Wednesday, January 23, 2008

"The Oblique Case"

The Oblique Case:
A Note on
Y. Cheung, Business Detective

“My work otherwise might make a good magazine article, but—” He sighed.
—Harry Stephen Keeler, Y. Cheung, Business Detective

But all at once it dawned on me that this
Was the real point, the contrapuntal theme;
Just this: not text, but texture; not the dream
But topsy-turvical coincidence,
Not flimsy nonsense, but a web of sense.
—Vladimir Nabokov,
Pale Fire

The tale of detection embraces contests of mind; the more devilish the design, roughly, the more successful the mystery. Perhaps the same impulse in the human imagination seeks out both puzzles and stories. Strange, then, that the “serious” reader should balk at fiction that seems cross-bred. A story that engages our sense of play is reduced to a toy—or worse, a machine, coldly contrived to spit out a result. The artifice is too apparent, and the writer is deemed an egghead (or a fool). Can such works be anything more than glorified parlor games?

This note concerns a single such parlor game, as played by two writers rarely mentioned in the same breath: Harry Stephen Keeler and Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov. They were rough contemporaries, with the latter’s years transposed about a decade forward. Their legacies could not be more dissimilar: recent Nabokovian garlands include a biography of his wife and a second celluloid version of Lolita, while Keeler’s work remains obscure.

Stylistically they are at opposite ends of the spectrum, if not the universe. Even Nabokov’s interview responses read like prose poems, whereas no Keeler creation would be complete without stunningly awkward descriptions and breathless dialogue that barely has time to reflect upon itself. (It is possible we cherish one writer for his scruples, the other for his shamelessness.)

Y. Cheung, Business Detective
(1939) and “The Vane Sisters” (written 1951; first published 1959) appear to be as different as their creators. The former is a novel about a Chinese American sleuth who takes on, as it were, two cases—one professional, the other cryptogrammatic. In Nabokov’s dozen pages, a professor of French learns of an acquaintance’s death, and reflects upon her theories of undead communication.

We are startled, then, to find at the heart of each story a “death message”—and to discover that both unlock to the same key.

Y. Cheung, Business Detective is the fourth movement in the Marceau case. Its pages constitute Keeler’s last significant reworking of that bizarre cause célèbre. Though not his best-known title, it belongs to his most dazzling constellation. The fact that Cheung is the character to write “absolute ‘finis’” on the mystery suggests that we need to read Cheung in order to comprehend fully Keeler’s vision of the Marceau case.

Avoiding webwork jargon, we can split the tale in two. Story A is straightforward (if enjoyable) detective fare: Y. Cheung, “Locator of Business Leaks,” travels to Indianapolis at the behest of an old college friend, whose father’s construction company has been consistently underbid by its rival. The solution turns out to be a literal take on our hero’s title. Indeed, the same can be said of the word “solution”; the very words are loaded.

This plotline has a complication: Cheung’s grandfather has died, but his fortune will go to a cousin unless Cheung can do something so meritorious (within a week, naturally) that the family name will appear in 1000 newspapers. And in a vintage HSK catch, Cheung’s employer, Milford Harven, has publicly stated his belief in the superiority of the white race—and thus forbids Cheung to be credited, should he successfully plug the leak. (On a personal level, however, they get along just fine.)

Story B, enfolded in A, is entitled “Strange Romance”—the second of two short stories that André Marceau purposefully plagiarized in the weeks before his death. In a passage so convoluted as to be almost meaningless (and described so rapidly as to approach shorthand), it is explained how Marceau’s rendering of “Strange Romance” fell into Harven’s hands. Soon Harven sends the “Death Script” to Cheung, an amateur cryptographer. If Cheung succeeds at his day job, Harven says, the MS is his to keep.

Initially baffling, “Strange Romance” is a fairly preposterous piece of science fiction that stops a more agreeable story in its tracks. Gyles Kew, son of a famous astronomer, travels to Arizona upon his father’s death, and gazes at a verdant world galaxies away, through his father’s super-powerful telescope. He spies a beautiful woman, who occasionally dons a helmet; she displays three oddly decorated cards that correspond to those of an earthly Tarot deck.

