You Can’t Not Get Enough of Doug Nufer’s Oulipian Olympics


Before writing Never Again, Doug Nufer spent several months at his typewriter “practicing.” He worked on purging prepositions, conjunctions, and articles from his vocabulary. He wrote sentences like “Repulsers attractively invigorate casting-couch potato mashering” and “Openings’d pre-emerge paratelegraphically!” Nufer is one of the few American heirs to the Oulipo movement, a Paris-based group of mathematicians and writers who invent and adhere to strict linguistic rules because (as one Oulipian author put it) “total [artistic] freedom” is “intellectually pathetic.” In Never Again, Nufer uses no word more than once, and the book is, respectfully, limited.

In Nufer’s latest book, Negativeland, the constraint is much simpler: Every sentence contains a negative—the narrator, Chick, “can’t say yes.” An Olympic swimmer turned spa promoter, Chick lives in a Baudrillardian state of giddy nihilism, making idiotic statements like “He was simply because he was, we weren’t because he was, and we weren’t because we weren’t.” Convinced that “illusion . . . embraces all,” Chick has a pathologically overblown sense of his own fame. When he visits old friends, he hands out souvenirs—fake medals, earplugs, bathing caps. For publicity stints, he sits in a swimsuit, on a plank, atop a tank of dirty water, while folks step up and “Bang the Olympian.”

Chick is hardly the first protagonist to entertain the suspicion that nothing is real (“everything . . . a wax museum!”) but he may be the first to have his paranoia cheered on by a steady stream of not’s, dis-‘s, un-‘s and –n’t’s. The more the health club circuit (which is “more hectic than Hollywood”) absorbs him, the more the negatives fly. He becomes convinced that everything is hollowed-out (“conversation [is] no more than a dialogue”)—an ironic but fitting conclusion to a book in which ideology is merely a by-product of form.

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