Sunday, November 22, 2009

Douglas Messerli | Review of Language Writhing Machines, Vols 1 and 2 by Tom La Farge

Tom La Farge

English Place Names

Monica Alisse's "Human Alphabet"

Duck Rabbit

Language Writhing Machines

No. 1: Administrate Assemblages

Tom La Farge 13 Writhing Machines No. 1: Administrative Assemblages (Brooklyn: Proteotypes, 2008)

This is the first volume of Tom La Farge's promised 13-volume series on structures for writing, which he describes as "writhing," "writing with a difference," as if the activity were something accomplished with a coiling snake in hands or through a discharge of electrical energy. Certainly the kind of "writhing" La Farge speaks of—writing with constraints, arbitrary rules "imposed upon composition that drive you to say what you had not thought of saying in ways you would not have chosen to say it"—in its formal and often comical Oulipian twists, bends, and folds—requires a mastery of language and an artistry that allows one to give oneself up to the possibilities and accidents produced through the form itself.

In Administrative Assemblages La Farge explores several larger systems of arrangement: "Lists and Catalogs," "Memory Arrangements," "Full Disclosure," "Invisible Libraries," "Classifications," "Timelines," "Map & Gazetteer," and "The Composite Portrait," and suggests some methods of composing in each of these categories. These systems, based primarily on methods attempted by members of the Oulipo writers, offer up new possibilities of how to write; and La Farge's clear and concise descriptions, along with his list of methods, if nothing else, should well serve creative writing classrooms from here to eternity, particularly when he has completed all 13 volumes (forthcoming pamphlets will consider Dictionary Drives, Permutants & Recombinants, Visual/Verbal Hybridizers, Decryptions & Reëncryptions, and Homomorphic Converters).

That is not to say that every form will appeal equally to all. While I am a born list maker, I find the kinds of listings La Farge mentions—shopping lists, the lists of Walt Whitman, and even the lists of the American Oulipo-influenced author Gilbert Sorrentino (whom La Farge does not list), often as mindless narratives that demonstrate a lack of connection and complexity—things I seek in fiction. Similarly, although the "Memory Arrangements" of books such as Joe Brainard's I Remember are often charming to read, I think of them as literature "lite."

More interesting, it seems to me, are the formulations of Marcel Bénabou's patterns of "Perhaps you ... Not me," or "Me too."

Perhaps you like the records of Lawrence Welk. Not me.

Of far more interest are the constraints of "Formal Disclosure," which often use official-seeming forms as guides to creative composition. La Farge points the works of J. G. Ballard, who "uses physical structures that assemble a social reality in order to shape his fictions." For example, Ballard's 1975 High-Rise "uses the stratified sociology of an apartment building as the basis for a story of class war in a disaster scenario prompted by the failure of the complex systems on which such buildings rely." In my own condominium building it would be fascinating, I suspect, to explore the radical differences between the numerous older Jewish couples, the younger Korean families, and new Russian immigrants, along with the several gay couples that make up the majority of units.

My companion Howard would adore La Farge's "Invisible Libraries" systems, in which, for example, he suggests amalgam-books such as Crime and Prejudice or The Bleak Doll's Heartbreak House. Howard is always spouting such titles as Death of a Venice Salesman and The Color of Purple Summer.

Of equal interest is La Farge's discussion of "Classifications," works which deal with issues of classification such as "kinship systems," or "inheritance patterns." In Jorge Luis Borges's "The Analytical Language of John Wilkins," the author explores that founder of the British Royal Society's attempt to create an ideal language by dividing the universe into forty classes, a systemization that quickly falls into a kind of absurdity that is ridiculously poetic.

Whenever I think of "Timelines" I am reminded of Harry Mathews' brilliant experiment in My Life in CIA, where, pretending to be a travel guide, he lectures on a possible trip through the USSR using several systematic rules: 1) They should only take trains and buses whose departure times read the same right to left as they did left to right; 2) For every departure, a return must be assured that strictly obeys rule one.

"Map and Gazetteer" forms more directly involve the visual artist in presenting various allegorical travel routes and comic maps based upon the outlines of countries coinciding with what La Farge describes as "an agglomeration of national caricatures." But, of course, there are verbal gazetteers, an example of which was recently presented in the New York Times, a map of Britain showing only towns with profane sounding names such as Crapstone, Penistone, East Breast, Pratts Bottom, Titty Ho, Crotch Crescent, etc.

Similarly, visual artists are at the center of La Farge's discussion of "The Composite Portrait," particularly by the painter Nicolas de Larmessin, who created portraits representing human figures made up of the things of which they were associated, such as his "Librarian," a man made up of books, or his "Musician," a man wearing various musical instruments. I once used just such a portrait of individuals in my fiction Letters from Hanusse using 19th-century phrenological systems that depended upon the bumps and fissures in the skull to determine the moral condition of the individuals to characterize the people of my mythical country Hanusse.

In short, La Farge's 13 Writhing Machines, given the contents of this first volume, promises not only to be an utterly entertaining presentation of various formal systems of literary writing, but an illustrative example of how to get writers, young and old, to experiment with new and empowering systems outside the scope of realist psychological narrative. We have long needed such a thorough discussion of such works, and perhaps in the 21st century our younger authors can go forward from these with an exciting energy of new possibilities.

