Manual of Constraints
13 Writhing Machines
will serve, when complete, as a comprehensive manual of constrained writing practices, some of them invented by the Oulipo, but with many others besides.
These three novels, The Broken House
, and Gathering of Ghosts
, are set in a world more visibly enchanted than this one and examine the various kinds of charm involved. I wanted to explore the impact of the Imaginary on history, politics, the general behavior of human animals.
relates the struggles of two Americans, and of the two chameleons they were given, to adapt to a foreign habitat.
This novel tests the power to recreate oneself through metamorphosis against the power of fate.
Two young bears go on a pleasure trip to a city inhabited by many kinds of animal, but find themselves in danger: Bargeton is threatened by invasion from without, civil war within.
The two young bears are caught up in a night of riot and confusion.
Collection of tales.
Versions and subversions of medieval beast-fables and fabliaux.
the cover of the first of my 13 Writhing Machines pamphlet
One of the constraints discussed in this pamphlet uses maps as templates for literary creation. This cover shows a map dating from around the time of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and uses the shape of nations on the map to caricature their various dysfunctionalities. It reminded me of a cold-war refrain my mother used to repeat: "Russia got hungry, took a piece of Turkey, slipped on grease and broke China." Cover design by Joanna Ebenstein.
13 Writhing Machines
This series of pamphlets will serve as a comprehensive manual, with explanations and examples, sometimes with commentary, of constrained writing practices. Many of the constraints discussed herein were invented or codified by the Oulipo. Others predate that group or were drawn from the work of a range of writers or were invented by the Writhing Society. The first three have been published by Proteotypes:
(2008) assembles constraints drawn from everyday life: our interaction with maps, calendars, questionnaires, bureaucratic forms.
(2009) generates new text by a change of content within a retained form. Homosyntaxism, for example, keeps the syntactic sequence of an original, but adds all new vocabulary following that code. The Chimera does the same, but the vocabulary is drawn from several sources: nouns from Jane Austen, adjectives from Poe, verbs from Henry Miller, and so on.
(2010) works with various kinds of homophony, where a variety of senses are grafted onto a similarity of sounds. It features an extended meditation on the life and work of Raymond Roussel.
A fourth, Prosodic Copulators
, is under construction; it will propose many superconstraints to be imposed upon the fixed forms of versification, such as the left-handed sonnet, which can use only those letters typed with the left hand.
These three novels (so far) are set in a human world somewhat thinly overlaid upon the animal world of The Crimson Bears
, and joined to it at the omphalos of Mole Place, the booksellers' square in the city. It is a world more visibly enchanted than ours and examine the various kinds of charm involved. I wanted to explore the impact of the Imaginary on history, politics, human behavior generally.
The Broken House
(Spuyten Duyvil, 2015) is about war, love, defeat, shame, food, magic, theater, gardens, poetry, and the politics of a small country ruled by a princely court at its last gasp. Images, false and true, drive various characters either in the direction of absorptive attention or theatrical performance. In Maznoona
Yalayl, a young girl, finds herself torn between the enchantments of a woman's role in a traditional village and the freedom-in-collectivity of a pack of wild dogs. Gathering of Ghosts
returns the action to a larger canvas, upon which the agents of enchantment appear directly and act in a political arena as part of an anti-colonial struggle. These agents are the Znoon (based on Islamic jnun
or djinns), a parallel race to humans.
Two excerpts from The Broken House
have been published in 2006: "The Bee Wolf" in MARGINALIA Vol. 1, No. 2, edited by Alicita Rodriguez and Joseph Starr, and the other, "Night Reconnaissance," in the New Wave Fabulist anthology ParaSpheres
, ed. Rusty Morrison and Ken Keegan (Omnidawn Publishing).
I wrote this memoir towards the end of my year in Morocco, when Wendy and I were living in the seaside town of Essaouira. What pleased me best about this stay was the way in which my own narrative became absorbed into a skein of other stories, often turbulent, those of my friends, and particularly that of the two chameleons, Tetta and Haha, that we were given as part of a ritual to drive out bad spirits from our apartment. Their lives, their adaptations, mirrored of our own. You can read an excerpt in the right-hand column of the "Biography" page.
