Doug Nufer - A specialist in literary constraints and other odd procedures: to write a 200 page novel without repeating a single word. Erotic entrepreneur hygienist nocturnally assignated patients desiring kinky dental care
Doug Nufer, By Kelman Out Of Pessoa, Les Figues Press, 2011.
“A scientist whose experiments are consistently successful acquires the status of genius, and this is the proper status of experimental writer Doug Nufer.” —Harry Mathews
„In 2002, Doug Nufer wrote a story narrated by a tout, who proposed a novel way to beat the races. It was so absurd and ludicrous it gave him an idea. So Nufer went to Emerald Downs, home of thoroughbred racing in the Northwest. There, he split himself into three characters modeled on the heteronyms of Fernando Pessoa. Using a money management plan from a James Kelman short story, Nufer gave these characters money and set them free to gamble. He returned to the track every week for a full season, and his characters/heteronyms continued to bet, with real money and in the name of art. At the end of the season, he had pages of data in the form of a wagering diary, the outcome of a literary experiment that formed the basis of a literal experimental novel: By Kelman Out Of Pessoa."
“Works of literature are often described as ludic, or game-like, but few, if any have every been the product, in the form and substance, of an actual game..
“Consider art a complex betting game in which participants—artists, critics, audiences, institutions—wager both money and reputations but must pretend, for the sake of decorum, that no bets are being placed. By Kelman suggest that our (false) modesty cannot conceal the speculative nature of the enterprise—suggests, too, that the size of the wages matters less than their import to the participants’ lives.” – from the introduction by Louis Bury
“There are so many viewpoints here, so many puppets watching each other dance around a stage constructed from fiction and reality, that we can’t help but wonder about the man who makes them all dance. In Kelman, you get a better look at Nufer than you’ve ever had before, because the entire book carries with it an unwritten memoir of Nufer’s own experience at Emerald Downs. You want to see even more, but you can’t; the wonder of Doug Nufer is that he contains so many perspectives, you can’t look at him directly without your attention being directed somewhere else.” – The Stranger
Doug Nufer: Experimental Novel Experiment
Doug Nufer, Never Again, Thunder's Mouth Press, 2004.
Read it here (pdf)
"I think it’s safe to say that there is no novel like this one. This is a constrained novel on the level of Perec’s La Disparition in its level of ambition and difficulty. Doug Nufer (also author of the novel Negativeland) wrote this 200 page novel without repeating a single word. That means he only uses “I” once, “he” once, “she” once, “the” once, “a” once. The people I’ve mentioned this book to over the past week found it hard to believe this level of constraint was possible. Nufer does use neologisms, unusual contractions, and hyphenated constructions, but this does not take away from the almost genius use of diction at display here. A wary reader may wonder if, in complying with this constraint, Nufer has created a novel that is readable and, what’s more, enjoyable. I have to say that while it is an extremely difficult read (parsing the sentences requires no small amount of concentration) it is also quite enjoyable thanks to Nufer’s imagination, use of wordplay, and general writing skill. Before I go any further, let me quote an early paragraph from the novel which caught my eye:ointlessly consulting wrist, untimed jetsam intuitively schedules yet-to-be meetings. Shammed appointments’ pretext deactivates pedestrian alarmists, regarding loiterer’s stumblebum streetcorner idling. (13)
As you can see, while the sentences require a bit of work to put the elements in order (the profusion of verbs as adjectives/nouns and nouns as verbs, etc. while widening Nufer’s vocabulary makes parsing more difficult), there is sense to be found in them and that sense is even quite realistic in this case (I’ve actually done that: looking at my watch to appear as if I’m waiting for someone so I don’t seem like I am loitering).
Getting past the constraint for a moment, what is this novel about? The protagonist (“I” in the first sentence and thus our narrator) who takes on a plethora of names (as they cannot be repeated except in variation (“George” “George’s” “G.”)) starts out as George Raymond, a horserace gambler who goes looking for a job when the track closes. What follows is the ever-shifting adventure of George as he gets a job as a temp, is fired, gets evicted from his apartment, is kidnapped, held captive by a crazy commune, becomes a vending machine thief, travels to Mexico, gets lost in the jungle, ends up at a new track, etc.
