Harry Mathews

Dalkey Archive Press 1998 [1966]
A book review by Danny Yee © 2002
Wildly inventive and original, Tlooth combines linguistic games, parodies of different forms, puzzles, and strange narrative twists, in excursions antiquarian, ethnographic, salacious, and fantastic. The story begins in a prison camp in Siberia, with a baseball game between the Defective Baptists and the Fideists; there follows an escape through Central Asia, a sojourn in Venice, and a whirlwind chase through India, Morocco, and France. The plot involves attempts to take revenge against a surgeon for accidentally removing the left-hand index and ring fingers of the narrator — who had previously been a violinist.

The individual vignettes and episodes in Tlooth are, however, more memorable than the framing story. Some of the prison camp inmates are involved with the production and international distribution of maple syrup, using it as cover for smuggling illegal Chinese medicine. An esoteric history of a feud between the families of the Chavenders and the Allants includes a two page document in a mish-mash of languages. There is a passage describing a sexual encounter in which the orthography degrades as the encounter progresses: "She lay on her knack and i lelt straddling her, my bees in her armpits, heading over her lean, my rest head and onds owning on the floor beyarmed her." (A useful device for evading censorware, though also guaranteed to give spell-checkers the fits.) An account of a flood in Rajasthan, in which ants help to rescue cattle, falls half-way between fable and ethnography. And so forth.

Though many of its individual parts are entertaining and provoking, others don't come off so successfully, and Tlooth as a whole doesn't really hang together. It's a must for devotees of Oulipo-style experimental literature (though written before Mathews became a member of the Oulipo himself), but may not appeal to a much wider audience.

July 2002

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%T Tlooth
%A Mathews, Harry
%I Dalkey Archive Press
%D 1998 [1966]
%O paperback
%G ISBN 1564781941
%P 177pp