Published in 2001 by Green Integer.
Tom La Farge’s latest novel revisits the animal world he created in The Crimson Bears and A Hundred Doors. The protagonist, Zuntig the Swamp Ape, makes a bid for dominance in her tribe but fails. Facing destruction, she discovers that she can change her shape and restart her story as another sort of animal. As she shifts, every new body imposes its own desires and sends Zuntig hunting for the habitat where it will be at home. And as her search changes, so does her story. She becomes a herring and swims upriver to breed against a stream of consciousness. She becomes a lemming, finds mates and propagates in a season of courtship Jane Austen might have described. Her encounter as an auk with Ocean is told in Shelleyan blank verse, and her plunge into the Ice Matrix mimics Coleridge’s "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" as revised by Emily Dickinson, William Blake, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. But in each new shape she retains the memory of her first home and story, built into her physical being and fighting her adaptation to new environments. The sunstruck hills of the Biljub Desert, the flow of the river Flood, the snow-tunnels of Hyver, the empty ocean’s dreaming, even the fabulous Pig Opera of Bargeton: none of these is a niche where Zuntig can adapt until she resolves her unfinished business in the Swamp.
The Crimson Bears
Published in 1993 by Sun and Moon Press as the first volume of The Crimson Bears
Edgar and Alice, brother and sister bears, take a vacation journey to visit their uncle Claudio, chief magistrate of the city of Bargeton, where many kinds of animals live together. On their way they meet and cannot rid themselves of a Slizz, a woolly lizard, apparently witless but belonging to a kind that once in ten thousand births produces an individual capable of speech. All such individuals, called Ceruk, live in Bargeton. Edgar and Alice find the city threatened by invasion by huge barbarous crimson bears and are confined within the protected zone of the Citadel, but when their Slizz eludes them and runs off, they follow him through the city, meeting several other kinds: the huge, menacing, evil-smelling saurians called the Thoog, the madcap, impoverished Clowncats who inhabit the trashheaps and ruins of their former empire, and the militant Shaven Ceruk, whose program it is to separate themselves completely from their shameful origins among the Slizz by an act of genocide. The farther Edgar and Alice move into Bargeton, the deeper they move into a plot enmeshing all these kinds with the Crimson Bears.
A Hundred Doors. Volume 2 of The Crimson Bears
Published in 1994 by Sun & Moon Press as the conclusion of The Crimson Bears
Edgar and Alice, the protagonists of The Crimson Bears
, witness the grand meeting of their enemies and hear their plan to topple the rule of bears in the city of Bargeton. But later, when all seems hopeless, the faction of the Clowncats, led by the heroic and ingenious Possy Damp Paws, subverts the plot. The Clowncats initiate a night of riot and confusion through Bargeton. Caught up in the sweep of events, the young bears do what they can to help Possy. Exhausted but sleepless, Alice spends part of the night in a bookstore, reading from a book written in letters shaped like birds, and from another called Court Memoirs of a Termite. When all is over, Alice and Edgar are able to measure how their lives have been changed.
Terror of Earth
Published in 1996 bySun & Moon Press.
Terror of Earth
is a set of "fablels," both beast-fables and fabliaux, that adapt medieval French tales to show the radical uneasiness with which we live in a dangerously erotic world and the ways we soothe ourselves. "Rapture" rewrites one Aesopian fable, the fox and the crow, "Amont, aval" another, the wolf and the lamb. "The Care of the Dead" uses story-matter from the episode of the Matron of Ephesus in Petronius' Satyricon. Terror of Earth
won an "America" award for fiction in 1997 and was nominated by Carole Maso for The Fisk Prize in fiction.
|The Broken House
To purchase the Broken House, go here.