The constantly new vocabulary of the constraint almost requires that the story be ever changing, ever renewed in location and action. This created for me frequent senses of vertigo. Obscurely syntaxed sentences make for difficult transition scenes if one is not paying the utmost attention. A dream-like sense comes into being due to this sense in tandem with the fantastical events of the story. I am reminded a bit of some of the Surrealist novels from the early period (Desnos’ Deuil pour Deuil for instance) except Nufer’s fantastic is created thanks to his language constraint not to automatic writing’s unconscious. Certainly Never Again is also more coherent as a continuing story than such Surrealist works, but it does provide one more similarity by divergent paths between Surrealism and Oulipian-style works.
In sticking to his extremely difficuly constraint, Nufer makes abundant use of wordplay. The out-of-context passages below offer a few examples (not necessarily the best, just ones that happened to all fall within the same three paragraph range):
“…Interior terrorizations thereforeign magnify… Schlock heirlooms’ pawnshop hawkers buy-and-large recant noncommercial conversant English… poleconomically plotting: covert battlefield tactics’re germane, businesswise; counterrevolutionarily, armaments shipments’re rational.” (108-09)
The language also maintains a high sense of the aural, particularly with alliteration:
“Cockatoo cock-a-doodle-doos prematinally serenade sleepers’ erupted slumber. Squawking critters codafy orchestrally resonant monotonic reverberations radiating overtured explosive boom.” (114)
But it’s probably best to read some for yourself. The whole text is available in pdf form here, and you can read a small excerpt here, which covers the book previous to the first passage I quoted above.
I was a bit skeptical of this book, and left it on my shelf for a few months, but when I finally read Nufer”s Negativeland I realized what a skilled and imaginative writer he was. Never Again solidifies that opinion for me. I’ve already ordered On the Roast, his other novel that came out last year.
If you like a novel that is innovative, adventurous, skillfully written, and just a little difficult find yourself a copy of this book. It is easily one of the masterpieces of constrained novels.“ - MadInkBeard
from Never Again
Eightballing lawyer holds court, recollects Baby-breaking Boa Case.
Dateline: moving day, Anytown, USA. Six-foot pet's disappearance commandeered otherwise-preoccupied movers. Hirelings' herpetophobia, packbubbled underbrush, time-pressured itinerary mitigated against searched thoroughness. Rushed exiters haphazardously canvassed crannies, attic, cellar, closets, snake-friendly nooks. Cage-slipping reptile unfound, decampers relocated. Newlyweds arrived. Dreamhoused copulations eventually impregnated wife, engineered nightmarish litigations outgrowing embrangled sequence ensuing classic catastrophe: hugely pregnant woman putters happily stirring soup, whereupon fumely resuscitated appetites release ceiling light's encircler. Kerplop! Divebombing serpent causes miscarriage.
Dentist antes laughing-gas chippie. Erotic entrepreneur hygienist nocturnally assignated patients desiring kinky dental care. Latexed fingertips, tightfit nurse's microskirt, sterile aromatics, pain-inducing instruments' latently sexualized perversions teased uptight jisms regular humping wouldn't unleash. Semi-actual dentifriciality buffed enamels, flossed molar pockets (S/Mers requested unnovocained drillwork, tartar pick-axing).
Oral healthcare foreplay fulfilled hyperimaginers; unfulfilled, groin-oriented ejaculators craved hygienist's labial stimulation. Full-service dentistry enscrewed, sucked-off nitrous oxide... fellated wangs gone limp (drugged ennui taking evermore deeply breathed inspirations). Sucks overtook sniffs.
Voracities sapped anesthetic's supply, hooker's vigor. Inevitably, once-tidy arrangements slopped unhideable obviousness.
DEA's monitors routinely checking pharmaceutical depletions implicating notorious pleasure-enhancement substances saw poolroom DDS's joy-gas tanklevel discrepancies linking gas expenditure/ nonexistent surgeries. Hypothetical root-canalwork, unhypothetically, tackled g-spot assistant. Gastank's only co-operator admitted, repented; solicited restitution.
Doug Nufer, On the Roast: The Best Grinds of My Corporation, Chiasmus Press, 2004.
"On the Roast is a novel in the form of a corporate history, narrated by the CEO of a chain of coffee bars who's crazy about the Beats (and ghostwritten by a couple of characters who are not exactly crazy about the CEO).
"Doug Nufer is the pop-punk heir to the great Oulipo tradition of constraint writing. His work is, therefore, brainy, babbly, wry, and more fun than a crossword puzzle at a linguists convention." - Rebecca Brown
Read it at Google Books
Doug Nufer, Negativeland, Autonomedia, 2004.
