The Palp and the Minute
MacKenzie Warren reviews Alice Lyons’ Oona
My favourite novels are the Oulipian kind. Sometimes, when I admit this, it raises eyebrows. The Oulipo is a loose group of writers, mostly French, who build novels around very tight formal and/or conceptual constraints. The name is a portmanteau, for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle (“workshop of potential literature”), and points to the group’s foundational belief: that literary potential can be actualised through the imposition of calculated limitations on the technical resources available to any one work. Naturally, this makes the Oulipian novel sound like a cold, soulless creation — an automaton to the flesh and blood of realism — which is why those eyebrows raise when I confess my love. The suspicion is that you can’t really love an Oulipian novel because you can’t lose yourself in it. If your awareness of a novelist’s chosen constraint is essential to your appreciation of their work, then you’re always appraising the text from outside it, never immersed in the reading experience. But that’s simply not the case for me. I find the Oulipian novel as immersive as any thriller; it’s just that the suspense comes from the tightrope walk of the compositional technique, rather than the question of how the mystery will be solved. Page by page, I feel the stakes rising: I wonder how long the novelist can continue labouring under their constraint before the work collapses; I wonder how they can generate ever more intriguing material without the conceit growing stale. When I read an Oulipian novel, then, I feel myself thrown absolutely into the present moment: I look at a page and I fear that this is the one on which either inspiration or control will be lost, then I read on to see whether the constraint and the quality of the work can survive.
Probably the best-known Oulipian novel is Georges Perec’s La disparition (1969). It’s an example of a lipogram: a text written entirely without a particular letter of the alphabet, in this case the letter e. It’s especially well-known among Anglophone readers because it appeared in a virtuoso translation by Gilbert Adair, under the title A Void (1995), with its constraint preserved despite its migration into a different language. Now, in her début novel, the American-Irish poet and artist Alice Lyons has followed Perec’s lead and written a lipogram that both adheres to the same constraint and toys with it. The title of the novel, Oona, tells you what you need to know: that double o gestures towards both the name of the Oulipo and the letter that Lyons abjures. Writing a novel without the letter o is a bold experiment in any event, and more so when one considers just how many everyday words it prohibits: no, so, do, go, to, on, off, though, and (ahem) so on. But Lyons pulls it off, with plenty of pyrotechnics. In fact, at her best, she commits to her constraint with such energy that she really does actualise potential modes of expression which seem impossible to conceive of without compulsion by her chosen Oulipian constraint.
Lyons’ narrative makes Oona something I’d call a Künstlerbildungsroman, unwieldy as the label is. It tells the story of a woman much like Lyons herself, who grows up in “Patersin”, New Jersey, and then, following the loss of both parents, moves to Ireland to establish herself as a painter. It’s a coming-of-age novel in a sense, but it’s not a traditional bildungsroman because at the core of Oona’s maturation is her coming into being as an artist. Equally, though, it’s not a traditional künstlerroman, because it’s not about Oona’s artistic development in a technical sense, or the growth of her reputation, or even the cultivation of her aesthetic sensibilities. It’s more the case that her commitment to daily artistic practice enables her to discover her true self, as if, through the honing of her artistic skills, she not only gives shape to works of art but also channels into herself an identity of her own creation. Here’s how she puts it, late in the novel, with exquisite beauty, sans o:
Whisper is the way it entered me this WHAT I CALL MYSELF. There was a teeny tiny little vent and it seeped in gradually and in time, disturbed the endless sentences that streamed in me, rustled beneath them as fresh autumn air lifts the leaves in a leaf pile and gently rearranges them. This thing WHAT I CALL MYSELF, I sensed it then it slipped away then came back. It seems that earthly materials are placed here as devices that enable WHAT I CALL MYSELF in sensing itself. In feeling the materials, I was palping me. Little by little in bits that I didn’t think were anything because they felt like fragments. It felt like I wasn’t an entirety and still feels thus.
About the narrative of Oona, there isn’t much more to say. There are emotional passages as Oona describes her mother’s illness and death, and the sudden loss of her father. There are moments of bleak comedy as she moves to Leitrim, of all places, during the Celtic Tiger years, and finds herself drawn into the inanities of village life while also trying to find time for her art. There are more than a few scenes of unusual erotica. But, of course, the real achievement of Oona isn’t the story it tells. Nor, for that matter, is it that Oona tells this story in spite of its Oulipian constraint, as if the success of the novel depends on smoothing out the narration so as to not make the lipogram noticeable. Its achievement is rather to give primacy to the constraint and, in this way, to imbue its language with a concentrated power that would ebb away in a state of unfettered freedom.