Here's a sample of my writing, "The Bee Wolf" from The Broken House. The novel is now in print from Spuyten Duyvil press. You can order it by using the above link.
The Bee Wolf
As the motorcycle sped away, its harmonies degraded to a whine then plunged into absence, and Drytung was left, dust settling on his sleeve, at the end of a driveway with nothing to do but look at what he did not care to see. Two lions rampant atop stone pillars. One had lost its head, the muzzle of the other had sheared off to expose an oval of black stone. Gateway to the Imperial Wildlife Refuge.
The drive led him through half a mile of drifting smoke, and at the smell of burnt flesh he broke out in a sweat. Before long he was turning a corner and starting to see what can be done by high explosives to a house. This one had been built for aristocratic pleasure, then converted to a wildlife refuge. It now quartered his commander Shandimus and ‘Nna, the little cook with the long toes.
Dread stiffens the air at such corners. The smells that reached him might grow from bodies he knew. He came to a halt at the sight of the broken house.
Silent under early morning sunlight. Drytung checked the time. An army watch amidst the hairs of his mortal wrist.
The way was blocked by fallen trees. Drytung began to trace the perimeter. Avenues of approach that he could have taken he passed by. Rarely looked at the house, so gashed and bitten, but walked, eyes down, along the wave of litter that had jumped from it.
He picked up an arc of washbasin’s rim. The enamel skin of it was chipped and worn; the cast iron underneath seemed sore. He ran his finger along the arc, thinking of red faces with eyes squeezed closed reflected among suds, and let it fall back. Near it glinted a swan’s-neck bottlestopper, other crystal shards, spreading floral sweetness edged in musk. A singed loaf of bathsponge gaped, but he dared not look into its chambers. Here was a fragment of comb, cut from a single bone, and the black hairs caught in its fine teeth coiled and reeked of acrid oils. He let that fall and continued on his way, around and around the broken house, squeezing between the silent, fascinating bodies, full shapes of objects that grew out of their own shards. So he edged around to the back till he faced the buildings of the Wildlife Refuge.
He saw, first, holes. Out flew spirals of dust and flashing wisps of chaff. Flies entered, lighting on masses sprawling on dim floors. Feathery clots strewed the grass below the dovecotes; the breeze fingered iridescent neckrings.
Flattened saplings, berry-bushes, ferns, and toadstools radiated from a raw pit; beside it a tree lay down, a shock of roots stood up, bristling. A soldier had been walking there. Her body fitted in among the roots. He couldn’t see her really. She was in the roots. The roots twisted wildly, grappling one another, interlocking in a spreading disc, and she was caught up in that struggle, knees bent, arms uplifted. She had only one foot now, still in its heavy boot. Her face was lost in clay, her jaw jammed sideways in a fan of teeth, but she had an ear, intact. It grew out through a fall of fine hair and stood up and spread its complicated surface like a fungus on its foot. Taking his cue from it, Drytung listened.
Birds were singing in a copse, their voices sharp, round, unfolding moods of birds. Drytung did not know the language. But he reckoned that birds know it. They were answering something.
Now what he wanted to do, but he had not the strength, was to push up the tree till it tipped back in place. Then the flourish of boughs would be enlarged, and the dead soldier set where she wouldn’t have to hear birds and he wouldn’t have to see her.
Turning, Drytung saw the animals gathered to look at him. As he advanced, they edged away. A glossy jackdaw hopped closer, as if hoping for seed, taking no notice of the tractor burning in gouts of smoke, paint bubbling as its tires melted.
A beast he had never seen before was nosing around near his feet. Its haunches swelled beneath a hide sparsely haired, but its torso tapered to slender forequarters, and a whiskered tube of snout probed the sand. But then he saw that its back was broken, its hindparts paralyzed. Drytung squatted, watching it carry on its business.
He was pulled from sorrow by his general’s screams. Hacked bamboo, trampled parterres, a pool of slashed lilypads. Shandimus brandished his sword, sobbing. He nearly sliced off Drytung’s head.
