracting protraction outgrew quaking business-weakened presentiment unsentimentality phallically epicentered.

Great sex scene, or greatest sex scene?
posted by Rhaomi at 2:36 PM on September 12, 2009 [4 favorites]


To me, this is more of a stupid human trick sort of thing - kind of like running a marathon backwards, or doing a bicycle race on a unicycle. It's kind of cool as a historical one-off to prove it can be done, but after that, there's no point anymore. Except as a potential personal challenge, a word-game that borders on the epic.

I think one of the key facets of the Oulipo that people overlook is their sense of humour. A lot of the time, they're producing work with their tongue firmly in their cheek. All our major sporting events are about setting up arbitrary, objectively ludicrous constraints then aspiring to excel within them. All poetry is, essentially, about showing off within a set of apparently extraneous restrictions.

That said, Never Again is only okay. It has flashes of 'hey, nice move!' where - if you're feeling charitable - you admire his skill in getting round the constraint, and where his efforts to do so create surprising, original turns of phrase that defamiliarise the mundane. But yeah, beyond that, it is a bit like seeing a dog walk upon its hinter legs - for several days. You're surprised to see it done, but, yeah, okay, it's a dog walking like a chap. I get it. Can we go home now?
posted by RokkitNite at 2:37 PM on September 12, 2009 [4 favorites]


Given the centuries of arty usage of constraints as a compositional tool, I would say that Just a Minute is more likely a less arty version of the extremely broad category of constraint based composition.

I would be delighted to see an analysis of Oulipo as if the movement were an attempt to make a more pretentious version of a game show contest.

Comedy is much easier to do successful under unusual constraints than any other literary tone. Experiments tend to produce awkwardness, confusion, silliness, and discomfort. The awkward, perplexing, silly and uncomfortable tend to break the mood when it comes to drama, action, romance, whathaveyou, but they suit comedy just fine.
posted by idiopath at 2:43 PM on September 12, 2009 [2 favorites]


Just a Minute may not be particularly arty, but I'm reading the transcripts now and my word, it's hilarious.
posted by kenko at 2:49 PM on September 12, 2009


Fail! He allows words to recur in hyphenates, which is stretching things, but in his dubious pig-Latin bit on p. 67 he outright cheats by sneaking in a hyphenated "I" and "say" which isn't pig-Latin for anything: “asper-cay illingsly-way,” I-say, “our-yay, onor-hay.”
posted by nicwolff at 3:17 PM on September 12, 2009


The word "whenever" occurs twice... So does bones, coddled, enraged, expenses, fairytale, hostage's, in, landlocked, leads, legendary, limber, me, mitigated, mystery, restir, and slippery.
posted by tomas316 at 3:24 PM on September 12, 2009


"bones" occurs once, but there is also an instance of "fishbones" across a linebreak.

The second "whenever" is "where/whenever" (those looking to be dissatisfied will call this cheating).

"coddled" really does occur twice.

Guess the whole thing's worthless!
posted by kenko at 3:27 PM on September 12, 2009


I hoped that a novel so dedicated to novelty would be more surprising than this was.
posted by clockzero at 3:30 PM on September 12, 2009


I think those bushes are photoshopped, too.
posted by moonmilk at 3:36 PM on September 12, 2009


Stunt writing often makes for mediocre reading.
posted by jscalzi at 3:44 PM on September 12, 2009


I definitely agree with that. Like re-writing earlier stories from the point of view of a different character.

...

what? what? I mean Card!
posted by Justinian at 3:57 PM on September 12, 2009


Yeah yeah yeah.
posted by turgid dahlia at 4:20 PM on September 12, 2009


Holy shit. I actually happen to own this book, and I never get to talk to anyone about it.

And this is what you did with your chance?
posted by dfan at 4:22 PM on September 12, 2009


So, let's suppose it was about the Pittsburgh Pirates?

That one would have no W's.
posted by stargell at 4:36 PM on September 12, 2009 [2 favorites]


Great sex scene, or greatest sex scene?

Not the greatest Oulipan sex scene, anyway:

Unpleasant Stella crossed my path. Dismayed at even greeting her, I tried to escape by speaking crudely. 'Stella, I need to get laid.' She said, 'Let's go', and took my arm...
posted by phooky at 4:52 PM on September 12, 2009 [3 favorites]


Does he use both "Ketchup" and "Catsup?"
posted by Obscure Reference at 4:54 PM on September 12, 2009


phooky: "greatest Oulipan sex scene"

Quite definitely, if only the rest of that novel was that good. I almost cited that passage, but had forgotten the author and title.

