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Solitaire for Two: Lost in Harry Mathews’s House of Mirrors

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Harry Mathews, the great Oulipo initiate (America’s only), completed his skinny, astonishing novel The Solitary Twin in Paris just six months before he died last year, at the age of 86. The Oulipo (shorthand, which translates from the French to “workshop of potential literature”) staked their literary experimentation upon the imposition of mathematical patterns and constraints — lipograms, chronograms, perverbs, algorithms, scintillating wordplay — yet, by his own admission, and with the notable exception of his 1987 novel Cigarettes, few of Mathews’s longer works were constructed using the group’s methods. Of his earlier works (Mathews published more than a dozen books, beginning with his novel The Conversions in 1962), Mathews complained to Lynne Tillman in 1989 about his reputation for producing puzzled text, “[a great many readers] always thought I must be doing something else than what was actually there.” Still, the rules and forms Mathews considered as constraining enough to produce the literary effects he was after, were often abstruse. “The sonnet was once difficult,” Mathews told his buddy John Ashbery in a 1987 interview. “But it’s not difficult any more.”

The Solitary Twin is ostensibly about a group of acquaintances who tell stories over wine; sportingly, it plays upon degrees of separation. Berenice Tinker, a psychologist, and Andreas Boeyens, a publisher, both begin temporary stays in the hermetic seaside town of New Bentwick with their professional sights set on acquiring the life story of twins John and Paul, who moved to the area at the same time yet appear to live strictly independent of one another. Berenice wants a psychological study, Andreas a book deal, similar enough, and the two become lovers. They dine repeatedly with a local couple, Geoffrey and Margot Hyde, with whom they gossip about the twins and strike up a storytelling game, whose sole requirement is that participants don’t tell a story they necessarily think will impress the others. “Let the story choose you!” As for the twins, they both wear the same clothes, and indulge passionately in the local shellfish. They drink McEwan’s India Pale Ale, smoke thin Brazilian cigars, drive the exact same model car (with alternating license plates), don’t read books as far as any of the town’s spies can tell, but they do peruse the International Herald Tribune. Occasionally John wears glasses, and, according to Wicheria, a descendent of one the town’s founders who is conducting affairs with both, he is the gentler of the two when he makes love to her.

One of Mathews’s special effects manifests in the novel’s dialogue, which isn’t afforded the anticipated typographical space. Instead, words crowd, interlocutors sometimes overlap on the line. So a conversation will be written as: “‘He wanted to persuade me that feelings are our only reality…’ ‘How delicious!’ ‘…our only currency.’” This chiastic structure has larger implications when mirrored in the novel’s intricate plot: Each story turns out to have an unexpected connection to one of the other characters — in other words, is one side of another person’s story. The interconnected tales never grow into a conspiracy, given how expertly the distances between characters are calibrated. As a consequence, inexact doubles proliferate; altered versions of dinner party guests stumble home. As with much of Mathews’s writing, The Solitary Twin is a problem of numbers, which language resolves, or at least subdues with bubbling intoxicants. The town speaks as one out of many; the twins as many out of one.

The Solitary Twin
By Harry Mathews
New Directions
160 pp.

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