“The sky was clear! No haze, nothing hidden. Why, across the bay I could see the Palace. I saw the cupola on the Banqueting House, the copper shingles of the Wardrobe.
“My machine-guns were placed where they could traverse. My infantry was deployed, showing colors. Guns on the rise behind us, each with a full complement of gunners.
“But the enemy came through! I built a wall to stop them. Intelligence, signals, provisions, supply lines, reserves, earthworks, I had seen to everything, Drytung! I know how to build a wall! My position was optimally defensible! But they came on like insects, and my line curled back on itself and unraveled like rotten string.”
He inhaled with a gasp, twitched his arm free, turned and hacked at an oleander. Gently Drytung touched his shoulder. Shandimus gave one last jerk, then dropped his sword. Drytung led him to look at the animals of the Refuge. Shandimus’ eyes gleamed when Drytung had finished relating his impression that they lived in a different world.
“Let’s have a look at them,” the Domestic suggested. They passed the backbroken creature, which was no longer squirming, and entered a shed filled with furious civet stink. It was hard to see much, except at the end where the tin roof had been twisted back like the lid of a sardine can. There light fell on a cage.
A small mammal moved inside in spasms of squirming and lunging. Drytung saw teeth and blood. As Shandimus advanced, the animal stood up like a trooper coming to attention. An otter’s head on a cat’s body; it crossed its forepaws respectfully on its belly. “At your orders,” murmured Drytung, and Shandimus laughed pleasantly. “A mongoose. Give it something to eat,” he ordered. Drytung went outside and pinched a piece off a dove. Shandimus pushed it between the bamboo bars, and the mongoose arced over it and sniffed. Then it dropped to all fours and suddenly swung its hips to one side, growling over its shoulder. It returned to sniffing the meat, but then just as abruptly swung and growled again. But this time its swing caught its tail between its haunches and the thick bars. The tip twitched, it bared its teeth, the tip twitched again, and it lunged and bit. The jolt of pain made it shiver, and it attacked more savagely than before. “Stop!” cried Drytung, but Shandimus raised his hand. “Wait!” Drytung left the shed. Presently Shandimus joined him.
“An innate aggressive response,” he commented. “He made his tail his rival when you brought him food. He warned off his rival, but it didn’t go away; he could still see it behind him. So he turned and attacked. Then it bit him in the tail; his rival became his attacker. He would have gone on defending himself till he’d bitten off his own tail. I let him out,” he added, unnecessarily, for the mongoose passed them in an undulating run, flesh dangling from its jaws, and its tail scored with gashes and caked with blood.
“I smell something cooking!” said Shandimus and raised his nose, spread his nostrils. Drytung did too, and moreover heard a voice singing, ‘Nna’s. They walked towards the house. Suddenly Shandimus doubled over. “Are you wounded?” Drytung cried. “Fascinating,” said the other. “Come and see.”
Perched on a brassbound microscope blown out of somewhere, a light-green mantis, so huge it seemed the microscope had enlarged it, stood on legs spread like a photographer’s tripod. It held up forelegs toothed like jaws that gripped a struggling wasp and raised it to the mantis’ viperlike head, which advanced in twisting pecks. “That’s a bee wolf he’s eating,” said Shandimus. “Look, he’s got something too.” The wasp was indeed clutching a honey-bee, big, black-gold. Immobilized by poison, gripped between a pair of legs, the bee stuck out a long tongue. The wasp stroked and squeezed to force out honey stored in the bee’s crop, then extruded its own tongue and licked the bee’s, while the mantis’ delicate mouth descended upon the wasp’s belly, again and again, the movements coordinated like the motion of a watch.
Shandimus straightened. “Fascinating. Do you think,” he asked, “that we could get something to eat?” Drytung led him toward the kitchen garden and ‘Nna.
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The Writhing Society blog
This blog shares techniques for constrained writing and to reflect on them. We also occasionally publish work produced at the Wednesday meetings of the Writhing Society.