Jan 12 2009 5:05pm

A Missing Sign

 This post is odd. I’ll say so up front. But my goofy approach is not without a point. You’ll grant my rambling a modicum of wiggling room, I trust, in light of my topic, a book known as A Void (originally, La Disparition) by…I’ll call him GP.

GP hung out with OuLiPo, a group of authors (Parisians and a handful of Yanks, not counting Calvino, a Cuban-born Italian) curious about structuralism—and fond of an idiosyncratic approach to art similar to Jarry, Man Ray and that guy who did a painting of a caption contradicting a smoking apparatus.

OuLiPo had (has?) a wish to start an inundation of unusual ways to form a story, mostly through artful, if artificial, constraints. Among OuLiPo’s most visionary and difficult products is A Void.

Adopting a constraint may at first look a lark, a spot of word-gymnastics and wit without much profundity. OuLiPo’s primary point, though, is that all writing contains constraints, and constraints do not only form an arbitrary boundary but also allow for a distinct and particular artwork. Out of constraint’s manifold conundrums, says OuLiPo, is born wondrous charm. 

In contrast, bringing about a story whilst wholly avoidant of constraint will only hazard sloppy, indistinct and masturbatory stuff. Any author worth his salt may publish work that looks naturally at odds with lyrical tradition. But upon sharp study, such writing will show that it, too, follows a rhythm of sorts, without which this work fails. 

 In fact, production of an illusion of non-form is its own constraint. I think of Walt Whitman’s stuff (such as “A Boston Ballad,” “Cavalry Crossing a Ford” and “A Twilight Song”) which at first blush, looks without boundary, but in truth, holds fast to a form (though a form of his own making, which is my point). 

GP did a lot of wordplay in his day, from writing crosswords for Figaro and (and Paris Match, I think) to anagrams, plus words and word-strings that work forward and backward (such as mom, dad, ‘Madam, I’m Adam’ and so on), only GP did such a labor of lunacy that its total is 5000 plus linguistic symbols long! GP was a bit of a joyous madman, in a good way (look at his hair!), and both wonky fun and actual skill abound in A Void. It is part Tristram Shandy and part long haiku.

Dig this way-out plot: A man, Anton Vowl, intuits that a disturbing incongruity is afoot. A ubiquitous thing, a normal part of his day and night, has split. Flown its coop, you could say, and not an iota of it stays, but for an itching lack, as might a lost limb. Anton and his compatriots look for this missing thing amid social uprising and war.

You know right away what that missing thing is. It is a linguistic sign (fifth among ours), most common in our way of talking. Hard to think of talking (or doing a blog post) without it! Put bluntly, this book is a lipogram. About 70,000 words, and no most common symbolic word-part. (And if I had put that sign back in for this post, I think GP, R.I.P. might roll about in his coffin in disdain.) 

Most amazing of all, it saw translation from Français into Anglais, also without its missing bit! Wow! That’s as crazy as it is brilliant and damn cool.  

Its plot is a labyrinth full of mirrors, but how GP brings it all about is a hoot. I’ll show you what I’m talking about. GP’s variant on a famous stanza (a conclusion to a classic horror, of which GP’s riffing is shown in total in A Void) summons an illustration of his agility: 

“And my Black Bird still is sitting, still is sitting
On that pallid bust—still flitting through my dolorous domain;
But it cannot stop from gazing for it truly finds amazing
That, by artful paraphrasing, I such rhyming can sustain-
Nothwithstanding my lost symbol I such rhyming can sustain-
Though I shan’t try it again!” 

(pp. 104-108 in Harvill Books 1995 quality printing)

This book is a fantasy story, no doubt about it, but not of goblins, unicorns or wizards. It is a fantasy of structural whimsy. Not to put too sharp a point on it, A Void is a passion play in which a common symbol is put up as a sacrificial lamb, and salvation is found in juxtaposing a notion of facility and fluidity in narration with a harsh truncation of linguistic tools. GP shows us that with a broad outlook, communication jumps across this “void” with vigor and wild artistry is born.

Peter Hollo
1. raven
I must say that's an astonishingly apt (and brilliantly-brought-off) appraisal of a brilliant author and book!
2. klagor
Bravo! A task not simply won, writing a post lacking that particular ubiquitous non-consonant.

(I could spoil it, but my spirit longs for additional wordplay).
Jason Henninger
3. jasonhenninger


"non-consonant" Good way of putting it. Wish I'd thought of that!
Julian Hall
5. Jules
You've written a nice article. I've found it very hard writing about the avoidance of 'e's without using an 'e', which I experienced while trying to find a solution to the readability problems of the wikipedia article on Gadsby: Champion of Youth, a similarly lipogrammatic book to The Void. Until recently, said article also contained no 'e's. But the contorted methods we had to use to describe what was unique about it caused several problems. So, alas, it had to change.

(I find writing in E prime a similarly rewarding constraing).
Julian Hall
6. Jules
Constraing? Constraint. Learn to type, me! :(
Jason Henninger
7. jasonhenninger
@ 6

I've never read Gadsby, but I can appreciate how hard it would be to do a wikipedia lipogram about it. Yikes!

When I wrote this, I wanted to mention the equally amazing "The Exeter Text" which Perec wrote with only E and that was translated too. But there was no way I could think of to describe it.
Torie Atkinson
8. Torie
This is truly brilliant. Kudos!

@ 5-7

I think not! What, too difficult? You (and all you others) can surpass such limitations. I'm counting on this discussion to confirm it.

Don't disappoint, all!
Samantha Brandt
9. Talia
I'd known of this book. An astonishing thing to do (although I am curious as to why. It was a big pain in the butt, no doubt)I much doubt I could accomplish similar, in book nor blog post form. Much too fond of that particular sign. :)
Evan Langlinais
10. Skwid
Th ptrn nvl f dsmvwllng, prhps? Mst ntrgng!
Joshua Starr
11. JStarr
I find OuLiPo an affront to all that is worthy and valid in authorship, and would not sink to such lows as to play along with this absurd sham of an affair. I’ll obtain much joy from ruining all of your fun by ignoring any such foolish constraints on my typing.

Wait. Damn. That didn’t work.
13. Merely Me
You are totally amazing! How did you accomplish this feat? "E" for excellent!

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