As above, Oona both adheres to the rigours of the lipogram and toys with them, which means that its constraint never recedes into the background. So, for example, in addition to avoiding words with the letter o, and finding synonyms for them, Lyons also makes it conspicuous when the only way to honour the constraint is with a glaring contraction or misspelling. “Patersin” is a case in point; so are discussions of “G-d”, Oona’s visit to the “Nat’l Library”, readings of the Irish modernist “J.J.” and the Cistercian monk “T.M.”, crude dialogue in which “you” becomes the text-speak “u”, and a fondness for the colour “yeller”. The letter o does appear in the quoted words of Oona’s favoured writers (Bohumil Hrabal, John Berryman, Dubravka Ugrešić) and in one italicised passage not narrated by Oona. In other places, even when Lyons manages to avoid contractions and misspellings, she again makes the constraint conspicuous by opting for tortured substitute terms: a poetry competition is “a judged thing”, “wrote” becomes “scrivened”, and an art studio is “a making-place”. Thoughts are “head talk”. Emotions are “belly talk”. And, in yet other places, Lyons has Oona throw herself into compiling long lists of words to describe various experiences, as if to show the incredible range of a lexicon missing the letter o. Here’s one of my favourites, reflecting Oona’s sexual insecurities and her eventual awakening:
The ideal sex acts were gentle flawless lifetime incessant, sustained, sacred.
I wasn’t incessant, steady, sustained. I was shifting, fugitive, fleeting, flickering. …
I began sex as a shapeless bag that was jabbed, licked, kissed, sapped, stuck, struck, held, petted, fingered, flattened, fucked, pinched, sniffed, tied, purred, pinned, pulled this way and that, swivelled, twizzled, thrusted, hugged, lugged. A thing-bag. A thing-bag gradually waking up. Incrementally. Glacially. Hare-brainedly.
Other lists sometimes denigrate and sometimes celebrate more material things; they enumerate the flaws of depressing places like Paterson and Leitrim, or they itemise Oona’s most cherished artistic resources: “varnishes, drawing pins, Liquin, literatures, space, rancid linseed, rancid rabbit-skin glue, rancid hide glue, stiff brushes…” But no matter the tone or purpose of these lists, there’s no paucity of beauty in Lyons’ attenuated lexicon, nor any lack of surprise: the constraint pushes her to find these things in unusual places, to devise unfamiliar ways of piecing sentences together. And this is true no matter whether a given passage is noticeably stylised or miraculously naturalistic. Consider the rhythmic and tonal differences between Oona’s account of her runaway uncle and her tender description of giving her lover a handjob. Here’s the family story:
My relatives had been, as far back as we knew, farmers and servants, barkeeps and tradesmen with a single irregularity: Uncle Walter. My maternal uncle, her elder sibling Deaf Walter, was an artist all right, but at the first chance he skedaddled, ran away west, wrestled steers and made his living as a sign painter. I never met him. The single trace he left behind was a deft drawing in his little sister’s diary: a Western rider and his prancing steed. The lyrical lines in blue pen are fluent and sure. Walter was clearly a natural, but he didn’t stay and let his family see his talent bud — he vanished in a Texas sunset, a free spirit as they called him disparagingly when his name was uttered, which was infrequently.
And here’s the erotica:
The dick I liked, its girth, its sniff, way it waked in my fingers and his tentativeness, he at the end way up there at the bedhead. Him with the dark eyes with amber street light in the panes. The dick became as rent a thing as the sex fabric I inherited. When I knew he had never let it be held dear. When it wasn’t a heat-seeking missile. When it was in bits as well. It became me-giving because it pleased me, this giving. When we felt we were in thrall, in a sex thrall that grew in the ripped depraved places. Because then it was public. I mean it tied me and him in the bigger fabric. We were humbled in its vastness. We weren’t particular as much as smitten in a big sex sea tale with a shattered crew. We met in that bed. I felt it might take but it didn’t. I splintered and was astray again. This became an entry but it didn’t feel like an entry. It felt effluvial. This persisted until it didn’t. Then it did again.
Not an o in sight, leading to two very different modes of writing, though neither of them is without the power to be moving. The first is as naturalistic a passage as anything by, say, Lorrie Moore or Tessa Hadley, so it takes effort to see the absence of prohibited terms such as “cowboy”, “brother”, and “not often”. The second is more reminiscent of Gertrude Stein, staggering, disjointed, replete with pseudo-neologisms, but all the more affecting for that, as its hesitant, stumbling syntax emulates the tentative movements of lovers exploring unfamiliar bodies. Styles as different as these two don’t usually co-exist in the same book, never mind emerge from the same Oulipian constraint, but here they are, nevertheless, and each one is stirring in its own way.