I think the author would have done well to edit out the rest of the book and just publish that one paragraph and it would have been a classic.
posted by idiopath at 5:05 PM on September 12, 2009


Matthias Racher: Is this literature's answer to strict dodecaphony?

No. I would say that the literary analogue of strict dodecaphony would be literature that includes each letter exactly once in the first twenty-six letters, then in the next twenty-six letters, and so on.

That seems basically impossible, though, and idiopath's comment about just treating the five vowels that way seems more interesting.
posted by madcaptenor at 5:16 PM on September 12, 2009


The same author who I cited above regarding five-vowel-poetry had a magnetic letter set on his fridge, pruned to include exactly and only one of each letter. Once in a great while he would come up with a new 26 letter sentence. The five-vowel-poems were more interesting though.
posted by idiopath at 5:31 PM on September 12, 2009


I have yet to find with one of these stunt books that I had any desire to read past the first paragraph or two.
posted by nanojath at 5:36 PM on September 12, 2009


Each tercet (three lines of iambic pentameter with ABA rhyme scheme) in the poem below is formed from the set of 100 Scrabble® tiles, which consist of 98 letters (including all letters A-Z) plus two blank "wildcards" that can be assigned any letter.
Mike Keith
posted by moonmilk at 5:49 PM on September 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


The five-vowel-poems were more interesting though.

Probably more pleasant to listen to, too. I like that idea a lot - applying a music principle to poetry. Especially since I think of poetry as a sort of music in its own right.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 5:50 PM on September 12, 2009


Before you ask "what's the point?" about Never Again, consider Name, A Novel. (Actually, don't bother.)

I don't really think this Oulipian parlor game is in the same class as Name, which is mind-boggling and amazing. Toadex is also the mastermind behind the late, great Dagmar Chilli and Doxo.wox

WHAT MORE MUST HE DO TO PROVE HIMSELF
posted by Joseph Gurl at 6:00 PM on September 12, 2009


A work like this should be able to stand on its own as a work of literature

Why? It's an experiment. Most experiments are failures, but that doesn't mean they aren't interesting, worthwhile, or have nothing to teach us.
posted by treepour at 6:10 PM on September 12, 2009


I'm coming out with a novel, the word "Why?" written 80,000 times. It will be just as interesting and much less of a waste of my life. (Coming soon to Kindle)
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 6:11 PM on September 12, 2009


mind-boggling and amazing

I am eager to learn how so.
posted by kenko at 6:21 PM on September 12, 2009


Also, this is an easy condition to meet FSVO "novel":

never used baby shoes



My life as a book. Thanks DU.
posted by never used baby shoes at 7:14 PM on September 12, 2009


Heardsaid calculations (government-provided) enlarge foes’ rude multitude, inflating forces’ farcical proportion. Sandinista-armed (unintentional humor) troops’re putatively frenzied. Cocaleaf chaws glazing perceptions (denecessitating food’s intake), heartripper heathens stalk whiter-skinned breasts (unabashed Roger Corman B-movie poster throwbacks resuscitate “laughable” racist exploitabilities). Concurrent slanders suspeciously subclassify indigenus indigents: bipedic cacomixtles, capybara-sized pests deserving extermination. Propaganda’s backlash uplifting downtrodden rebels, journeying’s sophist sophisticates disbelieve accommodators.
Indeed.
posted by delmoi at 7:30 PM on September 12, 2009


eunoia.
posted by ovvl at 7:58 PM on September 12, 2009


To those who see this and conclude that the Oulipian style of writing under severe, arbitrary constraints must always produce nearly unreadable garbage with no redeeming quality other than as a stupid human trick: this is not a great example. The constraint is so severe at novel-length that it was pretty much inevitable that it would be unreadable in parts. But there are many better attempts. La Disparation (or rather it's excellent translation A Void) is quite readable, and it I found it an enjoyable read. Would someone who was incapable of recognizing the constraint find it as enjoyable? Of course not. If that was the case, then there wouldn't have been much point in writing the novel in the first place. In A Void, as in all decent Oulipian works, the constraint is an integral part of the content as well as of the form.

