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?