Oulipo Tangent: John Sladek

I was always surprised that there wasn’t more overlap between the Oulipo and science fiction, since both fields were among the most ready to dispose of character and meaning in search of advances in their respective fields. Calvino had Cosmicomics and T-Zero, but those are more fantasies than anything resembling generic exercises. There have been a few sf authors over the years who have tried Oulipo experiments, and probably more recently that I don’t know about: the latest I know of is Geoff Ryman’s 253, which also happens to be one of the more successful hypertexts out there. I believe it succeeds on its own terms, but it does come off as a bit of an exercise, a left-brained excursion in assembling fragments that’s closer to computer programming than to writing a novel–which is not a criticism. It is also, of course, not science fiction. Why Ryman chose ordinary reality for his experiment is not for me to answer, but perhaps, as with Harry Mathews’ Tlooth, it’s more coherent to maintain the physical rules of common reality if you’re going to play havoc with the metaphysics of coincidence, symbolism, and structure.

(There is an old EC Comics story, I think from Weird Science, in which a man mows his double down with his car shortly before finding a time machine, and, well, you know the rest, but the best part of the story is the appendix, in which the entire loop is graphically represented and explained for teenagers who hadn’t yet read “By His Bootstraps.” This type of structure, in its simplest form in this story, requires as much contrivance as some of the Oulipo techniques, and may offer a similar form of getting-out-of-a-jam.)

I suspected that 253 was inspired by Thomas Disch’s 334, a fix-up collection of linked stories laid out in appropriately Perecesque fashion. But Disch seems to be toying with the device with less than full passion; it’s his friend, the late John Sladek, who always read as the most influenced by the Oulipo metaphysics. (If you aren’t convinced, Sladek references Mathews and people like Robert Coover and John Barth in this nice interview.)

Nearly all of Sladek’s books are set up like Rube Goldberg machines with the strings in plain sight, as he maneuvers all his pieces into place for a final conflagration. Sometimes, as with his massive 800-page Roderick, about a robot Candide, he lets the chain of events go slack to focus more on episodes of straight satire (which is always there to the degree that it’s not being steamrolled by the plot). Other times, as with The Muller-Fokker Effect, whose protagonist disappears very early on after his mind is transferred onto computer, the overwhelming drive is action, action, action towards that blowout at the end. Consequently, he doesn’t have time to develop most characters beyond caricatured monsters–corrupt professors, foolish hicks, parochial megalomaniacs–which happen to be exactly what the stories require.

The exception is Bugs. Whether it’s because of a slightly less complicated plot or a focus on one particular character, Bugs feels more rooted in several specific places and their corresponding emotions, the most striking being the dreary gray computer company. It’s working on nutty cybernetics, but in the spaces between plot points there’s a melancholy that seems more identifiable with a technical writing job in Minnesota (Sladek’s other profession) than anything else he wrote.

Fred Jones is an English writer who, possessed of little character except for literate decency, gets caught up in the usual antics, but Jones is sympathetic enough that Sladek sticks by him even more than he did with Roderick. There are scenes that don’t figure at all in the plot, as when he applies to a newspaper to write book reviews (“I’m Fred, and literate” is how he introduces himself) and is led into a backroom teeming with shelves of undifferentiated rack-sized fantasy books. “See, about ten years ago somebody made the mistake of reviewing one of these and the word got out. I mean, Christ, they print fifty of these fuckers a month!” says the editor, then the shelves collapse and bury him.

The robot soon goes berserk after Fred has it read Frankenstein and the pace picks up, but there is still a similarity between Sladek’s games of satire and the Oulipo’s reductionistic approach to character. It’s more noticeable in Bugs than it is in Sladek’s other work, or even, for example, The Day of the Locust, because the setting is intensely realistic and very contemporary. Fred remains the only real everyman character Sladek used, and his placement in the book amidst architected madness suggests an attempted escape from the specifics of his personality through a sort of super-detailed cartography of plot. Other characters get completely sucked into the machinery, but Fred remains psychologically present, and his own experiences, though carefully contrived, are more bitter.

The conclusion? That the structural, mathematical antics used by the Oulipo-ians are inspired by the same spirit that drives Sladek’s Rube Goldberg plot machines: it’s not an inherently avoidant technique, but it is one that moves away from what characters like Fred are supposed to represent. Bugs doesn’t resolve that tension, but neither does it fall apart.

(That same architectonic spirit is also what makes chapter 10 of Ulysses a diversion rather than a sequential component of the book. To me, the book holds unexplored answers to all these dilemmas.)

Sladek suggests in the article above that he was going to go further in his never-finished project Maps, where the novelistic structures would extend, Oulipo-style, into the metaphysics of the novel. It sounds like it might have been too fanciful and too arid for Sladek to manage, because his application of structure did not encourage perfect structure as much as it did satire.

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