Gyles falls in love with her, and is about to perform an experiment in celestial telepathy—when he is informed that, given the speed of light, her image is already a hundred years old. In an amusing touch of self-consciousness, Keeler has Cheung critique the story; he judges the style “so exalted that at times it is absolutely stiff-necked.” His interlocutor (a chief at a wire service) finds the story a “smoothly running, normally running tale”—but Cheung knows better. The unnatural prose (nonexistent locales, forced expressions, needless exposition) has led him to throw out a few red herrings and deduce that certain words were placed with acrostical intent. In an admittedly somewhat arbitrary fashion, Cheung isolates the first letters or words of the first 59 [FOOTNOTE 1] (and last 8) paragraphs to derive a final Marceau morsel—the murderee’s prediction of his own death. It concludes, “In the light of this fact, if my death ever occurs inexplicably there should be—of mystery—nothing whatever.”

And so the very words are loaded; a plagiarized potboiler has been altered; a dead man speaks. If we detect a spiritual shudder, we can keep in mind that the Book of Lamentations is acrostically configured[FOOTNOTE 2], or the popular (if unlikely) belief that the Greek word for fish unfolds as “Jesus Christ, the son of God, the Saviour,” thus explaining that particular Christian symbol. [FOOTNOTE 3]

Precise and dazzling where its precursor is slack, “The Vane Sisters” could fit seven times over within the confines of “Strange Romance.” On a gleaming spring day, the unnamed narrator, a professor, runs into D., a former colleague. D. mentions that Cynthia Vane, sister of Sybil, has died of a heart condition. The married D. had once conducted an affair with Sybil, who had been a student of the narrator’s. After D. broke off the affair, Sybil killed herself, but not before taking a disastrous French exam. On the last page of the booklet, she scrawled a suicide note, part of which read: “Death was not better than D minus, but definitely better than Life minus D.”

Told of Cynthia’s recent passing, the narrator muses on her “ingenious fancies” and “fondness for spiritualism.” She believed that the ghosts of dead friends shaped her living days; she saw meaning in puns and printer’s errors, and even encouraged a friend to pursue a “statistically insane” typo (“hitler” for “hither”) within old books. After a terrifying bout of insomnia, the professor merges into a slumber “full of Cynthia.” He seems about to experience whatever paranormal doings she once subscribed to; he is on the cusp of believing. But daylight banishes the night’s phantoms:
I could isolate, consciously, little. Everything seemed blurred, yellow-clouded, yielding nothing tangible. Her inept acrostics, maudlin evasions, theopathies—every recollection formed ripples of mysterious meaning. Everything seemed yellowly blurred, illusive, lost.
This final paragraph feels somehow unsatisfying, a vague conclusion to the previous perfectionist’s prose. But what the narrator doesn’t realize—and what the reader, hopefully, does—is that the Vane sisters, from beyond the grave, have in fact played a hand in the structure of his thoughts, in the very writing of “The Vane Sisters.” Taking the first letter of each word, we find an explanation to the whole story: “Icicles by Cynthia, meter from me, Sybil.” (Even reading it now, separated from the story, sends chills up the spine.) They have invisibly dictated content and form.

Nabokov eventually dismissed “The Vane Sisters” as something of a curio, but his dismay at its rejection by The New Yorker suggests more than cursory interest on his part.[FOOTNOTE 4] For its 1975 publication, he wrote: “This particular trick can be tried only once in a thousand years of fiction. Whether it has come off is another question.” Today it occupies the penultimate slot in his Collected Stories, where it can be read as a distillation of his art. It melds the metaphysical and linguistic concerns that inform all his novels, and that will flower freakishly in his masterpiece, Pale Fire.

The acrostical finish to “The Vane Sisters” is aesthetically justifiable (whether or not we find it successful); Nabokov has taken care to make the story thematically of a piece. Marceau’s acrostic, by contrast, delivers a thrilling jolt that nevertheless feels cheap.

The solution stamps the book as the latest ingenious take on the death of that notorious anti-nanist—but what does it have to do with the rest of the book in which it resides? A natural response might be to shake one’s head and mutter, not for the first time, “Keeler!” But upon reflection, the book seems more carefully wrought, its heterogeneity (15 chapters of A, then 14 of B, followed by 21 more of A) less a clever detour than an integral part of the story. A possible solution presents itself if we consider Cheung as a reflection on race.

As even a casual Keelerite knows, HSK populated his novels with Asian characters and lore (real or ersatz). Though he often slung slurs (and not always ironically), he remained fascinated not only with Eastern culture but with the tricky position of cheng-fong-gwai—ethnic Chinese who, having been brought up in Western society, are alienated from both cultures. (Of late, variations on this racial catch-22 have been a staple of “Asian American” fiction; it’s interesting that Keeler staked out this territory decades before its overdevelopment.) Y. Cheung, hero of his own story, is not only drawn with empathy, but also seems more fully realized than the typical Keeler protagonist—the bland WASP equipped with interchangeable first and last names.

