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In honor of its 65th anniversary, New Directions has published a new edition of Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style, which features twenty-eight exercises appearing for the first time in English (translated by Chris Clarke).
As a primer, Queneau took a simple plot — a narrator witnesses a small altercation between two men on a bus, and later sees one of the men getting a button mended on his jacket — and retold it in ninety-nine different ways, each version a stylistic wonder, from “Sonnets” to “Onomatopoeia” to “Animism.” The result is a masterpiece of experimental fiction, and a major work of the OULIPO literary group that Queneau helped found.
New Directions asked ten contemporary writers to pen a new exercise to be included in the edition. Among these is Frederic Tuten’s “Beat.”
Whee! Whee! The bus curled up to the curb with a mad tragic kind of screech and me and Jenny Lou get on behind a guy sporting a baggy blue suit and a blue hat banded with a cord of hemp 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 holy ones who work in the dark obsidian laundries and then someone steps on this guy’s feet and he lets out a howl like a naked coyote who’s seen the 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 and then Jenny Lou who’s got the greatest knees in the world whispers to me dig it his jacket’s missing two buttons and I knew she meant that I should open my Anahata sympathy chakra to him because he’s just another cat lost in a motherless world and so I say Man let’s split at the next stop and get you a tailor and he makes a fist at me and grabs the seat just left by a teenager heavy with sexdream eyes and me and Jenny Lou get off at the next stop but not before digging that the driver’s got a book of Blake’s poems stuck in his jacket pocket and me and Jenny Lou wonder about the miracle of this and wish we could have an all day all night talkie with the driver and his reading Blake and maybe others who also toot their godly horns and see angels dancing on pins but then we hitch our way to the Greyhound waiting for the bus to saintly San Fran and there’s the guy with the missing buttons grooving with the old station master with a cap over his sad eyes who tells him better no buttons at all than two on and two off awakening me and Jenny Lou to crash through the great screen of Maya and see the vast buttonless void that is the world, that is the world.
Frederic Tuten is the author of five novels, including Tintin in the New World, and a book of inter-related short stories, Self Portraits: Fictions.