Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Anton Vowl has gone missing, and left his friends
puzzling over his inexplicable disappearance.  Has he
been the victim of a kidnapping?  Murder?  Amnesia?  
An accident or dark personal trauma?   Or, as
increasingly seems to be the case as we proceed in this
postmodern mystery, was some
sort of metaphysical condition
—a type of void or absence,
rather than an actual empirical
situation or real-life event—the
cause of our protagonist’s disap-
pearance?

In the days leading up to his sud-
den absence, Vowl had experienced
strange symptoms, and almost a kind
of existential dread—think of him
as a more droll and absurd variant
on Roquentin in Sartre’s
Nausea.  He suffers from acute
sleeplessness.  He paces.  His vision shifts in and out of
focus.  Fowl spends hours obsessed with the details of his
surroundings, the weave of a rug revealing a universe as
beguiling and enrapturing to him as the starry skies might
appear to an astronomer.  He suffers from disturbing
hallucinations.   He tries keeping a journal, but the
chronicling of his disorder’s constantly changing symptoms
brings no comfort.   

And then, he is gone.   

Yet here is the strange part:  the reader also starts to
experience the queasy sense of a void as this book
proceeds.   Something just isn't quite right here.   This
uncanny quality is felt on every page, but leaps to fore when
our author deals with familiar matters of public record—as
when he presents the full text of a famous soliloquy by the
Bard of Avon—you remember, the one that begins:  "Living
or not living, that is what I ask."   And the throbbing in your
head will grow steadily more unbearable, as you follow the
familiar meter and rhymes of that unforgettable poem "Black
Bird."

'Twas upon a midnight tristful I sat poring, wan and wistful,
Through many a quaint and curious list full of my consorts slain –
I sat nodding, almost napping, till I caught a sound of tapping,
As of spirits softly rapping, rapping at my door in vain….

And if you still can’t figure it out, the final stanza grows ever
more explicit:

And my Black Bird, still not quitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On that pallid bust—still flitting through my dolorous domain;
But it cannot stop from gazing for it truly finds amazing
That, by artful paraphrasing, I such rhyming can sustain—
Notwithstanding my lost symbol I such rhyming can sustain—
Though I shan't try it again!

The characters are periodically grasping after this same "lost
symbol," dimly aware both of its absence and the potentially
devastating consequences if anyone mention it by name.   
Gradually, one by one, each of Vowl’s friends also run afoul
of unfortunate destinies.   As it proceeds, this book comes to
resemble an off-kilter and surreal variant of Agatha Christie’s
And Then There Were None.  The most pressing question
remains:  who, if anyone, will remain standing at the end of it
all.

And will that last survivor manage to state clearly the absent,
but metaphysically potent symbol that haunts the whole
proceedings?   Beware, reader, for the same malevolent void
that has struck our dying characters will also weigh upon
you, never letting up at any point in this lipogrammatic book’
s progress.  You may ultimately decide that whatever it was
that killed Vowl and company is also lying in wait for you,
hidden in the silences of the very volume you read.  And,
indeed, if the essence of the post-modern mystery demands a
blurring the line between issues of textuality  and traditional
questions of plot, character and meaning, then this virtuosic
effort by George Perec may be the most extreme—and
dastardly!—example of them all.


Ted Gioia's latest book is The Birth (and Death) of the
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A Void
by Georges Perec
No broadsides on the post office wall warned
you about the Oulipians, a radical group that
predated both the
Weathermen and
the Symbionese
Liberation Army.
In the words of
one member, they
were “rats who
must build the
labyrinth from which they propose to
escape.” Georges Perec epitomized the
iconoclastic spirit of OuLiPo—formally, the
Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, or
"Workshop of Potential Literature"—whose
members (including Raymond Queneua and
Italo Calvino)—an organization that brought
upsetting experimental twists to fiction by
borrowing models from mathematics, chess
and other non-traditional sources of literary
inspiration.  True to its dictates, Perec wrote
books that followed ground rules of the
strangest sort, each work pursuing a different
arcane and Bedlam-esque vision.  In one
book, Perec might push the plot forward by
adopting a narrative stance that emulated the
movement of a knight on a chessboard, while
on another occasion Perec might choose to
relate the contents of 124 dreams from a 15-
month period of his life.   The magic of
Perec is not the arbitrariness, but rather the
exquisite effects he can achieve by following
some maddening constraint that any
reasonable author would have abandoned at
the outset.  "My ambition as a writer," he
once explained, "would be to traverse all of
contemporary literature, without ever feeling
that I am retracing my own steps or
returning to beaten ground, and to write
everything that someone today can possibly
write."
ROGUES GALLERY:
GEORGES PEREC
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New Angles on an Old Genre
Postmodern Mystery

Further Clues:

Georges Perec: A Biographical Note by Petri Liukonnen

Video Interview with Georges Perec

Review of A Void by Danny Yee

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Other articles and feature:
50 Essential Postmodern Mysteries
The 8 Memes of the Postmodern Mystery
Selected Quotes on Detective Fiction  


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