But I do agree that to be worth reading, the constraint should not take over to the point that the only reason to continue reading is to see how they pulled it off. That seems to have happened here, as it often does when the constraint is too much and the format is too long. Something like Christian Bök's Eunoia, a series of short stories, each of which features only one vowel reads much more like a stupid-human trick, but like all good stupid-human tricks, it's short. (Actually, I think it could be slightly shorter, but it doesn't drag on for the length of an entire novel.) At the other end of the spectrum is Mark Dunn's Ella Minnow Pea, which uses a slowly increasing list of banned letters to spin a genuinely interesting story about a small island nation that is slowly increasing their list of banned letters. The thing wouldn't even make sense if there wasn't a constraint, but I think it's extremely readable. The story is an amusing satirical take on bureaucracy and censorship, it's funny throughout, and it contains some genuinely insightful glimpses into what happens when people are afraid of the very words they speak.

I kinda digressed there, but my point is really this: please don't dismiss all works of literary constraint based on this example.
posted by ErWenn at 8:25 PM on September 12, 2009


These words appear twice in the novel:

authority’s
coddled
enraged
eradicate
expenses
floodplain
hostage’s
landlocked
leads
legendary
limber
mitigated
restir
slippery

posted by fontor at 8:49 PM on September 12, 2009


Fontor's comment appears twice in this thread.
posted by kenko at 8:55 PM on September 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


And this is what you did with your chance?
posted by dfan at 4:22 PM on September 12


I had to go do stuff. What, you think I hang out on MetaFilter all day or something?

I'm coming out with a novel, the word "Why?" written 80,000 times. It will be just as interesting and much less of a waste of my life. (Coming soon to Kindle)
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 6:11 PM on September 12


What I was going to post this afternoon before I ran off is that it's actually a beautiful humdinger of a book, at times frustrating, but more often hypnotic and clever and pretty lucid, considering the constraints. I don't often say this about critiques of fiction, because it's kind of cheating, but to everyone saying that this is dumb or not any kind of accomplishment: I challenge you to write a 2500 word short story in which no words are repeated, that is not a total piece of shit. I submit to you that you cannot.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 9:01 PM on September 12, 2009


I don't think anyone here is saying that this is "not any kind of accomplishment", though there might be some who think it's dumb. I wouldn't call it "dumb" myself, but I think that the difficulty of the task is not a sufficient measure of the worthwhileness of an artistic endeavor. In this case, I am phenomenally impressed by the feat. It's an extremely difficult constraint. I even think it's kind of cool that he wrote an entire novel this way, cool enough for me to wade through a few passages. Heck, I might even be willing to buy it used and put it on the shelf to grab and read a few paragraphs every now and then. This is how I've treated Finnegan's Wake (though it's not constraints but just style that gets in my way). But like Finnegan's Wake*, as a novel, I think it fails on the grounds that I can't actually read it. To try and read the whole thing would be a long and tedious affair for me (perhaps not for someone with a more stable attention span and a larger vocabulary). I had to resort to a dictionary several times in the first few sentences. Of course, to say it fails as a novel is not really to say it fails as a work of art, or as a great feat of skill.

I'm too tired to bring this comment to proper conclusion.

*I'm probably going to get a lot of flak for saying Finnegan's Wake fails as a novel, but I stand by the claim. It's vastly impressive; I've read enough and done enough research to believe that it's not just pretending to be densely meaningful. It has some beautiful language; I'll occasionally pull it off the shelf just to read a passage out loud, just for the sound of it. But I can't read it, so it fails as a novel.
posted by ErWenn at 9:29 PM on September 12, 2009


Finnegans! Finnegans!

I've read far too little of the book (say, a few sentences, a few short excerpts here and there) to be allowed to get in a snit about the title, and yet.
posted by kenko at 9:30 PM on September 12, 2009


treepour: Why? It's an experiment. Most experiments are failures, but that doesn't mean they aren't interesting, worthwhile, or have nothing to teach us.

It's not an experiment. An experiment might turn out well, and possibly lead to a new method of doing things. Nobody could go into this project thinking they're going to come out with something better than a normal novel or even different, but equal to a different novel. It's like taking a marathon and deciding you're going to juggle at the same time you run - you know going in you aren't going to run a fast marathon. The trick is to see if you can do it at all.

