June 23, 2005
When I saw the headline “Fake spy guilty of kidnapping con” on BBC news today, I was worried that Harry Mathews might have gotten himself in trouble. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case.
Mathews, a novelist, poet of the New York School, fashioner of literary forms and sole American member of the Oulipo, is most recently the author of My Life in CIA. This delightful book was reviewed a while ago by local Oulipophile MadInkBeard. Mathews calls it an autobiographical novel; in it, he describes his dangerous escapades of 1973. That tumultuous year, he purportedly answered the suspicions of his friends abroad (who thought, or in some cases were certain, that he was a CIA man) by beginning to play spy.
Mathews is one of the great living masters of actual as well as potential literature, one who has been very enlightening and clarifying for me. So I was greatly honored to curate the first exhibit about Mathews’s work and life at the University of Pennsylvania library, which has his papers. Of course, I had been anticipating My Life in CIA, which he was completing when he came to read at the Kamin Gallery at Penn to open the exhibit. Having been very impressed by Mathews’s article-length autobiography (reprinted in The Way Home) as well as by his novels, I was especially interested to see what he had done in conflating life and art. There was a bit of a wait – Harry was also translating the novel to French for a simultaneous release – but I wasn’t disappointed.
My Life in CIA is an amusing play on both the autobiography and the spy thriller, but it also has a particularly rich relationship to Mathews’s previous novels and to the way he has written about writing. In The Journalist (1994), Mathews’s narrator, who is not a news reporter but rather the keeper of a journal, decides to use the process of writing as therapy, but becomes obsessive about classifying the types of the writing he is doing, like a blogger with an overly extensive hierarchy of categories. Cigarettes (1987) is narrated by a writer. Mathews’s first three novels are outlandish adventures that deal with writing a bit less explicitly, but there are connections there, too. The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium is an epistolary novel in which the main characters, a curious married couple, communicate with each other only by writing one another from afar. Tlooth (1966) is about the construction of a revenge plot by the narrator, who is an author of other sorts, writing a spoonerized blue movie at one point. Finally, Mathews’s first novel, The Conversions (1962), is a tale of textual transformation, interpretation, and misinterpretation that begins with lines from an amusingly transformed version of “The Sheik of Araby.”
The semi-autobiographical, semi-novelistic Mathews who narrates My Life in CIA does not do so much literal writing in it: he recites some Hopkins, cobbles together some material for an Oulipo meeting, and contrives a few verses to sing when he finds himself compelled to dance the Squat and needing to prove himself a poet. But he does plenty of plotting, trying to write himself into the dangerous and compelling world of the spy. Mathews follows directions to transport unknown parcels, finding himself constrained by unknown parties to follow various paths. He has a false map weaved into a rug. He pursues numerous women but is thwarted or interrupted almost all throughout. He gives a talk to travel-stresses dyslexics suggesting that they only take trains with palindromic times. He flees through the French countryside toward a tense and violent confrontation with a spy who is tracking and seeking to terminate him. He feels embarrassed about drinking a bottle and a half bottle of wine at a restaurant by himself – this, admittedly, isn’t very believable, but I suppose Mathews included a few unrealistic details to remind the reader that this book is part novel.
So what is My Life in CIA actually about? Spies, literary constraint, and Harry Mathews’s life, no doubt. It’s also about telling the lies that others want to hear, and how that can take the teller – the novelist, poet, or other person – in unanticipated and intriguing directions. It’s about the play between life and fiction, and about how an author writes his life as well as his books. Combining the best of the free-wheeling, treasure-hunt, jailbreak excitement of his first three novels with the deep contemplation of the writing process that is seen in Cigarettes and seen even more clearly in The Journalist, and throwing in encounters from and the personal context of Mathews’s own amazing history, My Life in CIA dazzles deeply.
In case you can’t get your hands on the book right away and you need another hors d’oeuvre, there’s a great interview with Mathews in the The Brooklyn Rail.