Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature
By Daniel Levin Becker
Harvard University Press, 352 pages, $27.95
It takes a certain kind of literary genius to explain rapper Fabolous’s lyrics using ancient Greek rhetorical devices. Best known for his 2001 song “Young’n (Holla Back)” — now an unintended time capsule for the long forgotten two-way pager — Fabolous has never been accused of lyric virtuosity. Yet there it was, in the pages of The Believer, one of America’s most important literary magazines: a review analyzing Fabolous through the paraprosdokian, “a rhetorical device where the end of a sentence compels a re-parsing of the beginning.” According to the reviewer, Daniel Levin Becker, the lyric “I’m raw, dog” (“which initially glosses as ‘I’m redoubtable, homey’”) is revealed by the end of the line to mean “raw dog,” a euphemism for unprotected sex. The review is funny and playfully erudite, though by the time it ends you wonder if Fabolous is as clever as his interpreter.
Levin Becker, reviews editor of the Believer (and, full disclosure, a former high school classmate of mine), appears to appreciate Fabolous’s lyricism sincerely. What he appreciates, however, is not Fabolous’s ability to tell a story, but the swagger of disconnected phrases and rhetorical taunts. As an interpreter, Levin Becker is less concerned with a writer’s moral force, or with the arguments of a text, than he is with the intricacies of language. He has the kind of literary mind that revels in anagrams, puzzles and uncovering the hidden, near-mathematical formulae behind certain works of art. Levin Becker’s new book, “Many Subtle Channels,” is about this kind of literary genius.
Strictly speaking, “Many Subtle Channels” is a book about the Oulipo (an abbreviation for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle), a post-1960 French literary movement best known in this country (if it is known at all) for Georges Perec’s 1969 novel, “La Disparition,” translated into English as “A Void.” As Levin Becker explains, the idea driving the Oulipo is that imposing restraints can paradoxically unlock creativity. “La Disparition” is a lipogram, meaning it is missing one or more letters of the alphabet — in this case, “e.” (There is also a sequel, “Les Revenentes,” whose only vowel is “e.”)
Another prominent oulipian form is the beau présent, an ode that contains only the letters in the subject’s name. Constraints don’t need to be linguistic. The idea behind Perec’s “The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise” (1968), was “to write a text based on an office flowchart.” Such restrictions not only force writers to become more attuned to their language, but also generate literary possibilities where none existed before.
While oulipian demands frequently sound arbitrary, there is nothing trivial about this type of literary endeavor. At the end of a section on public workshops, where readers can learn to make their own oulipian works, Levin Becker writes: [D]rawing attention to oulipian constraint… is not a question of exposing the structure so that it can be used again, or even so that it can be admired: it’s a question of making you, the reader, aware of your own effort and engagement, of putting you in control, of diminishing the distance between finding and making.