"This rueful tale follows an Olympic gold medal winner and his girlfriend on a cross-country trip to revisit his brief moment of triumph and his subsequent long haul on the promotions circuit. Composed in the tradition of constraint writing, Nufer's smart, flirtatious tour-de-force combines comic gusto and technical virtuosity, while providing penetrating thoughts on our country's obsession with private foibles and public image. Rebecca Brown lauds this "brainy, babbly, wry" work as "more fun than a crossword puzzle at a linguists' convention", while Michael Upchurch deems NEGATIVELAND "an intricate, multi-layered masterpiece by a writer who's a true original".
"Before writing Never Again, Doug Nufer spent several months at his typewriter "practicing." He worked on purging prepositions, conjunctions, and articles from his vocabulary. He wrote sentences like "Repulsers attractively invigorate casting-couch potato mashering" and "Openings'd pre-emerge paratelegraphically!" Nufer is one of the few American heirs to the Oulipo movement, a Paris-based group of mathematicians and writers who invent and adhere to strict linguistic rules because (as one Oulipian author put it) "total [artistic] freedom" is "intellectually pathetic." In Never Again, Nufer uses no word more than once, and the book is, respectfully, limited.
"In Nufer's latest book, Negativeland, the constraint is much simpler: Every sentence contains a negative—the narrator, Chick, "can't say yes." An Olympic swimmer turned spa promoter, Chick lives in a Baudrillardian state of giddy nihilism, making idiotic statements like "He was simply because he was, we weren't because he was, and we weren't because we weren't." Convinced that "illusion... embraces all," Chick has a pathologically overblown sense of his own fame. When he visits old friends, he hands out souvenirs—fake medals, earplugs, bathing caps. For publicity stints, he sits in a swimsuit, on a plank, atop a tank of dirty water, while folks step up and "Bang the Olympian."
Chick is hardly the first protagonist to entertain the suspicion that nothing is real ("everything . . . a wax museum!") but he may be the first to have his paranoia cheered on by a steady stream of not's, dis-'s, un-'s and -n't's. The more the health club circuit (which is "more hectic than Hollywood") absorbs him, the more the negatives fly. He becomes convinced that everything is hollowed-out ("conversation [is] no more than a dialogue")—an ironic but fitting conclusion to a book in which ideology is merely a by-product of form." - Rachel Aviv
„If providing somethings will not do, the writer must provide nothings. I am not playing with words. A little observation will show you that writers do nothing else. They make the experience of consciousness available through nothings - absences, negations, voids. To put it another way, writing works exclusively by what the writer leaves out. - Harry Mathews, "For Prizewinners"
Not to nitpick, but there are a few things Doug Nufer left out of his 2004 novel, Negativeland. There aren't any Sherpas in it. Nor are there any ice cream trucks. And for the life of me, I couldn't find one mention of steroids. In a novel where the anti-hero is a former Olympic champion who used to promote Health Spas and who likes to watch baseball games, how could the topic of steroids not come up at least once? For that matter, how could Sherpas and ice cream trucks not? Who doesn't eat ice cream or mountaineer in Nepal? An irresponsible critic might overlook these glaring omissions, but not I. In an "environment rigged for deprivation," nothing isn't a clue (Nufer 103). In fact, by this logic, what isn't in the novel is far more important than what is, since what is in it is there only to point to what isn't.
To begin with, there's no mention of the OuLiPo in the novel. Nonetheless, their presence can be felt everywhere, because it is a constraint-based text: no sentence can be included without possessing some form of negation. 1 Not an impossible constraint, but an insistent one. Cumulatively, characters and events come to be defined by what they are not, as in this description of the housewife Susan Griffin: "the cut of her clothes wasn't so domestic that a guy didn't want to keep looking at her" (147). Each negation, in addition to asserting that something is not the case, also implicitly asserts Nufer's allegiance to writing under conditions of deprivation and duress. Like an ascetic, he will not permit himself certain liberties and forms of behavior. They are out of bounds, off limits, not for his eyes and ears.erhaps more than any other constraint-based text, Negativeland reveals the Oulipian credo to be a negative one, a credo of thou-shalt-nots. I say this descriptively, not pejoratively. A negative credo's neither good nor bad in and of itself. Freedom from is not inherently worse than freedom for, only different. A constraint always says: no. Yet this no does not simply demarcate the boundaries of the possible, of the pastures the writer's language has been confined to, but longingly resounds for those things that are forbidden to it, those things that are missing, absent, not here. Non-existence haunts every constraint-based text. Ghosts of the unsaid and the unsayable populate their caesuras, silences, malapropisms. The condition is not unlike a phantom limb: an absence that can be felt. No wonder Harry Mathews, an Oulipian, believes that "writing works exclusively by what the writer leaves out." No wonder Georges Perec, a Holocaust scion, wrote La Disparition and Charles Lamb never mentioned his matricidal sister in his otherwise autobiographical Essays of Elia. They all know something not everybody does: unlike gains, losses needn't be articulated to become tangible, present, real.
