Saturday, January 04, 2003

Christian Bök’s String Variables is one of those initially deceptive projects in that you begin to read the two minuscule chapbooks On and Off that are gathered together (with a band of paper, not string, alas) in this micropress project, a press run of 60 copies issued jointly as openpalmseries 2.5 & 2.6 and umlaut machine nos. 6 & 7, & it is only when, starting the second volume – I read On before I did Off, although I would wager that this effect will work just as well if the little volumes are read in the opposite order – you begin to recognize the uncanny similarities. Here is the first page of On:


          no tone

semantic or epic
to graphic
I clemecy sty
nympho nemesis
pro systematic

            on icing

            i fester

            i corridor

            so famous

And here is roughly the same amount of text from the first page of Off:

          err at
          at at
          too not
<![if !supportLineBreakNewLine]>
rose manticore
man cyst yes per
antonym phoneme
rib leprosy stem

            at iconic
            in glottal
            is manifest

erratic or rid
of a mouse

Letter by letter, these two texts are all but identical, so much so that I will wager (this seems to be a betting blog) that “clemecy” in On is in fact a typo and should read “clemancy,” even though the latter is itself a misspelling. Reading the two works together – I put a couple of hours between each volume – is an almost eerie experience. There’s certainly no way that I can tell whether On was the “master” text & Off the “slave,” the one forced to fit the primary draft of the other, or the other way ‘round. Nor can I see any simple way for the imagination to derive systematic out of leprosy stem / at iconic even though, looking closely, I can see that it’s there.

Like Eunoia, Bök’s book of aggressive vowel constraints, String Variables is both a written work that is fun to read aloud & the result of an almost unimaginably rigorous formal process – he is clearly the master of post-Oulipo poetics. Technically speaking, String Variables is a misnomer for the process by which this work must have been composed. In programming, the little I understand of it, you have both variables & constants – no great theoretical problem there – either of which might be composed of numeric data or of “strings,” in which numeric data can be joined with alphabetic and other symbols. So we have strings here alright, but it is only the spaces & linebreaks that vary. (Thus the paradigm On/Off refers to the states of electrical current that are then translated into a binary system to generate all such information.)

Works like Eunoia and String Variables envision a model of language that no traditionally-educated linguist would recognize – they wouldn’t recognize Finnegans Wake either – a model in which letters, not phonemes, organize language. String Variables almost looks as if one could simply take a great block of type and divide it into clusters and – Voila! words & phrases would just “naturally” appear. The reality of course is infinitely more complex & part of Bök’s genius lies precisely in making it look so deceptively easy. While Bök’s work fits into the larger context of Toronto’s grammatologically-inflected post-avant poetry scene, the broader framework of Oulipo and its international heritage, & relates at some level to the work of Americans such as Jackson Mac Low, Bök brings a unique flavor to it all – exactly that combination of inconceivable rigor & utter simplicity. I’ve never read a substantial work of his that I didn’t wish I’d written myself.