Friday, March 25, 2011

An Oulipo question

Since this has inadvertently become “Ask the Readers Questions Week,” I’ve got one more to wrap up with—but it’s on a completely different topic.

Back when I was a bookseller, my store held an event to celebrate the release of The Oulipo Compendium, a compilation of and reference work to the members of the Oulipo and their many creations. The volume’s editor, Harry Mathews, came to the store and gave a talk about the book and the Oulipo in general, and he was wonderful—funny, polished, abstracted, an intellectual showman (and good company at dinner, to boot). It was by far the best bookstore event I’ve ever been involved in: we had great attendance and even sold a lot of books.

I’ve had the Oulipo on my mind lately, because Scott Esposito is leading a group read of Georges Perec’s Life A Users Manual (which you’re welcome to join). If you’re a fan of the Oulipo, the Compendium is indispensable, chock full of sublime and ridiculous ideas for new ways to approach literary creation. And it’s one of those ideas that leads to my question for you today: the N+7 constraint.

N+7 is simple. You replace every non-proper noun in a piece of text with the noun found seven nouns after it in the dictionary. So the first line of Mathews’s pleasantly odd book My Life in CIA,
That she was the natural child of an Orsini could not be proved or disproved; but those dark flashing eyes, that dusky complexion betrayed the Italian blood in her veins.
--when run through Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary (1977), becomes:
That shearwater was the natural childishness of an Orsini could not be proved or disproved; but those dark flashing eye-catchers, that dusky complicacy betrayed the Italian bloodfin in her veldt.
As the Compendium points out, this exercise is more entertaining the weaker the dictionary you use: smaller dictionaries allow you to travel much farther from your root word—no “eyes” to “eye-catchers” if you deploy a pocket phrasebook—but you get the idea. (And of course, there are those people who don’t think this sounds like fun at all. I disagree, but I understand. Those people should probably stop reading now; we’ll return to normal business on Monday.)

Anyway, way back when the Compendium was published, I spent quite a bit of time thinking about N+7, and then one day it occurred to me that it had another, unremarked quality that seems perfectly designed to appeal to Oulipians: It's an Ouroboros! If you perform this operation enough times on the same sentence with the same dictionary—each time moving seven nouns down from the most recent result—you’ll eventually get back to your starting point!

Think about it: if your dictionary has a number of nouns that’s evenly divisible by seven, you’ll get back to your starting points after one trip through. If it’s not divisible by seven, when you get to the end of the dictionary you just carry over your remainder: the dictionary ends four nouns short of the seven you need, so you start your new trip through on the third noun. If my math is correct, you get back home, no matter the dictionary . . . on your seventh time through.

But when I mentioned that to Harry Mathews all those years ago, he replied that he thought I was wrong. So I turn to you, readers: who’s right, me or Mathews?


  1. You're definitely right. Perhaps Matthews was doing an N+x on adjectives, whereby 'wrong' becomes 'right'?

  2. My gut reaction is that N+7 would be much more productive if you did not apply the rule to pronouns. "She" will occur many times in the text, and to have each of those become "shearwater" seems like it would get old quick. I think off hand that you are right about coming back to your starting point but I'm not sure how I would go about proving this -- it seems self-evident.

  3. Anonymous6:41 PM

    You're absolutely right.
    An easy way to prove it to someone would be to make up a dictionary that only has 5 words and play N+2, N+3 and N+4.

  4. No, I see Mathews' point, it depends on how you think of a book (codex!) - if the end isn't 'joined' to the beginning, i.e. if all books aren't ourobouroses, then there is no point thinking about it this way! And really all books aren't ourobouroses, or else it wouldn't be the case that there's something special about Finnegan's Wake ending with a sentence that then is finished out in the beginning...

  5. I think you've got a really good point, Jenny, one that I'm sort of embarrassed I hadn't thought of myself. But if I remember the e-mail correspondence with Mathews clearly (it was way back in 1998, so god knows), he seemed to object not to the wrapping around of the book but to the math.

    Modesto Kid, I think you've got a good idea regarding pronouns. I don't have my Compendium in front of me, so I don't know whether that's addressed in the N+7 entry.

    And everyone: thanks for reassuring me that my math skills haven't completely atrophied. It's an easy downhill from High School Math Team if you go straight into the English Department at college.

  6. Yes, the question is what N+7 does with the last seven nouns in the dictionary. Does "zyzzyva" go to "abaci" and "zymosan" to "aardwolf"? (American Heritage Dictionary, 3d ed.) As a chance-method type myself, I would say definitely not: "zyzzyva" goes to "reconstruction" (the seventh noun in the afterword, "Indo-European and the Indo-Europeans" by Calvert Watkins); any other dictionary has words after the last seven keywords, in an afterword, appendix, as a last resort on the back jacket flap or back cover. I'm with Jenny Davidson.

  7. Anonymous3:56 PM

    Right, Damion. And after you run out of nouns on the back of the dustjacket, you move to the cover of the next book on your shelf.