“Who can trust a novelist?” The question, posed early in Harry Mathews’s My Life in CIA, befits a book that willfully tests the limits of the reader’s credulity. A semi-fictionalized (or perhaps semi-authentic) account of the author’s Cold War adventures in Paris during the ’70s, My Life in CIA features an American protagonist named Harry Mathews who’s so frequently mistaken for a government operative that he decides to become one, juste comme ça. Followers of Mathews’s career will recognize several factual strands in the plot, including a character named Georges Perec and references to the Oulipo, the French literary group of which Mathews has been a member for over 30 years. But Mathews the author isn’t necessarily Mathews the character, and ultimately nothing about this “novel” should be taken literally, except its desire to provoke ample head-scratching.
For instance, the title. As explained by a fellow expat acquaintance of Mathews, “nobody connected with the agency calls it the CIA. It’s plain CIA.” Arbitrary rules are a staple of the Oulipo, but My Life in CIA isn’t an Oulipian work per se. Syntactically simple and narratively linear, it eschews the game-playing intricacies associated with the movement in favor of a deadpan, almost disembodied drone. Mathews the character spends his time concocting faux spy missions to promote his new identity and even establishes a fake travel agency as his “front.” Nothing is real and everything has a double. Indeed, Mathews inhabits an alt-universe Paris populated by shady foreign dignitaries, crypto-fascists, and mysterious women who all seem to be named Marie-Claude.
As a spy novel, My Life in CIA is designed to disappoint. (Think of a Robert Ludlum thriller bled of all suspense, and then turned inside out.) Mathews leaves subplots unresolved, abruptly writes off supporting characters, and otherwise luxuriates in an inexplicable stasis. Upending genre conventions, he’s somehow created more than just a pranksterish anti-adventure. My Life in CIA embodies the Oulipian paradox of materialist ungraspability insofar as its protagonist (like its creator) is constantly reinventing himself. That contradiction culminates beautifully in the epilogue in which a present-day Mathews overhears news of his own execution. “There was not the slightest doubt that this man was telling the truth,” Mathews reassures us. It takes a writer in full command of his style to render such an unequivocal declaration so brilliantly unconvincing.