Little Demons of Subtlety: On the Oulipian Constraint


Basile Morin, Oulipo Ambigram, 2018 (CC)

by Daniel Levin Becker

As I write this in San Francisco, Jacques Jouet is at the Place Stalingrad in Paris, writing a serial novel in thirty-two parts. He has agreed to sit for eight hours a day inside a windowed tent at the southwestern tip of the Bassin de la Villette, typing away in 18-point Times while the text on his computer screen is projected onto a display nearby for anyone who cares to monitor his progress. The novel, Agatha de Paris, spins a new adventure for Agatha de Win’theuil, a libertine sexagenarian head of state in a post-republican Paris and a central character in Jouet’s multi-volume epic about a truck driver called Mek-Ouyes. [1]

This is going on as part of the first edition of Paris en toutes lettres, a citywide literature festival that is keeping the Parisian members of the Oulipo busy running constrained-writing workshops, screening short films in which they discuss local streets of interest, and, in particular, giving a reading one night from 11 p.m. to seven the next morning with the exaggeratedly modest but pleasingly scheherazadian mandate of keeping the audience awake.

The name of Jouet’s spectacle is Tentative d’épuisement d’un auteur (attempt to exhaust an author)—a nod to Georges Perec’s Tentative d’épuisement d’un lieu parisien (Attempt to Exhaust a Parisian Spot), [2] the book that resulted from the three days in October 1974 that Perec spent on the Place Saint-Sulpice, just writing down what he saw. For Jouet, who is the only member of the Oulipo to make his living solely as an author, eight hours a day engaged in the act of writing doesn’t seem too tall an order, because one assumes he would be doing more or less the same thing somewhere anyway, even if passersby couldn’t stop to watch it happen sentence by sentence.

Besides, if this tentative is the most public writing gesture he has ever undertaken, it is neither the first nor the most exhausting of its kind. In the mid-1990s Jouet invented the metro poem (or subway poem), a medium that is exactly what it sounds like but where the formal properties of the poem are heavily influenced by the length and route of one’s trip: by definition, a metro poem contains one fewer line than the journey contains stops from beginning to end. After a couple of years of playing with the form, Jouet decided to write the ne plus ultra of metro poems by passing through every station in the Parisian Métro in a single trip. This he did in April 1996, over fifteen and a half hours and 490 verses, with the aid of an optimized route drawn up for him by graph theorist and fellow Oulipian Pierre Rosenstiehl. (“At the end of those fifteen and a half hours, I was very tired,” Jouet wrote in an essay some time afterward.) Then he did it again, a few months later, taking the same route in reverse. Both poems are included unostentatiously in a volume published in 2000 called Poèmes de métro.

Jouet, who became a member of the Oulipo in 1983, shortly after Perec’s death, has a serious face and a measured, attentive bearing. He sits up straight and often stands or walks with his hands clasped behind his back, looking more trial lawyer than contemplative poet. He seems eternally alert, not just observing but also working, at every moment taking in something that will eventually find its way, with minimal alteration, into a piece of literature. He generates and publishes work in enormous quantity: poems, stories, plays, essays, reviews, and, every few years, a new novel of imposing size and thoughtfulness. Still, more remarkable is the degree to which he seems both committed to and successful at erasing any vestigial distinctions between being alive and making literature. “He writes to pass the time, surely,” Warren Motte, the most accomplished of a handful of American Oulipo scholars, has remarked, “but also to feel time passing.”

To that end, Jouet has written at least a poem a day since 1992, the first four years’ worth of which are collected in a 938-page volume called Navet, linge, oeil-de-vieux (turnip, napkin, old-man’s-eye). Many of these are addressed poems, which he wrote and mailed to someone, allowing the content of the poem to be determined in part by what he knew or did not know about its intended recipient. (He once said, at least partly in jest, that instead of aspiring to have many people read a few of his poems, he preferred to write many poems and have each one read, if only at first, by a single person.) This is not the only testament to his willed conflation of poetic composition and everyday life; he has also invented the chronopoem, designed to take exactly as much time to recite as a non-poetic task does to execute, and helped to popularize the gestomètre, which inventories and examines the tics and motions of a given routine or period of daily time (taking a walk, peeling an orange, skinning a rabbit, composing a gestomètre). Many authors write poems that come from the everyday world, but Jouet’s usually return there as well, and seem to travel a very short total distance.

