Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Harry Matthews: Cigarettes

Not sure how the title fits in but this book was as smooth and refreshing as a packet of Laramies. Weirdly pitched between realist melodrama, postmodern sexuality deconstruction and (subtle) Oulipo construct, Matthews ingeniously ties these ideas together such that they're less independent strands than a well-stirred stew, a multi-voiced multi-layered narrative of love, loss, art and aging in America. Dedicated to Matthews' mate Georges Perec, Cigarettes contains something of Perec's desire for structural logic, not that I'm sure how it works. I never grasped what Perec was doing with Life: A User's Manual though, but enjoyed the knowledge that something overarching was at work. That same sense is present here. Here, each chapter explores a different pair of individuals, the narrative developing as these characters interact, with one another, in the art - and horse - world, and across time. The cast is incestuous, and piecing together the historical web of relationships, and following their implications, is where much of the pleasure lies.

This structure allows for a complete flattening of hierarchy, with no character or narrative element allowed to dominate. Rather, the drama is less concerned with individual character development (although this does occur within individual chapters) than with overall relationships, the picture rather than the puzzle pieces. This isn't entirely true, as those chapters involving the extreme sexual antics of Lewis and Morris naturally stand out, yet by the final pages they too have been subsumed within the larger whole. I read an old Collier edition with the eighties graphics (see top) which seeped into my reception of the book, not the less leading current Dalkey Archive version (below). I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Mathews was once assumed to be a CIA agent in Paris, due to his 'man-of-leisure' lifestyle. This swanning about Parisian high society itself attracted the attention of the CIA and was documented in Mathews' pseudo memoir My Life As CIA. He studied music at Harvard but no idea what, or whether, he composed.

I just finished Osamu Dazai's No Longer Human, a hilarious study in uniquely Japanese misanthropy, which I'll comment on, and quote, soon.

No comments:

Post a Comment