Nowhere in Negativeland will you find a discussion of game theory, or even Pascal's wager, but you don't have to be a mathematician or literary critic to recognize that this book theorizes extensively about losses and gains in gambling and in language. The novel's two protagonists, Ken Honochick, a former Olympic gold medalist in the backstroke, and his landlady-turned-girlfriend, Miriam, who used to work in a photo lab developing negatives, are both unemployed and support themselves by gambling as they travel around the United States. This detail is not unimportant: another of Nufer's constraint-based novels, Never Again, is a picaresque journey through the protagonist, I's, various forms of employment - I has a surfeit of jobs, while Chick and Miriam have a pronounced lack of them. It could be argued that no theme is more important to Nufer than jobs (then again, the converse could be argued as well). Whatever side of the debate you're on, pro or con, the key point is that Chick and Miriam exist outside an economy of paid labor. Indeed, they consider themselves unfit for even simple household chores: "Even undemanding chores were too much for us. She could say we'd make do, but she had abandoned a building because she hadn't done any maintenance. Usually, things were the other way around, as the pride of ownership kept a place up while tenants didn't flinch to save it from falling down, but a lot of what we did was the other way around" (89).
"A lot of what we did was the other way around": not only is professional gambling an unstable source of income, it is also an unusual one. Its appeal lies in the bewitching alchemy of creating something out of nothing. When you win a bet, no substantial labor has been expended, no goods produced, and yet, voilà, fortune showers you with undeserved riches. A Marxist might even say that the process was capitalism writ small: money making money on itself, with no value added to society. But there's a reason why Marx is never mentioned in the novel: for Chick and Miriam, this modus operandi constitutes the core of a contrarian ethic, a way of opting out, of saying no to the predominant, and stifling, modes of existence.
Within the upside-down logic of the novel, this emphatic no is actually an affirmation. There is no positive thinking in the novel; or, more precisely, there are no positive portrayals of positive thinking. None of the conventional hierarchies or value-systems hold; they have all been inverted. Thus when Chick's former father-in-law Roger Patterson, an unctuous PR man who was the mastermind behind Chick's post-Olympics promotional tour for the Gold Medal Health Spas, solemnly declares, "What we, what Gold Medal Health Spas is all about, in a nutshell, is life not death...we are here to help our clients release themselves from the gym-teacher induced inhibitions and retrograde disciplinary mechanisms that thwart self-actualization," his blustery, canned rhetoric makes it apparent that, contrary to what he insists, he actually stands on the side of death, not life (94). His cloying mantras, such as "Language is the audio of image," are not mechanisms for "self-actualization," but a form of death-in-life, of language and thought gone rancid (93). And when he asserts, in response to Chick's protestations, that "Gold Medal Health Spas is not about negative thinking. Hostility is not progress but regression, the enemy of growth," his principle character flaw is revealed to be an incapacity for negative thought: a profound inability to imagine alternative ways of knowing and of thinking, an inability to understand that even hostility and negativity can be a means of forward progress, and that growth is not an unqualified virtue (96). Keats' notion of negative capability is never mentioned in the novel (though its conspicuous absence suggests its looming presence), but if it were it would not be used to describe Roger Patterson.