Keeler sidesteps stereotypes to show, rather deftly, Cheung’s divided status. His mental acuity and good nature do nothing to prevent the casual, even unwitting insults of others. (The “color line” exists in Indianapolis, where Chinese are seen as laundrymen, waiters, or tong savages.) He doesn’t quite fit in.

To see how cheng-fong-gwai-ness explains “Strange Romance,” we must take a look at some eyes. Enough times to bear mention, HSK describes Cheung’s visual apparatus as “oblique”—a softer synonym for “slanted” that also means “indirect.” [FOOTNOTE 5]

It’s an unusual, even elegant word choice. Outside of its anatomical use, it suggests many things: HSK’s kaleidoscopic, multimedia approach to the death of André Marceau; his elusive attitude toward Asian people and culture; and the structure of Cheung itself. [FOOTNOTE 6]

For “Strange Romance” feels oblique, indirect, off the topic; it stands apart from the primary plot—not unlike the way Cheung, the cheng-fong-gwai, stands outside both white American and Chinese society. If we are to integrate Story B with Story A, then, we must show how Cheung loses his own solitude. The answer is love. [FOOTNOTE 7]

The Marceau Case and X. Jones—of Scotland Yard, in addition to being home-grown modernist tours de farce, are exceptional in the Keeler canon in that they dangle no girl as prize. She is back in place for The Wonderful Scheme of Mr. Christopher Thorne, a more conventionally told tale, and Cheung. One of Harven’s suspects is the secretary, Loa Marling, who is half-white, half-Hawaiian. By the latter inheritance, she claims Korean, Malayan, and Chinese blood, and her eyes have a “bare suggestion of obliquity.” Cheung, attracted and conflicted, speaks to her outside the office. To allay her fear that he’s a private investigator (and not “George Lee,” civil engineer), she asks him the probing question: “What—what is the neutral axis of—of an I-beam?” (Answer: “the entire planar cross-section lying at right angle to the so-called transverse cross section or I-cross-section...”)

As they talk, Cheung does not exactly lie, but he tailors the truth and conceals his purpose. In a gesture of friendship and private expiation, he gives her his book of Confucian sayings, his English translation penned over the Chinese characters. Cheung’s inability to reveal his real name and profession is a fine metaphor for his deeper identity issues—he’s an utterly sane “Mysterious Mr. I,” a puzzle even to himself. When he asks Loa if she’s happy (a propos having “Asiatic blood—in a white country”), the question applies as well to a man named Y. Cheung.

The Loa-Cheung chapters are rich (and loopily didactic) with musings on race and place; for our purposes, it may suffice to paraphrase Kong-Fu-Tse [FOOTNOTE 8]: the harmony of the world depends on that of states, which is built on that of families, selves, souls, thoughts, and the extension of knowledge. “Such extension of knowledge lay in the investigation of things, and seeing them as they really were,” reads Cheung to Loa. Perfection of knowledge leads to that of thoughts, souls, selves, families, states, and the whole world.

With this philosophical palindrome in mind, we can return to “Strange Romance,” which now seems like a dark version of Cheung’s tale, made diminished and unreal. Its unhappy ending contrasts with the Keeleresque clinch (that Cheung, unsurprisingly, will deliver). Gyles Kew, consulting with a Phoenix occultist on the matter of the alien Tarot, improvises a story of “a Chinese girl astronomer who speaks no English whatsoever”—a triply fictional version (story-within-story-within-story) of the part-Chinese Loa. And his father’s “100 percent super-perfect focusing” telescope, which gives Gyles comely “proof of the multiplicity of world systems,” only visits heartbreak upon him, for whom astronomy is a hazy subject. It is a bleak inheritance.

On the track to claiming his inheritance, Cheung trains his eyes (or eye-beams) on “Strange Romance,” and discerns the I-beams that form the coded message. Or (to phrase it from a different architectural angle), he perceives the story, quite literally, in cross-section. The sheer mechanicalness of this conceit is prefigured not only by Cheung’s training as a civil engineer and his employment at bridge-construction company, but in the novel’s dedication to a professor at the Armour Institute of Technology, who taught Keeler “the theories underlying bridge design, and the mechanics of steel construction.” Now we can see “Strange Romance” more distinctly as a bridge: from Cheung to the rest of the Marceau books, and one that connects (rather than interrupts) the two parts of Story A, its minor-key plot and theme resonating with Cheung’s multiple plights. (Perhaps it corresponds to a bridge in a piece of music.)