There's a difference between trying to invent something new, trying to legitimately improve something old, and stapling artificial constraints to an established thing and seeing if you can do it anyway. This is the latter, and that's why it's just a trick instead of an experiment.
posted by Mitrovarr at 10:15 PM on September 12, 2009


It turns into not only gibberish, but disturbingly erotic gibberish by the halfway point.
Oral healthcare foreplay fulfilled hyperimaginers; unfulfilled,
groin-oriented ejaculators craved hygienist’s labial stimulation.
posted by rokusan at 12:28 AM on September 13, 2009


This work is in essence a creative ordering of the dictionary, allowing for different tenses and derivatives. Alternatively, one could have a giant refrigerator door full of those word-magnets and arrange them into a single narrative.
posted by scrod at 12:40 AM on September 13, 2009


Rock music is just the blues done with artificial constraints, and is thus a stupid human trick.

Singing is just talking done with artificial constraints and is thus a stupid human trick.

Talking is just random noises made with the mouth with a bunch of artificial constraints and is thus a stupid human trick.
posted by idiopath at 3:09 AM on September 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


Argh, too many people here who don't know how to read and enjoy this sort of text are damning it for not being Respectable Literary Fiction, and it's really distracting me.

The book has characters and a plot, which seems like enough to qualify it as a novel, but it's true that the pleasures of the book are poetic pleasures more than novelistic ones. For those of us more interested in poetic pleasures than novelistic pleasures, that's a good thing. A Void works better "as a novel", for those who like a more even mix; but the sort of reading (or, really, listening, since I've enjoyed Never Again most when I've heard the author read sections of it) experience, the type of paying attention that you do with this book (following the grammatical structures that allow so few common words, the narrative strategies that allow the exhaustion of a vocabulary relating to whatever is currently happening in the plot, and the plot structures that move you from one scenario to the next in order to mine a different vein of the wordhoard) is really unlike the sort of paying attention that most books encourage, and for that I really value it.

It's not an experiment. [...] The trick is to see if you can do it at all.

That would.. be an experiment, then, surely. The experiment is to see whether anyone could achieve this impossible-sounding task. The text is the proof that you can. The goal of a science experiment is not to reinvent our understanding of whatever subject and change the way we do it forever -- otherwise, all those ninth grade chemistry experiments would be massive failures. An experiment is an experience that confirms or disproves a hypothesis. That's all.

Is this literature's answer to strict dodecaphony?

Check out Georges Perec's book Alphabets, which takes the ten most common French letters and adds one more letter to create a set of 11 letters, and then uses up all 11 letters before moving on to the next batch. It is, of course, pretty much totally untranslatable into English, though.

These words appear twice in the novel:

I suspected he snuck one in as a joke, but I'm surprised there are this many. I'll have to ask him what is up with that!
posted by Casuistry at 6:46 AM on September 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


At the other end of the spectrum is Mark Dunn's Ella Minnow Pea, which uses a slowly increasing list of banned letters to spin a genuinely interesting story about a small island nation that is slowly increasing their list of banned letters. The thing wouldn't even make sense if there wasn't a constraint, but I think it's extremely readable. The story is an amusing satirical take on bureaucracy and censorship, it's funny throughout, and it contains some genuinely insightful glimpses into what happens when people are afraid of the very words they speak.

Ella Minnow Pea is great, I would consider it so even if it weren't for its experimental nature, which just makes it that much better. It's very accessible; I had it as assigned reading in high school. I'd recommend it to anyone, but especially to people who are skeptical of this sort of thing.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 7:21 AM on September 13, 2009


I'm coming out with a novel, the word "Why?" written 80,000 times.

Yoko Ono put this to music...
posted by lathrop at 9:35 AM on September 13, 2009


I think some people in the thread are missing the point. If artists that practiced this style wanted to write something that read like a "normal" novel, they'd do that. The point isn't to reify the normal form of the novel. Process-based experimentalism's goal isn't to be the tofurkey of literary fiction.
posted by johnasdf at 6:11 PM on September 13, 2009 [2 favorites]


I can't believe it's not John Gresham®
posted by idiopath at 7:41 PM on September 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


I think one of the key facets of the Oulipo that people overlook is their sense of humour.

It's true. But then most people don't even know about the OULIPO group or what they were about in the first place.

High school English (at least in the U.S.) seems to have made most people so anxious about identifying the "correct" meaning of works of literature that most people miss the point that a lot of books are fun and silly. So you get a lot of "Why bother reading something that doesn't have crystal-clear prose and an easily-followed plot?"

In a quick skim of this there were a couple places that made me laugh out loud; it's not unlike Finnegans Wake in that way (which people get all tense and sensitive about, but whose language is often quite funny and playful).
posted by aught at 7:25 AM on September 14, 2009


The point isn't to reify the normal form of the novel. Process-based experimentalism's goal isn't to be the tofurkey of literary fiction.