Even Chick's and Miriam's gambling wins and losses are perverse, defiant, backwards - not at all what you'd expect them to be. When they play blackjack at a casino they don't aspire to win by being dealt favorable cards, but to win by the dealer being dealt unfavorable cards: "We didn't hope for tens and aces for ourselves as much as for the dealer to get stuck with dregs, and often we won by standing below seventeen while the dealer busted himself" (45). In keeping with their contrarian ethic, Chick and Miriam prefer to win by not losing. For them, winning is not its own positive state, but simply the absence of loss, and thus, in a bizarre reversal, is revealed as a hidden state of loss: the loss of loss. The converse, of course, holds as well - that loss is the absence of gain - but is not nearly as radical a proposition, because loss is understood as a state of absence in the first place. One of the implications of this logic is that the characters become inured to loss, unaffected by it: because loss is everywhere, there's no sense fighting it or even caring much about it. For example, after a not so good session at the horse track, Chick explains, "What I lost didn't bother me as much as what I hadn't won" (20).
Among the many things you won't find in Negativeland, the most telling may be its lack of nostalgia for things that are lost, missing, absent, not here. In the same way that Chick and Miriam's negative, gambler's logic inures them to loss, it wouldn't be a stretch to argue that the deliberate use of constraint inures a writer to it as well. A constraint always says: no. But this no is less similar to the delighted squeals of a masochist, writhing in pleasure on the rack, than it is to the yelp of abject terror by a character in a horror film - an expression of surprise mingled with helplessness - who has seen something she'd rather not have. Constraint-based writing, in other words, isn't fundamentally about being bound and gagged, but about being benumbed, distant, arch. A psychoanalyst might describe this condition as a state of denial, as a refusal to confront someone or something that haunts the writer, but there's a reason why there are no psychoanalysts in the novel: this diagnosis is incorrect. Non-acceptance is a more accurate description of the condition: not a denial of loss' existence, but a refusal to be cowed or waylaid by it - a refusal, ultimately, to play games, to make meaning, on terms other than one's own.
These refusals account for the reason why, in a novel jam-packed with negativity, there isn't, as one would expect, an unhappy ending. Two negatives (Chick and Miriam) combine to make a positive (a new, albeit unorthodox, life together). It is not unlike the way in which, philosophically speaking, a proposition that is not not true is in fact the case. In the final scene of the novel, Chick and Miriam attend a New Year's Eve party, uninvited, at the house where Chick grew up in Florida. As drifters, they don't fit in with the "lawyers, accountants, salesmen, doctors, and mid-level media executives" in attendance, those individuals who occupy civilization's approved posts and hew to its prescribed ambits - those individuals, in a word, who play, unquestioningly, by other people's rules. Amidst this party full of yes-men, Chick and Miriam dance, contentedly, to the song "Nothing Could Be Finer," as, in the novel's closing sentence, Chick muses on the contrasting pleasures of their mode of existence: "She pulled me to her, and as we danced, I thought of the road they [the hosts] had taken and the road that we had taken, of their house here and of our car outside, and I knew that nothing could [be finer]" (186). In the final analysis, every novel lacks something, but no novel is as comfortable with what it doesn't have as Negativeland.“ – Louis Bury
To impress those used to the standard flash of the casino, the management spared nothing to display the extraordinary. That wasn't easy. In the casino racket, a hyped gimmick motif was the rule - not the exception.
In a way, it didn't work. Like a brand of beer or cigarettes that tries to pass itself off as a cut above the ordinary while delivering no better than the usual taste, the Abracadabra was all image. Your chance of winning was no greater here than in any other casino. The food and drinks may have seemed better at first and there were certain perks you didn't get other places, but if cash didn't churn into chips fast enough, a gambling hall went out of business.
Judging from all the cars, we couldn't say the place was dying. Still, an outsider couldn't tell how well a casino did, particularly one that went all out for illusion and mirage. It was easy to tell people going to Reno not to miss the Abracadabra. And yet, I couldn't claim they'd do worse at Harrah's or Circus Circus, and many plainly would have preferred the Cal-Neva or Fitzgerald's.
This time in the afternoon at the end of the year the sun couldn't wait to set. Although it wasn't yet dark, the moment we turned into the lot, five search lights positioned around the edges went on simultaneously.
"Some things don't change," I said.
The search lights weren't indications that anything unusual was happening.
Until we stepped outside.
Attendants on camelback directed us through sphinxes along the path from the car to the lobby. Suddenly air around us warmed and even though I'd lived here, the giant glass pyramid ceiling gave me the sense of walking into a wonderful new space. A maze of hallways became gamerooms brighter than daylight and louder than wind. Towering minarets and glowing domes drew off the smokes of roast garlic lamb. Long pools led through courtyards of gardens, each more beautiful than the other, and we moved through the arcades with a purpose, pausing to admire. All was ours to inspect and enjoy.