Toward the end of the book, Cheung performs a curious demonstration for Harven’s employees. At one point, he adds potassium bichromate to a tumbler of tap water, turning it “a beautiful yellow.” The color is his color, of course. (Earlier in the book, we are given Harven’s assessment of “the character of the Yellow Man.”) By the novel’s conclusion, the mystery of Cheung himself will be “solved” by his romantic association with Loa Marling.

The investigation of things—leaks and manuscripts—has blossomed into all sorts of perfection. And as Cheung and Loa ride off into the sunset, or at least walk to their favorite park bench, Confucius has—and is—the last word of the Marceau case.

Concluding Unscientific Postscript Early in Nabokov’s U.S. residence (1940–1959), Dutton dropped Keeler; reading habits aside, it seems unlikely that VN had ever heard of the chronicler of London-of-the-West, let alone read him. Yet having finished Cheung, one comes to “The Vane Sisters” with new eyes, and a mind open to obliquity.
And I wish I could recollect that novel or short story (by some contemporary writer, I believe) in which, unknown to its author, the first letters of the words in its last paragraph formed, as deciphered by Cynthia, a message from his dead mother.

The acrostic supports this: one can read as incestuous two texts that derive from the same words (i.e., “Strange Romance”).

This is, of course, Nabokov’s (or the sisters’) grand hint to the reader. But could it be something more? A “yellowly blurred” recollection of a half-heard plot, perhaps, or something gleaned from a book review—a curiosity profitably misremembered, to find new life a dozen years later? Statistical insanities aside, some things can, it seems, be attempted twice in a thousand years.

Could he have been inspired by his doctor’s telephone number, Bittersweet 5959?

Each chapter consists of 22 stanzas; in all but the fifth chapter, each stanza begins with a consecutive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. A number of the Psalms are similarly structured.

In City of God, XVIII, Ch. 23, Flaccianus produces a Greek manuscript, supposedly the poems of the Erythraean Sibyl; in one poem, the letters of the foregoing translation (IESOUS CHREISTOS THEOU UIOS SOTER) are each used to begin a line of verse—what we might term an acrostic “squared.”

His editor called the sisters at the story’s center “not worthy of their web”—i.e., less interesting than the author’s bright weave.

One confidently assumes that Keeler didn’t ascribe
to it a more negative definition, viz., “underhanded.”

Not to mention this indirect “note.”

Readers of Joyce’s Ulysses may recall one of its mu-
sical leitmotivs, the chestnut “Love’s Old Sweet
Song.” In at least one instance, each word of the title
appears on its own line, suggesting that Joyce wants
us to read it acrostically: LOSS.

Who ranks, we learn in Scheme, right up there
with Buddha and...Ouspensky!

The telescope’s position was fixed by Gyles’s fa-
ther, and the likelihood that he had observed the
extraterrestrial woman before his death lends a
tinge of pseudo-incest to Gyles’s infatuation.
(Pseudo-incest will also be revealed in Story A.)

Keeler News, No. 30 (December 2000)

Saturday, January 5, 2008

From "The Best Novels You've Never Read"

In brief chapters, with the most scrupulously intense sentences—pitch perfect, pitch dark—this side of Renata Adler, Indiana conjures a hugely sad New York novel that feels at once state of the art and stunningly ancient. (It ends on September 8, 2001.) His epigrammatic wit makes the darkness bearable—don't we all know someone who could be described like this?: "If you ask Edie how she is, you don't have to say another word for at least an hour." —Ed Park

—full version of note that appeared in New York, May 28, 2007

Review of "Oulipo Compendium," edited by Harry Mathews and Alastair Brotchie

Amazing Rats
Ed Park

Writing, and possibly everything, is at some level a game. Herbert Quain, one of Jorge Luis Borges’s fictional fictioneers, defines a game’s features as “symmetry, arbitrary rules, tedium”; in another Borges creation, “The Library of Babel,” the game is unwinnable—unplayable, even: all books, all combinations of letters (even gibberish), already exist and are contained therein, but given the mathematically nightmarish vastness of the holdings, one cannot hope to locate anything meaningful. The work of the Oulipo, the Paris-based group of writers and mathematicians whose projects are described in this sumptuous Compendium, often seems Borgesian in spirit: cofounder Raymond Queneau’s 100,000,000,000,000 Poems (10 sonnets with corresponding lines sharing the same end-rhym, affording 100 trillion possibilities) could be a game devised by Quain. The Oulipo, whose name abbreviates the French for “Workshop for Potential Literature,” is a language laboratory in the truest sense. Texts, words, even individual letters are subject to an array of stresses and distortions. Generally, the resultant chimeras are abundantly playful, undercutting the insanity that lurks in the corridors of the Library of Babel.

