Today’s exercises in Oulipo involved perverbs (“A stitch in time saves the cat” and “Curiosity killed nine” and so forth), homoconsonance (“Able was I ere I saw Elba” becoming “Blow serious; we lube!” and so forth), and some not-so-serious perversion of jigsaw puzzles. As Georges Perec points out in his Preamble to Life A User’s Manual (p. xvi),
In most cases – and in particular in all cardboard jigsaws – the puzzles are machine-made, and the lines of cutting are entirely arbitrary: a blanking die, set up once and for all, cuts the sheets of cardboard along identical lines every time.
The result is that many, if not all, inexpensive jigsaw puzzles made by the same manufacturer, may bear dramatically different images but indeed have the same underlying patterns of pieces. This opens them open to a ludic exercise in the manner of Oulipo: once you’ve solved a set of cheap jigsaw puzzles and verified that they are indeed cut with the same die, you can go about exchanging their pieces willy-nilly, making nightmarish scenes out of the individual images.
My students delighted in this charge, creating a horrific midway ride by splicing the disembodied heads of a set of nesting Ukrainian dolls into the sky surrounding a Ferris wheel and granting to one of a pair of kittens a crown of colored pencil points and to the other a warped mirror image, that of a same-colored rabbit, as though the young cat were looking, as Narcissus, into the shallows of a limpid pool. Meanwhile, a hot air balloon came apart at its edge, every other piece exchanged with the corresponding piece from the Ferris wheel scene.
This exercise, and the next several chapters of Perec I’d had the students read for today, led to some fantastic conversations on meaning and meaninglessness, futility, entropy, chaos, and the Repugnant Conclusion. How more or less meaningless and arbitrary is (Perec’s protagonist) Bartlebooth’s lifelong enterprise, to wit, painting watercolor seascapes at 500 of the world’s ports, turning the seascapes into jigsaw puzzles, solving these, eradicating all trace of the puzzles’ cuts, and subsequently washing them of their painted scenes to leave only a spotless sheet of paper, than most of what we do every day? One student went so far as to bring up Camus’ Sisyphus and the sweet exit of suicide.
“What point is there to life?” someone asked.
“Happiness,” another of the students offered. “We can make one another happy.”
And what does this take, making one another happy? And what obligation do we have to make one another happy? And how privileged are we that we got to discuss these matters while sitting in a lovely wood-paneled room with original art, idly sipping tea and playing with jigsaw puzzles? How privileged was Perec that he was freed by his fame and talent to write his wonderful book?
Tomorrow promises to give us further opportunities for conversations along similar lines.
Oh, so the students asked that I make public the remaining stories resulting from our Read Two, Write Two activity this past Monday. Below are the three stories I did not include in my last post, each chock-full of intentional obfuscation and derailment, each as reliant on cliché dialogue and deus ex machina. Enjoy! (Note: each author’s contribution has been colored in the same tones as I used in the last post.)
There once was a wizard who lived in a castle. One day he decided to venture out on a quest. But a quest of what sort? He began to travel across the lands, seeking legends of treasure. As told in old folklore, Black Beard’s booty was stowed in the chain of islands off the coast of North Carolina. The trip was overbearing beyond measure, but he now approached the mouth of the mysterious cave. What lay within, no one could tell for the darkness. He fashioned a torch from a scrap of cloth and the broken bone of a gazelle’s left leg. Wielding this crudely created light, he began to walk into the cave that waited just beside him. His shadow was tall, stretched out and dancing in the light of the torch. The knife was presented to the keeper. The bloodletting ceremony was about to begin. Everyone circled around the subject and began to chant a mantra. “Wait!” a voice from behind exclaimed. He turned around to see who was calling him, and was amazed. It was Bel, his long-lost loved whom he had thought died in a fire. “Oh hey, how’s it going?” He spoke neutrally, yet optimistically. “What have you been up to since we last saw each other?” he asked. “Not much,” she replied, waving her hand dismissively, as though batting away a fly. “Reiko and I just got back from Havana,” she continued, “where he’d been working as a jazz trumpeter for the last five years.” Memories of cigars and sensuous music floated in her head, only to be batted away. She was on a mission. She raced through the grocery store. She grabbed the milk from the shelf and sprinted. She ran and ran until she could see her destination over the horizon. Suddenly the wizard awoke in his tower to find this all to have been a dream.
A young woman waltzed through a meadow. She looked down at her feet. There she saw a giant toad with a purple hat. “I have come here to grant you one wish and nothing more!” it said. “That wish shall be your heart’s deepest desire,” it said. “But do you even know what that is?” it said. “I’m not so sure, but best not to bother it,” he replied. His mind swirled with a surprising amount of organization much like catharsis. He had never had such heavy mental demands placed upon him, but he knew he had to act quickly. Were he to hesitate in his calculations, all of Tokyo would soon be in ashes. He took a deep breath as he double-checked the solution. Choosing to trust himself, he reached forward and pressed the button. Things started to melt down. The alien overlords glanced at each other nervously, struggling against their restraints. They all teleported to the White House front lawn. Once they arrived, the President stepped outside to greet them. But before the President could speak, he was abducted by ninjas. The Secretary of Defense issues a public statement: “The President has been kidnapped by ninjas.” Alas, they are far too sneaky and swift in their footwork. “How will we stop these ninjas?” a distraught bystander yelled from the crowd. “Quickly,” ordered Bruce, “into the river! They can’t follow us there…they’re terrified of water!” Little did they know that water only made them more powerful. So they sat, feeling relaxed for the first time in a long time, and completely unaware that the monsters approached for a final attack. The monsters tiptoed up to the base and reached out…and turned out the lights.
I hate my alarm clock. Why did this happen today? Of all the days it could have happened, this was the worst. The staging and makeup were all wrong and no one had an inkling of what would occur. Suddenly a man jumped down from the rafters above. Everyone gasped in amazement. Their awe was written on their faces. But they would soon learn that what they felt now was only a shadow of what they would soon feel. He was turning very soon. If she had any chance to flee, she had to set herself free and plunge the pliers into his face. She raised the tool high, opening its mouth wide. “Die!” she screamed, diving at him with all the force she could muster. He fell to the ground, motionless. She had won, the alarm clock had been vanquished. She would be late no more. No more would she frantically down coffee and do her daily sacrifices in a rush before class. As soon as that was done, she went to class. Moments before walking through the door, she realized she forgot her pencil. This was a grave mistake, for that pencil was the only tool that could stop the dark lord from awakening. She to recover that pencil, or the world would be doomed. Chris K. dropped it over his head during the constraint. It was clear he was to blame. Insofar as one could even be blamed, that is. This sort of thing could only be blamed on the gods, if such gods existed. Another mutant anthropomorphized alarm clock tried to sneak up behind her. She punched it in its face and laughed, “not today.”