Perhaps as a consequence of this, Jouet is sometimes pegged as the most political author in the Oulipo. His longer prose work, such as the Mek-Ouyes series and the larger, cyclical “Republic novel” to which it belongs, deals with concepts of governance and citizenship in a civically existential way. Ditto for early poetic works like 107 âmes (107 souls), a sort of nationwide micro-census filtered through a subtle structural and rhyming system. In both cases, though, it’s important to note that the political is literary, not the other way around. His social critique is “principally ironic and interrogative in character, rather than prescriptive,” Motte writes. “Jouet’s example argues that even the bleakest of our daily landscapes—a supermarket, a traffic jam, a dentist’s waiting room, for heaven’s sake—can be traversed poetically.” And when your daily landscape becomes poetic, how do you go about writing poetry if not… daily?

The more exceptional thing about Jouet’s work is its underlying conception of poetry as a fundamentally communal activity, which manifests itself not only in the authorial self-effacement of 107 âmes and a later collection of explicitly multi-player poems called Cantates de proximité (local cantatas), but also in the example he sets by demonstrating structures other people can use wherever they are, whatever they’re doing. To call Jouet an exemplary poet is more than a compliment: it explains something important about the way he approaches his métier. There is a rare outward quality in his work, without any sacrifice of interiority—he’s simply interested in making the practice of composition accessible, in fostering understanding of and appreciation for it on all sides. You or I could also write one poem for each day’s commute to work, or for each tree in a public garden; that Jouet has already done such things seems meant foremost to inspire, not discourage, the rest of us.

This is hardly new: oulipian practice grew up around the idea that any structures and forms the workshop turned up in the course of its brainstorming should be available to any writer who saw fit to use them. What is noteworthy about Jouet’s model is that it brackets out the part where you have to be a writer already, someone invested in generating literature for literature’s sake. What Jouet brings to the endeavor, besides an easy lyrical grace and a heroic attention span and really good posture, is an actual sustainable way to realize the aphorism by the early twentieth-century poet Lautréamont, quoted early and often in and around the Oulipo: poetry must be made not by one, but by all.

This has, in turn, changed what it means to characterize something, whether a text or a gesture or a person, as oulipian. The first major evolutionary step in the workshop’s conception of its activity was taken when Perec and Italo Calvino and their generation of recruits turned the chief focus from analytical speculation about literary forms to sleeves-rolled-up writing to exploit those forms; the second has been a steady enlargement of the notion of oulipian technique to include not only forms but creative procedures as well. First came thinking about constraint, then the actual production of texts reflecting that constraint, then the actual production of texts whose constraint is their production.

The metro poem, for instance: it’s a free-verse form with rigid compositional rules. You get on the metro and compose the first line of a poem in your head. When the train makes its first stop, you write the line down. When the train starts again, you begin to compose the second line. No writing while the train is in motion; no composing while it’s stopped. If you change to a different metro line, you pause on the platform to write down the line you composed before getting off, then start a new stanza for the next leg of the trip. You write down the last line upon arriving at your destination, and then go wherever it is you were going in the first place.

The metro poem is oulipian mostly in the sense that, if done rigorously, it’s surprisingly challenging—straightforward as it sounds, the time strictures make it less like a Surrealist free-association exercise and more like a suicide-aerobics drill for the parts of your mind that usually make observations into ruminations and ruminations into language. It constrains the space around your thoughts, not the letters or words in which you will eventually fit them: you have to work to think thoughts of the right size, to focus on the line at hand without workshopping the previous one or anticipating the next. You have to actively avoid the master craftsman’s impulse to map out the whole poem, since that would defeat the momentary experientiality of the thing. “There is no question of correcting one’s composition, beyond the time of composing the verse, which means that the time for premeditation is reduced to a minimum,” Jouet writes. “No manuscript version.” (As a rule, Jouet burns his drafts.)

This should be starting to sound a little fishy. No premeditation? No planning, no tweaking, no trial and error? “Free-verse form with rigid compositional rules”? Doesn’t much resemble the careful, empirical Oulipo we got to know in the 1970s, where the 400-page novel was propped up on a 100-page set of blueprints and the success or failure of the text could be evaluated by anyone aware of its foreordained structure. The metro poem is a departure from the classical (so to speak) oulipian mode not least because it is unverifiable: its rules affect only the moment of composition, meaning that, for all we can tell, Jouet wrote his 490-line überpoem in three hours in his bedroom, or at a café on the rue Mouffetard over a Perrier with lemon syrup, instead of on a mind-numbing series of trains under the curious gaze of a revolving cast of passengers. Jouet has since stopped writing metro poems for this reason: once he realized how easily he could fake them, he lost interest.

Essentially, the chief constraint in the metro poem is what you can notate in the ten seconds or so the train is stopped at a station. (I asked Jouet about this once, suspicious that some of his lines were simply too long to transcribe in such an interval, to which he replied coolly that he had a pretty sophisticated shorthand system.) Fixed forms like the sonnet and the sestina were the bread and butter of the early Oulipo; even Jean Lescure’s S + 7 technique, in which every noun in a given text is replaced with the noun seven entries down in a given dictionary, leaves no real room for the vagaries of process—nothing accidental ever happens on the way from one noun to the seventh after it. Shifting the group’s orientation from poetry seminar to writers’ workshop didn’t change that; other iconically oulipian forms like the lipogram (in which one or more letters is suppressed from a text) and the palindrome, whether you use them to determine what letters are allowed or what actions a character should take, are still mechanisms you can examine later and evaluate in basically black-and-white terms. Jouet’s innovation in the Oulipo has largely been to screw with that binary system, to unfix the forms.

This, too, hearkens back to one of the many theses bandied about in the group’s exploratory early years, in this case by the insuperably wise co-founder François Le Lionnais, who argued that procedures and protocols, not texts, were potential. This makes particular sense in that whatever constraint or rule you embrace can unlock words and angles and ideas that would have been inaccessible otherwise—solutions that wouldn’t exist, in effect, without the problem. Jouet has taken it further by making the connection between constraint and protocol more explicit and intuitive, and by extending the range of potentially potential activities to include those so innocuous as to be indistinguishable from everyday life.

The word constraint, it may as well be said, is not the optimal way to sum up what the Oulipo does. Hervé Le Tellier, in Esthétique de l’Oulipo (aesthetic of the Oulipo), remarks that the term is to be, depending on your translation, taken with a grain of salt or handled with tweezers. It’s convenient to speak of “constraint-based literature,” as most scholars and reviewers and would-be explainers do, because the most iconic of the group’s output truly is beholden to restrictive rules—to write lipograms in E, for instance, Harry Mathews used to actually place an upturned thumbtack on the E key of his typewriter. But the relevance of the word breaks down quickly after that, unless you’re willing to take as broad a meaning of it as Mathews does in the Oulipo Compendium, where he defines it as “the strict and clearly definable rule, method, procedure, or structure that generates every work that can be properly called oulipian.”

That’s not the last word about the terminology involved, but it’s the most sensible one for our purposes. The mild scholarly catfighting over the relative universality of the oulipian constraint and how it differs from a convention in the linguistic sense and its “transgressive, non-consensual nature” vis-à-vis the reader (and so on) tends to get repetitive and abstruse, and is not enough fun to dwell on here; besides, Jouet, who would seem especially entitled to object to nomenclatorial abuses, takes it on faith that constraint describes the modus oulipiandi well enough. The encapsulation he offers in the essay “With (and Without) Constraints” is about as complete as the non-theorist needs to be: the constraint is the problem and the text is a solution.

Jouet is no less handy than other Oulipians with the more orthodox, verifiable constraints—see “Les sept règles de Perec” (Perec’s seven themes), a completely lucid analysis of Perec’s aesthetic that also happens to contain no vowels besides E—just not floored by them. What concerns him more is the interpretive value of the original problem, the three-way relationship among constraint and writer and reader. The question of whether an oulipian work should come with an explanation of the rules or structures behind it is the biggest active debate in the workshop, the one theoretical argument that can’t quite be shrugged off as para-oulipian. After all, a constraint used as a generative device is bound to have an effect on not only the shape but also the content of the resulting text, if the text is any good. On one hand, to conceal its use from the reader is to deprive him of an integral part of its meaning. On the other hand, doesn’t calling attention to that artifice potentially corrupt him, close his mind, ensure that he focuses on the formal peculiarities over the underlying creative soul? “Sometimes,” says Oulipian Paul Fournel, “the constraint is like a clown nose.”

It makes sense that Jouet should be in favor of transparency; for him, the valuable thing is where the poem or story comes from, and the stages of mediation by which it came into readable being. [3] That process and the polished final product are not just equally interesting but in fact inseparable—artifice, remember, literally means “the making of art.” Jouet is thus scrupulously accountable to the reader whenever there’s more than meets the eye, and it serves his work well: one of his most constrained books, a short novel composed of 216 short sections that vary methodically in length, becomes a lot more fascinating when you know that each section is also a potential ending to the same story. A note to that effect is included as a postscript—although the book’s title, Fins (ends), might tip you off from the get-go. “The scaffolding is more than a tool,” Jouet reasons. “It is a fundamental part of the substance.”

The primary spokesperson for the other camp is Mathews, who typically refuses to reveal the Byzantine structures at work in his novels—particularly those he wrote before joining the Oulipo, The Conversions and Tlooth and The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium, which read like movies written by Raymond Roussel and directed by Alfred Hitchcock. The sense of convolution in those novels is thick and ornate; the weirdness of the events and places described is matched only by the well-spoken impassivity of the narrator himself, or herself (it’s not always clear which). You never doubt seriously that the author has complete control of the proceedings, but that doesn’t mean you understand a whiff of them. Perec, a man who wrote a book where people spontaneously drop dead instead of uttering words that contain the letter E, once described Mathews’s narrative world as one “determined by rules from another planet.”

For Mathews—who has claimed his ideal reader is someone who finishes one of his novels, throws it out the window of an upper-floor apartment, and is already taking the elevator down to retrieve it by the time it lands—keeping you on your toes and in the dark is just as compassionate a stance as revealing everything is for Jouet. “I find that what most intensifies the reading experience is the awareness that a hidden pattern or structure exists,” Mathews told an interviewer a few years ago, “without one’s exactly knowing what it is.” Elsewhere, he makes the same argument more abstractly: “It’s obviously much more interesting to be curious about a riddle than to find out the solution.”

Historically, Oulipians have erred on Mathews’s side, albeit not so staunchly. Co-founder Raymond Queneau, who according to Motte felt that “constraints must not overshadow the finished work, and pretext should never override text,” was inclined to treat his methods as genuine use-and-remove scaffolding. He didn’t object when Claude Simonnet wrote a book “deciphering” the math behind Queneau’s first novel —but then that happened thirty years later, just as Perec’s blueprints for his 1978 Life A User’s Manual weren’t published until 1995. The encrypted language of a hyperintelligent dog in Jacques Roubaud’s La Princesse Hoppy went without explication for seventeen years until 2008, when a publisher named Dominique Fagnot cracked the code and won the author’s grudging permission to print a new edition. Calvino balked at revealing the algorithmic underpinnings of If on a winter’s night a traveler, and ended up doing so only for the lucky few francophones who got their hands on the limited-run oulipian chapbook about it. The exegesis has since been translated into English, but Calvino made it plain that it was never to appear in Italian. [4]

These demystifications don’t help move any more units, but they prove Mathews right on one score: a reader’s certainty that there is something to figure out can ensure the sort of ultra-attentive reading most authors dream of. Cultivating the requisite mystery is a two-way street, though, because a sleuthing reader can miss the forest for the patterns on the bark. “The problem, when you see the constraint,” Perec complained once, “is that you see nothing but the constraint.”

“Most writers—poets in especial—prefer having it understood that they compose by a species of fine frenzy—an ecstatic intuition—and would positively shudder at letting the public take a peep behind the scenes, at the elaborate and vacillating crudities of thought.” This is Edgar Allan Poe, in an 1846 essay called “The Philosophy of Composition,” in which he purports to detail the pseudo-scientific process by which he wrote “The Raven”—“step by step, to its completion, with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem.” [5]

The model of ecstatic intuition is in a sense what the Oulipo was designed to discredit, but the resonance of Poe’s exercise only grows as the workshop’s antics become more and more familiar. To the question of whether to keep or throw away the scaffolding, we must now add the question of how likely the building underneath is to receive a fair appraisal either way. Jouet is resolute on the point that just because he’s a member of the Oulipo doesn’t mean everything he writes is oulipian; Mathews takes the same position, frequently referring to Cigarettes (of which he will say only that it is based on “a permutation of situations”) as his only truly oulipian novel. But try telling this to a reader who’s heard of the Oulipo, picks up a book written by an Oulipian without any particular organizing principle, and goes looking for structures that aren’t even there.

This is something that could be called oulipian reading, which differs from regular reading only in the reader’s degree of complicity with the author—regardless of the author’s desire for it. Whether or not the constraint is made explicit ahead of time, or ever, the oulipian reader is conditioned to be attentive to formal devices and clever lexical workarounds and things that look like clues—and to register the plot or subject matter, such as it is, on a secondary level. The oulipian reader expects to be duped at every turn; she is convinced, beyond even the author’s sworn testimony to the contrary, that nothing is accidental. [6] The oulipian reader would notice that “The Raven” is a lipogram in Z.

Those who read an oulipian work without leaving a breadcrumb trail, on the other hand, do so at their own peril. Such was notably the case with René-Marill Albérès of Les Nouvelles littéraires, who, reviewing La Disparition in May 1969, took Perec to task for his new novel situated in “the murkiest of all recent politico-criminal scandals” and written in “subtly jarring language”—and who has since become the butt of one big ongoing historical joke for completely failing to notice that the book didn’t contain the most common vowel in the alphabet: [7]

La Disparition is a raw, violent, and facile fiction. […] The mystery remains entire, but the novel is finished; that is the contemporary form of “literary” detective fiction (as in Robbe-Grillet, though in a different style). Perec carries it off perfectly, in a book that is captivating and dramatic, but that gives off a strong whiff of artifice.

The Oulipo no longer is in a position—if it ever was—to control the monster it’s created, which means that the same defensive reading tactics that taught us to admire a book like La Disparition for its technical artistry and compensatory virtuosity more immediately than for its narrative offerings—in essence, to appreciate it on its own terms—now apply to texts that may have no secrets to uncover. “An Oulipian’s name on the cover sends the reader down the path of suspecting a constraint governing the entire work—even or especially when there is none,” Jouet explains in an essay called “Rumination des divergences” (rumination on divergences). “The reader, more oulipian than the Oulipian and craftier than the devil, [takes] a clever and quasi-masochistic pleasure in spouting out the farthest-fetched hypotheses.” He goes on to recall an interviewer who accused him of not revealing everything going on in Fins, declaring triumphantly that she’d discovered that each paragraph contained an adverb.

So the stakes of the debate about revealing constraint include the credibility of the author and maybe the sanity of the reader, too. “In both cases the intention was the same,” Leland de la Durantaye explains of the origins of the argument: “telling—or not telling—the reader of the existence and nature of a constraint was done—or not done— to free the reader from the inessential—the constraint—so as to better enjoy, experience, and judge the essential—the work.” This might have flown in the workshop’s early years, but as the Oulipo’s reputation for mischief has solidified, so its has readers’ disinclination to take any authorial indications at face value.

And once you’re convinced that there’s something going on behind the scenes, it’s really, really hard not to look for it. Perec published a total of two poems—“L’Eternité” (Eternity) and “Poème” (Poem)—that are free of constraint, at least as far as several years’ worth of Perec exegetes can tell, and that’s essentially all anyone ever has to say about them. But people regularly beg off taking the time to read La Disparition, because they know what the trick is: it’s a book written without the letter E. Which is true—and those people probably do have better things to do if they’re not curious to see how the trick pans out—but when you’re someone who has spent a totally sociopathic amount of time and effort making that trick successful, it’s hardly an ideal reception.

Henry James deals with all this in a 1896 novella called “The Figure in the Carpet,” which pops up every now and then in oulipian discussion. The narrator is an aspiring literary critic who chances to meet an author he venerates, Hugh Vereker. In discussing his work, Vereker alludes mysteriously, but with a hint of long-simmering dissatisfaction, to the unifying thing in all of his novels:

“It stretches, this little trick of mine, from book to book, and every thing else, comparatively, plays over the surface of it. The order, the form, the texture of my books will perhaps some day constitute for the initiated a complete representation of it. So it’s naturally the thing for the critic to look for. It strikes me,” my visitor added, smiling, “even as the thing for the critic to find.”

This seemed a responsibility indeed. “You call it a little trick?”

“That’s only my little modesty. It’s really an exquisite scheme.”

