Saturday, September 6, 2008

Books: The Conversions, by Harry Mathews

It seems I've come across yet another book that's far out of my league. In spite of its slim binding and thick-stock pages graced with extra white space, engaging with this book's depth is a challenge for anyone functioning with less intellectual capacity than Pynchon, Foster Wallace, or Mathews himself. The author is one fascinated by eccentricities, minutiae, anachronisms, and oddities; indeed, this semi-noirish, semi-picaresque, semi-mystery wild goose chase seems the book that Mr. Kindt would write, if Mr. Kindt were to write a novel (Mr. Kindt, in case you're not sure, is the tattooed, museum-going, fish-eating man in Laird Hunt's The Exquisite, which book may have been influenced by Mathew's style, just as Jesse Ball's Samedi the Deafness might have; it bears a striking thematic and stylistic similarity.) Both of these contemporary novels seem closer to The Conversions than A Void, the e-less murder mystery by Mathew's friend and contemporary Georges Perec, which I read before the dahlhaus was instated, but which includes rather incredible rewrites of both The Raven and Hamlet's famous monologue without the letter "e" ("Quoth that Black Bird, 'Not Again.'") Mathew's most important influence is said to be Raymond Roussel, author of Locus Solus, a novel I've been meaning to read for years now, but can't seem to find at the library in English translation (Roussel wrote it in French).

The topic of linguistic difficulties brings me back to The Conversions. Mathews is clearly comfortable with not only his native English, but also French, Latin, and German—all of which he includes, sans translation, in his novel. And it is not only a mere line or two—no!—the entire last few pages of the book (described as Appendix, but which may, thanks to his general trickery, contain the actual completion of the story (for the last chapter offers none)) are written in German. And in case his reader is as highly-educated as he is, and is fluent in French, Latin, and German, Mathews includes a number of paragraphs sprinkled throughout the novel in non-existent languages, languages that he has made up, that, if one reads aloud, offer a flicker of hope of intelligibility, as if they were some evolved or corrupted pig-latin, but ultimately remain elusive.

It is that eluding that seems to thrill Mathews; he is not unlike the wealthy eccentric who dies at the novel's beginning, after rigging a musical worm race (I told you he was eccentric!) and sending the narrator on a quest to answer three peculiar (and multi-lingual) questions about an antique adze (and if you know what that is without consulting a dictionary, perhaps this book is for you). And yet, the bulk of the novel contains less information about the adze than digressive vignettes about other curiosities, stories told to the narrator by the people from whom he seeks information about the adze. We read about a painter who has rigged a machine in order to mechanize his color choices, and Mathews describes the apparatus and its many pipes and joints in great detail. We read the history of a scientist who discovered what he thought was a new element, called fleshmetal, which refuses to liquefy, and Mathews describes his experiments, quoting temperatures and chemicals with abundant jargon. There is a chapter about a cult-like Christian splinter, a chapter about ancient choral music, and a chapter about a group of customs officials who spend their days smoking contraband cigars and reading confiscated picture books. There is a man who uses for a doorbell a carpet of chirping crickets on his stoop, which silence themselves at the approach of a guest. And none of this fits together sensically at all. I'm afraid I am going to have to read it again, once I've learned German, relearned my Latin, picked up a bit of French, and increased my IQ.

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