The Magazine

Words at Play

Cracking the code of the Workshop for Potential Literature.

May 20, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 34 • By SARA LODGE
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If Oulipian constraints are labyrinths from which one must escape, then this may be the starter version, where almost every path leads to an exit.

Oulipians argue, reasonably enough, that all language works by imposing codes and limitations, through alphabets and certain conventions about what counts as a word and how communication is structured. Once you become aware of the possible complexity of the codes underlying the structure of literary works, then your eyes will become sharper and brighter. You will become a literary detective, always looking for pattern—for Fibonacci sequences embedded in the first lines of novels, for cereal box advertisements that are accidental haikus. This is part of the point of reading and writing in the Oulipian spirit. It makes us aware of potentiality in every crook and nanny.

Becker’s account of the OuLiPo is not seamless. It starts out with the wit and verve of a piece of literary journalism, but in places has the finicky attention to detail of a graduate thesis. Not all readers will be equally fascinated by the enumeration of the many different organizations that have spun off from OuLiPo: the OuMuPo (workshop of potential music), OuBaPo (comic strip artists), and OuFlarfPo (poets who generate poetry with the aid of search engines). This may, then, only be a book to rush out and buy if you already are (or know) the kind of person who is susceptible to the flicker of the Oulipian flame, someone who enjoys leaping the hurdles of a cryptic crossword, can fire a pun, and run an acrostic.

But Becker is set to join the select band of triple-barreled American authors (David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Safran Foer) who write hip books with weird titles that are nonetheless engaging. I, for one, am so intrigued by the knowledge that the OuLiPo is still alive—and that this odd group of intellectuals regularly meets to air its experiments—that I am tempted to visit Paris to attend one of their Thursday open sessions, where members of the public can watch. 

Let’s face it: We all need a serious, intellectual reason to visit Paris. I’ll be the one in the third row from the back with a T-shirt that says “Don’t Feed the Crocodilettante.”

Sara Lodge, a senior lecturer in English at the University of St Andrews, is the author of Thomas Hood and Nineteenth-Century Poetry: Work, Play, and Politics.