Surely if you write an experimental novel it has to succeed as a novel to be worthwhile? Or at least be recognizable as a novel if only a clunky one? Otherwise what is the difference between what was done here and simply an unordered list of random vocabulary words?

Virtually everything in this "novel" is near-gibberish past the very beginning.
posted by Justinian at 12:28 PM on September 14, 2009


Justinian: "Surely if you write an experimental novel it has to succeed as a novel to be worthwhile?"

We could call it long form experimental prose but that is a bit clunky and sounds pretty pretentious.

You don't appreciate it, that is fine. Are you trying to empirically prove that the rest of us should not appreciate it or something?
posted by idiopath at 12:54 PM on September 14, 2009


Long form experimental prose fiction.

Extended constraint based word order manipulation with characters and plot.

Epic narrative with non-traditional word ordering.

Fucking around with funny ways to arrange words over a large number of pages.

I still think experimental novel works better.
posted by idiopath at 12:58 PM on September 14, 2009


You don't appreciate it, that is fine. Are you trying to empirically prove that the rest of us should not appreciate it or something?

No, I'm asking you what you see as separating this from an unordered list of random words after the few thousand or whatever. How, once it gets very gibberishy, is this better than if I did the same thing except completely randomly?
posted by Justinian at 2:01 PM on September 14, 2009


Otherwise what is the difference between what was done here and simply an unordered list of random vocabulary words?

Well, this has characters and a plot.
posted by kenko at 2:06 PM on September 14, 2009


Well, this has characters and a plot.

But that's exactly my point! It is the novelistic character of the thing that separates it from a random list of words. It is therefore completely appropriate if not necessary for it to succeed on a character and plot level! That's what I'm saying!
posted by Justinian at 2:59 PM on September 14, 2009


Look, you might think it's a bad novel, qua novel, and that its badness derives from the bizarre constraint under which it was composed—but even bad novels are novels!
posted by kenko at 4:03 PM on September 14, 2009


Maybe I'm not making myself understood very well.

Would you agree that it is very easy to make a sequence of random vocabulary words where each word is only used one time? That anyone could do it and it is essentially meaningless? Ok.

So, the only thing that separates this experiment from the above meaningless random sequence of words is whether the words form a sequence which is not random, and is not random in a meaningful way. In this case, the meaning derives from the sequence of words being an attempt at a novel, with characters, plot, and so on.

So, given A and B, it follows that the better the novel that results from the experiment is judged, the more successful the experiment is. If the resulting novel is bad or, as I believe, something which barely even qualifies as a novel after the beginning, then the experiment can reasonably be judged not all that successful.

Looks, I understand its extraordinarily difficult to write a novel where each word is used only once. It's also extraordinarily difficult to hit .300 in the majors. But a guy who bats .080 still sucks regardless of how difficult it is. Doug Noufer tried something very difficult. That's good. But he didn't succeed any more than I would succeed if I tried to hit Cliff Lee's cut fastball. And if I tried, you wouldn't go "Oh, well, you struck out but that's only because it's really hard to hit the ball, so your at bat was a success". No it wasn't. It was not a success. Similarly, what Noufer tried to do was supremely difficult. Writing even a poor novel which only uses each word once is supremely difficult. But that doesn't mean it gets a complete pass at being a novel since that is the whole point of the exercise.
posted by Justinian at 8:38 PM on September 14, 2009


In a number of fields of creative expression, I have seen, for various reasons, accusations that a certain piece of work did not even meet the criteria to fit into that category.

People say "that is so horrid it isn't even music", "that is so ugly it isn't even art", etc. etc. etc.

The problem with this sort of review is that it has so little to offer a potential audience member, or a discussion among audience members, that it is not even a review.
posted by idiopath at 8:44 PM on September 14, 2009 [2 favorites]


tomas316: "The word "whenever" occurs twice... So does bones, coddled, enraged, expenses, fairytale, hostage's, in, landlocked, leads, legendary, limber, me, mitigated, mystery, restir, and slippery."

In an unrelated conversation, the concept of clinamen came up this morning -- a minimal indeterminacy in the motions of atoms, an unpredictable ‘swerve... at no fixed place or time’. This indeterminacy, according to Lucretius, prevents us from being 'automata'. The metaphor of the clinamen was used by Oulipo as an input to their constraint based work. It is the small handful of places in a large work where you break the constraints of the work.
posted by idiopath at 6:02 AM on September 15, 2009


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