While newfangled literary stars boom and bust, Harry Mathews remains largely unread. An American master, his best books—Tlooth (1966), The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium (1975), Cigarettes (1987)—have eluded zeitgeist attention, existing as otherworldly, outsider gems. Though Mathews, an elegant stylist, generally dispenses with traditional narrative, delighting in rigorous linguistic, mathematical, and musical games associated with Oulipo, the avant-garde French literary crew including Raymond Queneau, Georges Perec, and Italo Calvino (Mathews remains the sole American participant), his recent memoir-cum-fictional spy novel, My Life in CIA, reads as much more straightforward: jobless in France in the early ’70s, Mathews hopes to “play a part in the grand conspiracy of poetic subversion,” but is repeatedly accused of being in the CIA by friends, lovers, and other writers because of his popularity in diplomatic society and his “unexplained wealth” (actually an inheritance). When protests on his behalf convince even more bystanders he’s an agent, Mathews gives in and takes on the guise: the result is a hybrid of A Moveable Feast and 007.
Initiating “cover” by starting a nonexistent travel business called Locus Solus (named for the journal he founded/funded in 1960 with Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler, and John Ashbery), Mathews uses number-based Oulipo methods to give a lecture on travel tips for those suffering anxiety-influenced dyslexia. He also quotes Gerard Manley Hopkins from memory, has any number of Parisian affairs and Derridean discourses, and hides in a rug en route to a potentially deadly right-wing banquet. This espionage/exegesis overlaps wonderfully in one character, Patrick, the ostensible author of a dissertation on Eliot and Ashbery but perhaps a petroleum company snoop, who tells Mathews, “The first thing to remember is that nobody connected with the CIA calls it the CIA. It’s plain CIA.”
There are codes worth cracking, and outside its episodic/elliptical structure and blending of fact/fiction, attentive readers ought to check Mathews’s straight-seeming book against a mirror for wordplay in reverse.
My Life in CIA was published by Dalkey Archive Press this May.