With everywhere open, we followed a red carpet that seemed to be for us. Could they have remembered me? The cocktail waitresses were sleek and tender. The dealers and pit bosses were friendly and kind. Even the crapshooters smiled. Everyone was happy, charming, debonair, handsome and well dressed. The laughter was music. There was music! People welcomed us.
We belonged here. We were as exciting and attractive as they were.
"No no no, CUT, for chrissakes. They're not Tom and Melanie!"
Everyone groaned and looked at us like we'd done the unforgivable.
"Behind the rope, with the crowd," said a guy so big that he didn't have to be polite.
Then we saw the cameras, and the rope holding back those who didn't wear suits and gowns, whose hair wasn't perfect. We crossed the line where the smiles of the chic met the stares of the desperate as they tried to look like they weren't ugly.
"Wouldn't you know," I said, "another commercial."
"Not a commercial," whispered one of the crowd, "a movie."
Doug Nufer, We Werw Werewolfes, Make Now Press, 2008.
"WE WERE WEREWOLVES uses constraints to open up the English language to deeper and darker humors than any your basic run-of-the-mill prosaic verse can begin to imagine. The insistent permutations of alphabetical sounds, the severe word love run through film noir-based tonalities, & the small-to-epic scale of reordering found in so many of these Nuferian arrangements lay bare a gleeful prosody of the nervous system. Pleasure level herein: mighty high"—Anselm Berrigan
Doug Nufer, The Mudflat Man/The River Boys, Soultheft Records, 2006.
"Doug Nufer pays tribute to the flip-over format popularized by Ace Doubles. These two novels reflect and refer to each other, as the author pursues his mad dream to revive a crafty format of convenience as an art form of necessity. "THE MUDFLAT MAN/THE RIVER BOYS takes on pulp fiction with agility and aplomb.... Nufer's appeal isn't that he performs literary stunts of the utmost daring—it's that his stunts encompass great stories"—The Stranger
"You'd hardly call either of these stories traditional, but they are noteworthy in that they both feature men who, like their author, are unconventional characters fundamentally unwilling to or incapable of meeting the expectations of the dull folks around them"—Rain Taxi
Interview by MadInkBeard
Interview by Tom DeBeauchamp
Doug Nufer, The Dammed, Publishing the Unpublishable/ubu editions, 2011.
Read it here (pdf)
Doug Nufer, Rumor, Publishing the Unpublishable/ubu editions,2006.
Read it here (pdf)
The Real Book: a self-interview by Doug Nufer
We are riddled with allusions. To get a grip on this reality, I sat down with The Real Book, where questions from the music of the years gone by inform my cultural DNA to help make me who I am. - Doug Nufer
Would you like to swing on a star, carry moonbeams home in a jar, and be better off than you are, or would you rather be a mule?
Inspiration is a delusion. It may be a necessary delusion, to get you started on a project and to keep you going through weeks, months, years of seeming to go nowhere, but I would rather be working regularly, just going about the mule business of putting words together than swinging from one inspiration to the next. And what could make you better off than being busy at something you need to do?
What good is sitting alone in your room?
Granted, without the delusion that your book might turn out to be something wonderful, you might not get anything done. Doing it is what matters, even if it means sitting alone in your room or being a mule or whatever.
Why not retire to a farm and be contented to charm the birds off the trees?
I have to live in a city where I can work for a living and see people and have them see me. I like to perform solo, with the word band Interrupture, and with dancers or musicians. But the most honest answer to this question may be that I am contented to charm the birds I live with off their perches. There’s Pollock, an African grey, and Hektor, a Lilac-crowned Amazon. Pollock speaks my lines in his own re-arrangements and Hektor sings. They would be terrified of life in the country, with all the raptors circling overhead. Kiwi, the Portuguese water dog, would love it we retired to a farm, so maybe the key to this question is retirement. I don’t ever want to retire.
How ‘ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm, after they’ve seen Paree?
Exactly. In a way, I used to be down on the farm: fallow, out to pasture, shoveling manure in novels cultivated for the mid-list shelves, and then I saw the works of the Oulipo, the Paris-based group of writers and mathematicians that comes up with and uses constraints to write fiction and poetry. These constraints go beyond restrictions of grammar that make up all languages, but unlike those essential rules, constraints are often said to be arbitrary and ludicrous, and therefore senseless. But it all made sense to me, or at least it seemed to be worth a try.
