Two hours later, I meet him in the Cour de Rome, in front of the gare Saint-Lazare. He's with a friend who's saying: "You ought to get an extra button put on your overcoat." He shows him where (at the lapels) and why.
Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style tells a banal story, and tells it 99 times: a young man gets into an argument on a bus before taking an empty seat. Later on, the narrator sees the same man having a conversation with another who suggests putting a new button on his overcoat. It couldn't be anything but banal, really, because the plot, such as it is, isn't the point; it's the endless variation of style that Queneau wants to emphasize, the number of methods without limit of telling the same story. The first version, above, is titled "Notation," but others tell the same tale with primarily auditory language, or use the metaphors of gastronomy, or in the fashion of a telegram or official letter, or in the voice of another kind of person, or without the letter E, or according to any number of mathematical word-games.
Some stand out, like "Philosophical," which begins, "Great cities alone can provide phenomenological spirituality with the essentialities of temporal and improbabilistic coincidences." Or "Apostrophe," which begins, "O platinum-nibbled stylograph, let thy smooth and rapid course trace on this single-side calendered paper those alphabetic glyphs which shall transmit to men of sparkling spectacles the narcissistic tale of a double encounter of omnibulistic cause." My plan is to use it in my Creative Writing classes to help students look past the particulars of what happens and to think about their own style and tone. I think a few Queneau-style exercises could go a long way in getting them to reflect on that.
One of the biggest impressions this edition gives is just how difficult this book must have been to translate from Queneau's French. Translator Barbara Wright has a loose hand--she'd have to--going so far as to change the voice-exercise "Vulgaire" to the English "Cockney," and changing an English-dialect impression chapter to one called " For ze Frrensh." It also has a number of new homages from writers like Harry Mathews, Ben Marcus, and Jonathan Lethem; my favorite is a send-up of Beat novels by the writer Frederic Tuten:
Whee! Whee! The bus curled up to the curb with a mad tragic kind of speech and me and jenny Lou get on behind a guy sporting a baggy blue suit and a blue hat with a hemp band and I can see right away he's not hip but a square fidgeting every time someone jostles him and squirming when more people crowd into the bus but me and Jenny Lou dig being packed in with all the maids and busboys and car wash kids all the the holy ones who work in the dark obsidian laundries and then someone steps on this guy's foot and he lets out a howl like a naked coyote who's seen the invisible night and finally I say to him be cool man and dig the scene dig all the angels here dig the holy chicks and dig the whole ride because the ride is life...