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  • Recognizing the Thing Itself in Harry Mathews’s Cigarettes
  • Roy Scranton (bio)

Something I’ve said again and again, which I try to make sure is evident in all my books, is that the experience of reading is the experience of reading. In America there’s a tradition that says that what literature should do is give you the real thing. But for me, the only real thing is the writing.

Harry Mathews, in an interview conducted by Susannah Hunnewell

In 1956, having escaped Princeton, Harvard, the U.S. Navy, and the Upper East Side of Manhattan for an artists’ colony on Mallorca, Harry Mathews and his wife, the sculptor Niki de Saint Phalle, were introduced one night to a young poet named John Ashbery.1 The two men hit it off, and soon Ashbery was recommending to Mathews the writing of an obscure late-nineteenth-century French aristocrat named Raymond Roussel, which he himself had recently been introduced to by Kenneth Koch and which he was soon to come to France to study. Within a few years, Mathews would be using part of his inheritance to fund Locus Solus (named after one of Roussel’s novels), the fleeting transatlantic literary journal that helped crystallize what has come to be known as the New York school of poets. Ashbery, Mathews, Koch, and James Schuyler collectively edited the journal (with Ashbery, Koch, and Schuyler each helming specific [End Page 520] issues) and all contributed work, alongside poems and stories from Edwin Denby, Barbara Guest, Frank O’Hara, Fairfield Porter, and others.

While critical work on the New York school has been accumulating, most attention remains focused on the poets, especially O’Hara and Ashbery, and on New York in the early sixties. The role of prose fiction and the group’s connections to Paris, both contemporaneously and in terms of influence, have been less well attended to than they might be. Koch’s The Red Robins, Mathews’s novels, Schuyler’s novels, and Schuyler and Ashbery’s A Nest of Ninnies, along with such outliers as Joe Brainard’s I Remember and Richard Foreman’s No-Body, suggest an underexamined strain of American prose writing, deeply influenced by French literature generally and surrealism more specifically, that reaches from the novels of Djuna Barnes, Jane Bowles, Gertrude Stein, and other modernists to the work of such authors as Kathy Acker, Paul Auster, Lydia Davis, Harryette Mullen, and Lynne Tillman.

A key figure in this underground tradition is undoubtedly Harry Mathews, whose accomplished and sui generis work remains difficult to categorize, not least because it appears to shift from the deeply Rousselian early novels The Conversions and Tlooth to the much more naturalistic but no less playfully challenging later novels The Journalist and My Life in CIA.2 Yet however difficult he may be to pin down, Mathews should be seen as operating in a vital tradition of American experimental literature that crosses easy generic and national boundaries and challenges narratives of simple periodization. He has been involved with the New York school since the mid 1950s, carrying on the modernist mission into the twenty-first century, and his work with the French Oulipo connects him to international currents and to authors such as Italo Calvino, Raymond Queneau, and Georges Perec. Harry Mathews’s work deserves more attention, [End Page 521] both in terms of the literary history of the twentieth century and for its own sake, as an oeuvre of great aesthetic sophistication and literary merit. I intend to make my argument by example, in considering Harry Mathews’s masterwork, Cigarettes, published in 1987.

Cigarettes is a difficult novel. Linearity is eschewed in favor of what appears to be a looping, leap-frogging perspectivalism; characters appear and reappear, sometimes unnamed, sometimes under aliases; and major events are referred to obliquely, sometimes obscurely. It takes spadework not only to establish chronology and relations but sometimes even to figure out what’s going on, who’s talking, or what the point is. At the same time, Cigarettes is as easy as Austen: written in prose so clean that it’s almost seamless, the novel presents the social drama of mid-century New York elites...