Don’t you know how hopelessly I’m lost?
Some constraints, such as the systems Georges Perec used to make his novel Life A User’s Manual are complicated, and mathematical constraints in particular can be difficult to diagram (if easy to read), but patterns, systems, and restrictions are basic to writing. What is the sestina but an algorithm? To give a simple example of a constraint: my novel Never Again, where no word appears more than once.
Why can’t you behave?
I did behave. For decades I sent standard query letters, samples, manuscripts to agents and editors. This was back when the people you wrote to actually answered letters and bothered to send rejections. Some rejections came with advice, even good advice, but my main problem was, I was getting bored with the way I had been writing. I had to try something else.
Where’s the real stuff in life to cling to?
We probably don’t agree on what realism is. Stories taken from “the real stuff in life” fail miserably at evoking real life. Real life is boring most of the time. Conceptual poetry, like Vanessa Place’s Statement of Facts, with its reproduced transcripts of sex crime depositions, or Kenneth Goldsmith’s transcriptions of radio weather reports in The Weather or a baseball game broadcast in Sports are more precise slices of life than so-called realistic novels.
Why must you be mean to me?
Who’s sorry now?
Look, I’m not trying to upset you. I respect you and think of you all the time. I know how hard it is to say what is real, and really, nobody does it better than you. You are“The Real Book,” even if you aren’t a real book but a name for various manuscripts of recollected sheet music with lyrics passed from musician to musician. I think that there is no more elegant and beautiful expression of, say, reality, than what we find in the lines of “The Real Book.” Lorenz Hart, Ira Gershwin, Gus Kahn, Irving Berlin, Dorothy Fields, Cole Porter—you’re the top.
Night or daytime, it’s all playtime, ain’t we got fun?
Not all playtime. Mostly, we drop allusions without thinking, like when we relay a catch phrase from a commercial or popular movie. How fun is that? Playful as it can be to allude to something deliberately or to build something from a framework of allusions, you have to rely on the audience. Explanations and footnotes can ruin it. The audience either gets it or not.
What don’t we get?
You know damn well: where this or that line came from, who that poet was or what songs these lines come from or why this should be taking that form at all.
Why should I care?
You don’t have to. If you get it you get it, if you don’t, you don’t. Paul Auster said something like that in his review of Life A User’s Manual. Whatever allusions, formal constraints, or other behind-the-scenes rigging there may be, you don’t care. The piece has to stand on its own. When I’m reading something that’s based on a weird scheme, I like to guess what the author is doing, or if I know what the scheme is, I like to see how the author handles it. There is a risk, though. Even if the scheme works, the author can be written off as clever.
Just who can solve its mystery? Say, don’t you remember? Don’t you want to forget someone, too?
I don’t remember lots of things and I don’t want to forget anyone. As for mysteries, writers often get accused of just being autobiographical or of putting too much of their own lives into their books—not that many or even most writers don’t do this. Just as I look for schemes in what an author does, some readers like to solve the mystery of the work by connecting characters to people in the author’s life. I think the real mystery lies in this: autobiography is impossible yet inevitable. I almost never write about myself, but even in the most arcane, constraint-riddled passages I can’t help but reveal exactly who I am.
Where are the clowns? Don’t you love farce?
Maybe too much. Humor can be as hard to get across as an obscure allusion. And yet, a difficult constraint, such as one based on inversion, Spoonerisms, or homphones—something that would seem to have me spewing nothing but gibberish—can be instantly understood and appreciated by a general audience if the work is funny.
Who knows where the road will lead us? Will we have rainbows day after day?
It’s unfashionable to aim for originality. Appropriation, re-contextualization, re-use, and recycling are the rage, and I like that rage and often take part in it, too. Mostly, though, I devise and/or seize upon constraints that others haven’t used or haven’t used in the same ways I’m using them. The point is not just to say something you haven’t said before, but to say what hasn’t been said by anyone: to be original. Maybe not day after day, but once in a while." - in Believer Magazine
Doug Nufer: The First Star Spangled Noel
The first Noel the angel did
Say can you see
Certain poor shepherds
By the dawn's early light
What so proudly we hailed
In fields they lay tending their sheep's
Whose brood stripes
Saw a star rising in the east
O'er the ramparts we watched
And to the earth it gave
And by the light of
Three wisemen came
Bursting in air
To seek for a king
That our flag was still there
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel
Born is the king of
The land of the free
And the home of the brave