Where is experimental literature in the 21st Century? And where is it supposed to be?
Most generations probably fail to recognize their experimental geniuses in real time. However, James Joyce and Gertrude Stein were recognized in their lifetimes, so it's fair to ask who might be carrying that torch on the literary scene today. Only a few of the usual nominees seem very satisfying. Thomas Pynchon? Don DeLillo? Paul Auster? William Vollman? The late David Foster Wallace? The late W. G. Sebald? Jennifer Egan? Blake Butler? (Please don't bring up Jonathan Lethem in this context).
Some of these writers are doing good work (personally, I'll buy into Auster and Sebald as powerful experimentalists) -- and all of them are certainly knocking themselves out trying to be as experimental as all hell. But that's the problem -- the mainstream American/English hyper-meta-hystero-pomo-X scene is so self-conscious and steroid-driven that the books are just flat out wearying. The experimental scene I'm familiar with is also too solitary. It lacks the sense of unity and community power that a good experimental literary scene needs in order to thrive.
For Americans like me, a look to Europe can help. A movement called Oulipo (Ouvroir de literature potentielle, or Workshop of Potential Literature) has been growing for half a century, and it is still alive. It was born in Paris in 1960 with the express intention of shaking up the experimental scene. The original principals were Raymond Queneau, Francois Le Lionnais, Jacques Bens and Marcel Duchamp, and later members or quasi-members included Georges Perec, Italo Calvino, Jacques Roubaud, Herve Le Tellier, Jacques Jouet, Daniel Levin Becker, Jean Queval, Michele Audin, Henry Mathews and Tom McCarthy.
I just read a plucky new book called The End of Oulipo?: An attempt to exhaust a movement by Quarterly Conversation editor Scott Esposito and literary critic Lauren Elkin that explains the Oulipo movement in terms that are valuable for curious beginners like me. I recommend this book to anyone interested in the meaning of experimental literature, and especially to anyone who is a writer (perhaps the primary purpose of an experimental literary movement, after all, is to help writers write).
The End of Oulipo? begins with a helpful "Oulipo for Dummies" section that explains the basic methodology of this group, which has to do with writing under artificial constraint, as when Georges Perec produced an entire novel that did not contain the letter 'e'.
I had heard about Perec's A Void, and I thought it was an interesting idea (I also thought the author's haircut was interesting). But I never read it, and I never knew until reading this book that Perec's experiment was rooted in the rules of a movement that tied his novel to two other experimental novels I'd read and loved: Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler and Tom McCarthy's Remainder. I'm thrilled to discover the richness of this literary group, whose works I've been enjoying without understanding the connections between.
The End of Oulipo? mostly consists of two essays. First, Scott Esposito presents "Eight Glances Past Georges Perec". He considers Oulipo as an overlooked remedy to the kind of exhaustion with postmodern literature recently described by David Shields, and then tries to explain how the use of constraints in creative writing creates an opportunity to explore the potentielle (for Oulipans, apparently, it is just as important to ponder the possibilities of potential literature as it is to create actual literature).
Esposito also describes Georges Perec's apparent obsession with the idea of "exhausting" a literary approach, or perhaps exhausting literature itself (I'm not sure I understand why this would be a good thing, but Perec seemed to take the mission very seriously). After reading this piece, I began reading Perec's Life: A User's Manual, even though Scott Esposito personally warned me that I should start with a different Georges Perec. He says I won't like Life, and he's probably right.
"Eight Glances" is followed by a different kind of piece. Lauren Elkin's "Oulipo Lite", which makes up the second half of this book, is a sharp takedown of a single Oulipo author, Herve Le Tellier, who is apparently also an unofficial member of another way too familiar group: the ever-expanding gang of male literary sexists. Elkin has a good time tearing into this particular Oulipo author, and she also explains her critique in context of the Oulipo experiment as a whole.
Since I've actually never heard of Herve Le Tellier or his novels like Enough About Love, I have no choice but to take Lauren Elkin's word for it about Herve Le Tellier. Based on a quick glance at his works, that's okay with me. My favorite part of Elkin's essays is when she breaks into some sort of Oulipian mode and suddenly lists "69 Theses, Notes, and Observations on Why Herve Le Tellier Matters".
Indeed, I suspect that the entire book here bound together as The End of Oulipo? is some kind of Oulipian experiment. Hmm ... there are two essays, and the first essay has eight sections, which is a power of two. I'm sure this was some kind of constraint, though I can't find the number four anywhere. Regardless, this book is valuable for Oulipo novices like me. It helps to put a previously obscure movement on a map that has been feeling too barren -- the map of popular 21st century experimental literature.