“The game being played here makes something very simple and basic, a nursery rhyme or some other not the least bit exalted sentiment, and to couch it in a form of language intimidatingly obscure: Latin, or the sort of poetry that requires footnotes to be understood.”(Echo Alternators, 34)
Constraint in art, at first glance, seems as if it would inhibit the artist. It gives the image of an author chained to the publisher’s will—forced into paring down their work to drive sales, increase readership and comprehension, and make a piece more “enjoyable.” It is the bane of the contemporary artist’s existence and a reason why profound literature is not often seen on the front shelves in major bookstores. However, this is not the type of constraint that Tom La Farge argues for. Instead, in his unfinished set of pamphlets, 13 Writhing Machines, he argues for and elaborates on a form of self-imposed constraint which was crafted by the Oulipians some decades before. His three completed pamphlets, Administrative Assemblages, Homomorphic Converters, and Echo Alternators, each delve into constraints that may initially hold the author back, but in the end, are revelations on literature and language itself.
The first pamphlet, Administrative Assemblages, focuses on adhering to strict administrative writing constraints: lists, forms, classifications, and timelines. Maybe how a list of seemingly random objects can evoke a theme, give a clue about a character or the secrets of a place, or can be a story in itself. It is difficult to see how a simple list of objects can evoke something more profound than an elaborate passage of prose or verse. To answer that, one could even look at non-Oulipian writing:
“… when the cars were swept out you had to look at the actual residues of these lives, and there was no way of telling what things had been truly refused […] and what had simply (perhaps tragically) been lost: clipped coupons promising savings of 5 or 10¢, trading stamps, pink flyers advertising specials at the market, butts, tooth-shy combs, help-wanted ads, Yellow Pages torn from the phone book, rags of old underwear or dresses that already were period costumes, for wiping your own breath off the inside of a windshield with so you could see whatever it was, a movie, a woman or car you coveted, a cop who might pull you over just for drill, all the bits and pieces coated uniformly, like a salad of despair, in a grey dressing of ash, condensed exhaust, dust, body wastes…”(The Crying of Lot 49, 5)
Lists within lists. The constraint is to give us the lives of these individuals through objects left behind. More evocative than family histories which would stall the story and sink into fabricated pathos. And, as Tom La Farge would argue, these “lists create negative space in the writing. Thus, an imaginative acuity of inference is asked of us, [and] for that very reason we help to compose meaning” (Administrative Assemblages, 1). In short, it allows for variations in interpretation: what we should all strive for as writers.
Homomorphic Converters, his second pamphlet, focuses more on parts and forms of language to change the meaning. For instance, what if one replaced the verbs of one text with the verbs of another, each noun replacing another noun, and so on. In a simplified version, where we focus only on verbs, it would look like this. Take two similar scenes—a kiss between Penelope and Odysseus, and a kiss between Molly and Leopold Bloom:
“With eyes brimming tears she ran to him, throwing her arms around his neck, and kissed him.” (The Odyssey, 23.233-234)
“…my God after that long kiss I near lost my breath yes he said I was a flower of the mountain yes so we are flowers all a womans body yes… (Ulysses, 643)
Together, these could make something, with a few creative liberties, such as:
after that long kiss I
near brimming (my breath)
yes, he ran
I threw a flower of the mountain yes
so we kissed, flowers all
a womans body
This style of writing allows parallels to be found where one might not typically expect. It forces the writer to search through brilliant passages, reinterpreting them, modifying them, seeking out the importance of each verb and noun, each preposition and comma. With this rigor comes not only a final product such as the one above, not only a deeper understanding of each work but also a sort of practice that one could not come by otherwise.
The final pamphlet, Echo Alternators, is the most abstract of the three. Instead of a focus on parts of speech or types of words, the focus now lies on the appearance of language on the page, the sounds of speech, and the interplay between languages—everything in language that is not definition itself. A constraint that La Farge created known as “La Guagua” helps exemplify this idea. It is where the final sound of a word is followed by a word that begins with that same sound:
“Antigua Guatemala laments encircling Klingon goners, ersatz tsarinas, a renascent centenarian Aryan auntie in Antigua Guatemala.” (Echo Alternators, 27)
His examples in this pamphlet are elaborate and beautiful, but most people reading them would not find them publishable or useful for writing stories. So, what is the purpose of these more abstract constraints? The answer lies at the back of each pamphlet: “exercises” or practice.
To backtrack a bit, literature is clearly an artistic expression that not only relies on the story or meaning being conveyed but the use of language itself. Its sounds and patterns are as important, maybe even more important, than what is literally being said. Similarly, a painting is not just appreciated for its image, but for its unique use of brushstroke or lack of conventional style; a song not just loved for its lyrics and progression, but for the talent of a practiced musician breaking the norms of musical form while still creating something stirring. All this is obvious enough, but where writers often differ is that this abstraction is thought, even expected, to be achieved without specific practice. La Farge gives the reader numerous exercises for each of the dozens of constraints he discusses. They force the writer to grapple with the intricacies of language and storytelling that are not apparent to the naked eye, making both reader and writer better at their respective tasks.
Finally, one may ask if these pamphlets are worth reading for someone not interested in writing abstract fiction (or maybe not interested in writing at all). Of course, the answer is yes. More simplistically, because La Farge’s passion for the topic comes through intensely, making the reading almost like an exciting and euphoric experience with how the revelations come through. Yet, even more importantly, because they will not just make you a better reader, but because they expose the nuance and beauty of the English language in a way that is hard to come by in a typical work of linguistics or creative writing. La Farge enlightens the reader on linguistic origins, how sounds correlate between various languages, how homonyms, synonyms, and various other -nyms have a place in literature outside primary classroom discussion, and how one can find joy in the simple things: how the word “hay” makes us think of the word “fever,” how “York Street” can be drawn out into “your kiss is a treat,” and how a small list of items can recall the history of anything the author so desires.
Andrew Hermanski is currently a high school English teacher. He has received his Master’s in public health and his B.S. in psychology from the University of Arizona. Although his formal educational background is in the sciences, his love for literature and teaching has led him to pursue a different career path. His focus in literature lies in postmodernist and experimental fiction. In his free time, he also loves to watch movies, cook, write fiction and book reviews, and play video games (and, of course, spend time with his partner and his cats). Find him on Goodreads, Twitter (@OedipasKvass), or moderating over on the TrueLit subreddit.
One thought on “A Review of 13 Writhing Machines by Tom La Farge”
I appreciate greatly this meditation via the pamphlets on Oulipian (and non) constraints. Always a big fan of those madmen. I’m going to give this to my poetry-writing MFA students as a companion piece to the avant-garde prompts I sometimes use. Thanks for writing it!
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