All that being said, the best parts of Oona — the parts most energised, most alive — are those that dwell on the details of making, observing, and appreciating art. Art is an object of veneration throughout Oona, but something wondrous happens when Lyons turns her attention to describing its creation. In her efforts to do justice to the creative process and experience, while also satisfying the demands of the lipogram, she produces a lexicon that is impossibly lush and fertile, abundant with originality, scorching with prosodic vigour. I’d wager that several entire chapters of Oona are among the best ekphrastic prose published so far this century. A chapter on “Sienese pigments… pestled very fine” describes them as “dust… at the edge between material and air. With a breath-puff they’d be mist. … Venetian Red pigment emits a muffled thrum, palpitates in the jar. When appearing in large passages in painted surfaces it signals a steady, barely perceptible yet persistent heartbeat.” Later on, there’s a thrilling biography of the abstract expressionist Philip Guston (“Philip G.”), would-be protégé of “J.P., the Big Splasher-Dripper”, and other chapters on art history produce eloquent o-less analyses of the styles of Vermeer, Van Gogh, Rembrandt, and Matisse. Particularly gripping is a meditation on the “tinting strength” of a special shade of green, which leads into an explanation of the optical mechanics of hues:
Eye mixing is where hues make retinal magic in the flesh/brain/nerve apparatus. Primary hues; red, blue, yeller, each a tint that can’t be reduced any smaller. … The eye wants entirety. The eye must find the primary trinity. The eye finds the trinity by supplying what is lacking. Thus [the] essential pairs. … If a single hue is stared at a great while, when the eyes are then shut, the missing hues are seen in the mind’s eye. Because the retina finishes what isn’t seen. … It makes sense then that subtracting vividness means taking away a pair’s partner.
Finally, though, Lyons closes her high-wire act of a novel with an even more triumphant manoeuvre, unifying its narrative premise with its Oulipian constraint. She takes the “aboutness” of it — its being about a woman dedicating herself to making art — and then she intertwines the metaphysics of creativity with the experience of reading an Oulipian text. “Time is the linchpin”, Oona says towards the end, in a mini-essay on the difficulties of producing art without being “gallery-hungry and sales-needy”. “Time is the linchpin. Priceless time. The making craft requires time that capital eats up daily. … Creativity’s time isn’t marketplace time and isn’t manufacturing time and these things are waged against us.” These words follow on from Oona’s painstaking delineation of how she gave herself fully to art, how she stopped “living in bad faith” when her “WHAT I CALL MYSELF… was submerged in a different timeframe”. She offers definitions of the terms of her self-realisation:
Feel. Latin: palpus, palpare. …
Whisper. Latin: susurrus, susurrare. …
Fragment. Latin: fragmentum, fragere, break. … Piece bit shard splinter particle…
Then she connects these terms, one to another, in order to tether the whole to her distinct experience of time — and she finds herself, at every instant, just as sensitive to time as I feel when I read a novel such as this one. As I say, page by page, Oulipian novels immerse me deeply in a continuous present. With every word that meets my eyes, bound by a constraint to which I am fiercely alert, I feel the present simultaneously slipping away and renewing itself within me. Here’s how Oona expresses the same sensation, when her immersion occurs by way of making art:
Whisper is the way it entered me this WHAT I CALL MYSELF. … The sandglass, my writing machine, assists in my feeling time in the minute. Minute meaning a time unit and, as well, an infinitesimally small, whispered piece. The return, the path back, the re-fastening what had been severed has been in the palp and the minute. The trick: grab these divergent tracks, pull them, shape them. Make a single line. A pulse, a frequency.
Imagine the diviner’s stick, a Y-shaped thing. Palp and minute make up the divergent lines in the Y. Grab the pair in each hand, exert pressure. Then they merge, the palp and the minute, they shape a single line, an I.
The I strikes the water where WHAT I CALL MYSELF lies, quivering.
I cannot think of a more evocative description of making art, nor a more precise description of what it feels like to read a novel in the manner of Oona. “Reading”, here, is not simply for something to hold on to, letting words wash away as one attempts to sift sense from them. It is, instead, a state of profound self-awareness, a continual confrontation with where and when I am. It is a state to be reached through sustained attention to the “palping” of the text in tiny increments of passing time — to its having been pressured into shape, word by word and moment by moment, much as clay on a potter’s wheel is shaped by fingers that feel out a form as it spins. That a novel can both foreground its own “palping” and make a narrative of the time-bound sensations of a practitioner’s act is nothing short of extraordinary, because so very improbable. Calculated though its constraint may be, dictatorial in its Oulipian demands, there is nothing cold or soulless whatsoever in Oona: it is all verve, all vitality, the prose incarnation of Venetian Red, that pulsating pigment, “thrumming, expanding, feeling, laughing, sweating… incandescent”.