Los Angeles, January 27, 2009

No. 2: Homomorphic Converters

Tom La Farge 13 Writhing Machines No. 2: Homomorphic Converters (Brooklyn, Proteotypes/Proteus Gowanus, 2009)

The second installment of Tom La Farge's grand effort to name and describe literary constraints to writing—what he describes as "an arbitrary rule imposed upon composition that drives you to say what you had not thought of saying in ways you would not have chosen to say it"—is devoted to more complex systems than those outlined in volume No. 1.

"Homovocalism," for example is a system where one takes from another text, beginning with as little as a sentence, and replaces all the consonants, keeping the vowel-sounds from the original. But although this may sound rather programmatic, it also depends on how you speak, vowels in different parts of the country sounding quite different in England and its dialects and in various American dialects. The u in "buy," for instance, in Los Angeles would be a very different sound in Minnesota or Wisconsin, where it would sound more like the y in "bye" or "by," and throughout the Midwest the a in "Mary" would sound more like the e in "merry." In the West, as La Farge mentions, "Get" often becomes "git."

Accordingly, "homovocalism" is far more difficult than it first sounds and, as Harry Mathews writes of the procedure, "Its interest will probably remain that of an exercise." But the wonderful example that La Farge quotes from Gilbert Sorrentino's "Generative Devices in Imaginative Writing" course at Stanford reveals its possibilities, "...there was no horse to be had, no horse," transformed into "For once no noise. Cruelly black those morns."

"Homoconsonantism" is similar except that it uses the consonants in the original order while replacing the vowels, without reusing the original words of another text. His example is again revealing: "Thanks, these tough shoots need a lot of watering, my chore of choice," becoming "Then kiss those two oafish Tucson delete-vow touring macho ear-vetches." A further constraint would be to match the word-units of the original sentence.

"Homosyntaxism," a variation of the above, so La Farge tells us, is a better system for longer texts. From the original text, all words are replaced but keep the same syntax, so that nouns are replaced by other nouns, adverbs by adverbs, etc. This exercise, it seems to me, would be a brilliant way for high school grammar teachers to be certain that their students had comprehended the many sentence diagrams performed upon the blackboard (do grammar teachers still diagram sentences?).

The "Chimera" is a truly complex replacement of texts where you chose a passage (A), parodying or imitating it while attempting to keep the "phrasing, rhythm, rhetorical formations." But then the nouns, verbs, and adjectives/adverbs of that passage are replaced by those selected from a different writer (B). The vocabulary can be from B or from the author himself (C). Various other constraints can also be applied, creating a truly mixed beast, like the Chimera, a mix of lion, goat, and snake.

In "Homosemantic Translation" instead of changing a set of words from one language into another while attempting to keep the meaning, the author, working within the same language, is require to change the words while keeping the sense. Here's my brief attempt from a random selection from one of La Farge's own fictions (A Hundred Doors: The Crimson Bears, Part II):

They presently found a handle, set low in the wall. Edgar
worried that a door built to cat-scale might not let them
pass in the machine.

Soon after they discovered a haft, lying close to the floor. Edgar
was troubled that an entrance constructed to the size of small dog
may discontinue their progression into the dynamo.

Not a brilliant example, but it will do.

"Anglish," a variant of homosemantism, is a text in which the substituted words are fairly analogous in the meaning to the original, but are taken from very different contexts, replacing a text of primarily Latinate word choices with those of Anglo-Saxon phrases, etc. This is obviously a test of any student's true understanding of the English language, and would be best served, it seems to me, with a Oxford English Dictionary by one's side.

"Homoradicalsm," created by Michèle Métail, creates statements only from words which share the same root, so that the various uses of a word such as clean (noun, adverb, adjective, and all of its other variations) define the text: "Cleanish cleaner, clean clean clean."

"Allosyntaxism" reuses the words of an original text but employs a different sentence structure, "Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know," becoming "Beauty is earth, ye know? Beauty is need, ye know? On to truth, truth and all that!"

Finally, "Homoikonism," represents an application of the visual into writing. One kind of homoikonism, for example, is the famous "duck-rabbit" which can be read in two different ways, depending upon the shift of one's eyes from right to left. Other forms are an interplay of images and letters which lend a kind of calligraphic quality to writing. Throughout La Farge's text he has used Amadine Allessandra's alphabetic/ideographic symbols, forms (chairs, tables, etc) that appear to us as letters of the alphabet, Lisa Rienermann's alphabet formed by patches of sky shot between buildings in Barcelona, and Monica Alissse's "Human Alphabet, which uses positions of the body to create letters.

As in his first volume, La Farge also includes a section devoted to "Suggestions for Writhing Exercises," which once again demonstrates the usefulness of his pamphlets for the classroom.

Los Angeles, November 15, 2009


  1. where can i get these? they don't seem to be for sale at the Proteotypes website, and googling isn't helping much.

  2. all the information needed to purchase these are at the proteotypes site:

    these look great, thanks douglas!

  3. Proteotypes now has it own website, through which all books can be ordered: