Put aside for a moment all reasonable questions of why. Suppose you wake up with a terrific idea for a story but a terrifying idea for how the story must be told. A character suffers a series of strokes, and in each crisis the language somehow parallels what the character goes through. If he can't walk, letters lose their lower limbs, as in this sentence, which excludes lower case forms that dive under the line [g, j, p, q, y.]. More serious inconveniences occur as our man's arm moves cease. As greater stresses sever ravaged edges, adverse fates create rare verse-reverted dreads. For poor fools who go on, sorrows grow.

Confused? Better consult the Oulipo Compendium (Atlas). The Oulipo Compendium, edited by Harry Mathews and publisher Alastair Brotchie, is the most comprehensive exegesis to date of the Ouvoir de Litterature Potentielle, a Paris-based group of writers and mathematicians founded in 1960 by Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais to explore writing with formal constraints. The Compendium contains biographical sketches of its members, entries of Oulipian forms by writers like Gilbert Sorrentino and Walter Abish, and whole sections on offshoot groups. Best of all, the Compendium functions as an encyclopedia of constraints.

Constraints may spring from traditional forms--Queneau's 100,000,000,000,000 Poems creates a sequence of 10 sonnets with interchangeable lines (he figured it would take someone reading 24 hours a day over 190 million years to finish all permutations)--or they may be mathematically based. Most of them might seem absurd to writers who believe that grammar and genre provide all the restrictions anyone should have to endure.

In the example of the character beset by strokes, a writer might explore the psychology of the victim, mixing recent thoughts with flashbacks. In a tradition informed by The English Patient, The Gifts of the Body, The Metamorphosis, or The Singing Detective, such a narrative might even say something that hadn't been said before. The form-driven writer, however, has concerns outside of character development. Primary among these concerns is originality. Originality may be less a spiritual goal than a practical tool: how can your work distinguish itself from earlier accomplishments? The goal of the Oulipo is to produce something interesting and new. Although the results of following strict rules can be so wacky as to appear surrealistic, Oulipians oppose the self-styled freedoms indulged in by the Surrealists, whose work strikes them as mostly repetitive. Only by submitting to the rigors of formal constraint can a writer break free of old thought patterns.

Using the Compendium, a writer obsessed with the generative possibilities of restriction can see how the lipogram, a form which excludes certain letters, can apply to the story of the stroke victim. The legless constraint is fairly easy, affording a latitude of expression, while the prisoner's restriction, where no letters can poke up or down, is much more limiting. The book reproduces examples of some lipograms, such as Ian Monk's "a russian con's economic missive" (prisoner's restriction) and Dallas Wiebe's "Dexter Weaver Serves Breaded Crested Grebe" (left-handed keyboard), and mentions examples of others that need more space to test the possibilities of their limits. Georges Perec's novel La Disparition--translated as A Void (HarperCollins) by Gilbert Adair--is king of the lipograms, not only because it goes without the most common letter, e, for over 300 pages, but because this exclusion is integral to the novel's subject and theme.

The inevitable question posed by the Oulipo is, how do the forms devised in the workshop live up to their potential? In reprinted minutes of Oulipo meetings and in the write-ups of various constraints, the Compendium is fairly ruthless--if eternally hopeful--as an arbiter of which methods seem more productive as exercises than as literary generators, useful knowledge for those of us who write this way. For anyone who has followed the careers of various Oulipians, the Compendium provides a fascinating look behind the books: were they or were they not based on constraints?

Consider Harry Mathews and Georges Perec. Mathews, who joined the Oulipo in 1972, identifies his 1987 novel Cigarettes (Weidenfeld) and his 1975 novel The Sinking of Odradek Stadium (Harper & Row) as Oulipian. Other early novels, Tlooth and The Conversions, he calls partly Oulipian, as he does his 1990 novel The Journalist (Godine). While his poetry is almost entirely devoted to Oulipian methods, in fiction he often uses constraints to help him through sections of a project rather than as a system upon which to base whole works.

Then there's Georges Perec (1936-1982). All of Perec's work is based on constraints. Aside from his legendary lipograms, Perec holds the record for the longest palindrome, at 5,000 characters. His greatest work and the best representative of the art of literary restriction is the 1978 novel La Vie mode d'emploi--Life: A Users Manual translated by David Bellos (Godine). Life employs four complex systems of constraint to create a book unlike that which could have been written any other way.

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