The Oulipo Compendium consists mainly of a small encyclopedia, equal parts spellbook and bestiary, presenting vivid personalities, jaw-dropping lexical acrobatics, and hermetic arcana (meeting minutes, small-run fascicles). It begins with “Abish, Walter,” a non-member whose antic Alphabetical Africa crams the frame (chapter A’s words all begin with a, B’s with a or b, and so on to Z—from whence the march back, proscribing one letter at a time until, again, as alone are admissible). After many lucid and ludic entries, the funhouse closes tragically, with another sympathetic spirit, “Zürn, Unica”—anagrammist extraordinaire, schizophrenic, suicide. (Perhaps the Borgesian whisper of madness is never completely abolished.) The listings themselves constitute a work of art: a convoluted policier, or a skeleton version of the Petit Norbert—the true Oulipian encyclopedia conceived of in 1991 that seems destined never to be completed. (This book appends sections on Oulipian practices applied to the mystery novel, painting, and other genres.)

The Compendium showcases the incredible. Some entries get by on sheer conceptual chutzpah and feature tortured nomenclature (homovocalism, in which only one vowel is employed; liponymy, in which any word can be used only once; threnodials, consisting of hard-to-maneuever anagrams of “threnodials”—a word containing the dozen most common letters). Some yield jokes: the N+7 technique replaces a noun in a source text with the one found seven dictionaries hence (e.g., “To be or not to be: that is the quibble”). And some resemble teratological freaks: Dallas Wiebe’s “left-handed lipogram” allows only letters on the left side of the keyboard, and the resulting tale, rebarbative with octothorps (subbing for unattainable periods and commas), is as sinister as the imagined accident that might render one manually halved.

In the best selections, the formal constraints and the content are wrapped up together, as in the work of the late Georges Perec. His astonishing 1,247-word palindrome tracesits own inelegance; La Disparition (nimbly Englished by Gilbert Adair as A Void) is a novel written sans e, a lack that generates both plot and atmosphere; and his epithalamia restrict themselves to the set of letters created by the newlyweds’ names, so symbolizing the private language that marriage mints. Perec’s death brought Oulipian rememberances most affectingly Luc Etienne’s fugue in the key of the author’s name, “Ce Repere Perec,” a funerary ricercar setting every line in a grid formed by the title’s letters.

Queneau called Oulipians “rats who build the labyrinth from which they plan to escape.” They are would-be messiahs who build their own crosses, ancient mariners gunning for albatross. (In a French twist on this scene, the Compendium notes the unusual collocation of four silent es in a line of Baudelaire’s “L’albatros,” a poem comparing the captured bird to the empyrean poet trapped on this drab planet—then trumps it by citing, with deadpan erudition, the existence of “the 64 types of alexandrine determined by the positions within them of 0 to 4 vowels.”) Cigarettes, Harry Mathews’s only “purely Oulipian” novel, features a literal cross. A callow, masochistic writer allows himself to be crucified and tortured—an inscrutable, perverse action that occupies the center of the book. But it is this burden-bearer—freed like an Oulipian by self-imposed constraints—who becomes a writer, the gifted narrator who has composed the elegant book we’ve been reading and who will have hidden the combinatorial machinery that one suspects underlies the book’s structure.

Practitioners of gematria, by assigning numbers to letters and transposing equivalent word-sums throughout the Torah, have made dubious progress in revealing God’s message. The Oulipo has more fun, but one can’t shake the suspicion that a spiritual quest is afoot. This might explain not only their permutations and dream alexandrines, their absent es and mute-in-es, but their happy survival of nearly 40 years. Their rage to order valiantly battles what Borges calls “leagues of insensate cacophony”: the awful, written din of the universe, a sound indistinguishable from silence (or perhaps the borborygm of too much contemporary “creative” writing). One finishes the Compendium abuzz and amused, eager to see what creatures will next emerge from such prodigious alembics.

n.b. from The Reader’s Catalog*, Winter 1999

*I am not even sure what this was.