Naturally the narrator is soon consumed by the pursuit of said scheme, and just as naturally things don’t end too happily, especially after a string of inconvenient deaths among everyone who’s managed to put a finger on it. [8]

What’s powerful about the story is that it does equal justice to the frustration of such a gambit on both sides of the pen: on the reader’s end, being absolutely sure that there’s some literary McGuffin—on “every page and line and letter,” and “stuck into every volume as your foot is stuck into your shoe”—that you simply can’t find; on the author’s, being exasperated that your readers, even the very best and most devoted among them, simply can’t find what you’re writing for in the first place. “I live almost to see if it will ever be detected,” Vereker admits. “But I needn’t worry—it won’t!”

It’s hard to know whether either author or reader would be any happier with the cat out of the bag, no matter who let it out. The reader would lose his essence-permeating quest; the author would lose his air of elegant enigma. (If you had only seen Roubaud’s exasperated shrug when Fagnot deciphered the dog code in La Princesse Hoppy.) “This is the classic dilemma of the practical joker,” writes journalist John Sturrock in a biographical essay about Perec: “whether to play your joke and creep quietly away without revealing yourself, or to wait immodestly on the spot for the acclaim to start.” This is as good a reason as any for the lack of formal ruling on the subject within the Oulipo. The mystery remains suspended over Queneau’s insistence that the workshop’s true concern is only the structure and not the application, only the tools and not the building.

“There is no such thing as a natural poem,” Jouet writes, “but the illusion of one is very real.” And even as he goes farther than most in fostering that illusion, he also injects a certain practical honesty into it, not just revealing the methods that led to the work but laying bare the conditions of its existence in order to put you too in the potential position of creator. In the best cases, drawing attention to oulipian constraint—by talking about it or by hiding it—is not a question of exposing the structure so that it can be used again, or even so that it can be admired: it’s a question of making you, the reader, aware of your own effort and engagement, of putting you in control, of diminishing the distance between what you can find and what you can make.

Piece abridged and electronically reproduced by permission of the publisher from Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature, by Daniel Levin Becker. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, Copyright © 2012 The President and Fellows of Harvard College.


[1] Because Jouet is by all accounts an uncommonly dignified man, the obvious homophony of Mek-Ouyes and mes couilles, which can’t be translated any more politely than “my balls,” is bewilderingly funny. The titles of the first two novels in the series translate, to the unsuspecting ear, as The Republic of My Balls and My Balls in Love.

[2] Look out for the eminently potential volume Tentative d’épuisement de Mek-Ouyes one day in the distant future.

[3] Not that that’s going to stop him from burning his drafts.

[4] I am told that one or two “pirate translations” exist, which is at once a pity and a delightful notion.

[5] Posterity is divided as to whether or not he really wrote “The Raven” the way he describes. You want to take him at his word for a while, but eventually he recounts this deductive spree where he decides that the poem should have a refrain and deems the -or sound the most dramatic and the word nevermore the best suited to it and then concludes that the best way to account for the refrain of nevermore is to have it uttered by “a non-reasoning creature capable of speech” (“very naturally, a parrot, in the first instance, suggested it- self, but was superseded forthwith by a Raven”) and you start to suspect he’s having a laugh at your expense.

[6] Being such a reader, I spent two pages of an undergraduate thesis speculating on the potential meaning of the typos I found in certain oulipian publications, all of which I’m now pretty sure were just legitimate printing errors.

[7] By the same token, in Georges Perec: A Life in Words, David Bellos reports of a palindrome of over 500 words by Perec: “At Manchester, in 1989, doctored photocopies and unsigned handwritten versions were given to students and teachers of French who were asked, respectively, to use it for the exercise of explication de texte and to mark it as an essay. Perec’s palindrome barely made sense to the readers. Some teachers took it for the work of an incompetent student, while others suspected that they had been treated to a surrealist text produced by ‘automatic writing.’ Those with psychiatric interests identified the author as an adolescent in a dangerously paranoid state; those who had not forgotten the swinging sixties wondered whether it was LSD or marijuana that had generated the disconnected images of the text.”

[8] James does not go so far as to suggest that these people die because they’ve put their fingers on the scheme, although that would be pretty badass.

About the Author

Daniel Levin Becker is reviews editor for The Believer and the youngest member of the Oulipo. His first book, Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature, from which “Little Demons of Subtlety” is excerpted, was published in April 2012 by Harvard University Press. He lives and works in San Francisco, an can also be found here.

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From a photograph by Nil Castellví (Unsplash).