Eunoia by Christian Bök
What did it win?
Griffin Poetry Prize 2002
What’s it all about?
A poem in five chapters, with each chapter making use of only one vowel.
Was it really any good?
For what it is . . .
And just what is that? The short answer is Oulipo, a school of writing named after “the avant-garde coterie renowned for its literary experimentation with extreme formalistic constraints” (Bök’s note). What’s more, Eunoia is great Oulipo. Overcoming your initial surprise at what Bök is doing (“Look! A dancing dog!”), you are impressed with just how well he is doing it. Judged on its own idiosyncratic terms (Bök is making up his own rules, after all) it’s an almost total triumph. It has a charging, headlong beat (the absence of articles in the i, o, and u chapters contributes to the feeling of abruptness), a wisp of narrative structure (the chapters often track the movements of a single character through life passages such as eating, sex, sickness, and death), and a lot of self-conscious verbal wit. And it’s also one of the funniest books of poetry to be published in a long time. You have to smile at such rhythmic, nuanced nonsense as “Hassan has a dacha at Kazakhstan, and at a small shack Hassan can hatch a dark plan”, or ribaldry like “Blond trollops who don go-go boots flop pompoms nonstop to do promos for floorshows.” Yes: “Wow!”
As a critic, there are two ways of approaching a book like this. In the first place you can look at how well Bök manages to colour within the lines. At times he does appear to struggle with his own strictures (and even cheats a bit, as with his spelling of “blonde” in the passage quoted above). Examples include his various fall-back techniques for getting himself out of a jam or burning through his word-list. The parenthetical language dump is one device that often comes in handy. It couldn’t have taken seven years to come up with stuff like this. Seven minutes with a good dictionary would do the trick:
. . . the sleek green eels feed themselves the excrement (the expelled feces, the excreted dregs) . . .
Hassan can scan an atlas that maps Madagascar and all lands afar: Java, Malta and Japan, Chad, Ghana, and Qatar, Canada and Lapland, Rwanda and Malabar. Hassan can scan an almanac that charts facts and stats at Dallas, Savannah and Atlanta (Kansas, Arkansas and Alabama).
Midspring brings with it singing birds, six kinds (finch, siskin, ibis, tit, pipit, swift) . . .
Zoos known to stock zoomorphs (crocs or komodos, coons or bonobos) . . .
Another tic is his habit of falling back on sound effects in the more difficult final chapters, ending sections with stuff like “swoosh, swoosh,” “hoo, hoo,” and “pow, pow – boom.” A lot of this just seems tacked on. And given the context – a poem where nothing has any logical necessity – seeming tacked on is quite a negative accomplishment.
The other way of coming at Eunoia is to question its guiding premise. This is to open a debate not only over Oulipo but the whole question of “experimental” literature. And this is because Eunoia doesn’t have any kind of purpose or point to it except as an experiment. Its prime directive is the only thing it has to say.
Let’s start with asking an obvious question: Why experiment at all? Two explanations come to mind. The first is reactionary and backward looking: Traditional literary forms have all been exhausted. Nothing new can be said within the existing conventions. We are bored with the old and hungry for something – anything – that is new. Only a radically different, experimental kind of writing will release us from the current prison-house of language and allow us to express our world in a way that is contemporary and genuine. Of course the New Writing and its new rules (or total lack of rules) will seem ridiculous at first, but that’s partly because it’s making fun of the old way of doing things. After we get over the shock of the new we might even come to accept it as something natural, inevitable, even commonplace.
Or the literary experiment may be a kind of scientific quest. If the author does this, what will happen? Throw the pages of a novel unbound in a box, mix them up, then read them in whatever order they present themselves and what have you got? Force yourself to use only a certain number of letters or words and what’s the result? There’s no telling in advance. If there was, it wouldn’t be an experiment.
The reason I’m going on about this is because, as I said a few paragraphs back, Eunoia is pretty much a pure experiment. It doesn’t have any kind of meaning or point except as an experiment. You can respect the energy and labour that went into its production (indeed, its purpose is to make a “spectacle of its labour”, so you’d better appreciate it), but you’re always left with the big tease of its conception: Why did Christian Bök choose to write a book like this?
In his own words: “to show that, even under such improbable conditions of duress, language can still express an uncanny, if not sublime, thought.” This aesthetic of duress, the idea that “writing is inhibiting” and that somehow language might fire in little implosions of accidental grace the more it is crippled and constrained, is not so different from the extension of consciousness and lack of restraint that characterizes free verse. I say this because the poem is the experiment, the experiment is the form, and the form is wholly personal and whimsical. The rules are not something external to the poem or to poetry or to language. They are his rules. By using them does he still manage to throw off something uncanny? Sublime? And is the point then that these qualities are merely random and arbitrary? That literary grace is, at least on some level, inherently accidental? If a thousand monkeys with a thousand typewriters, each missing a “y” and four other vowel keys, got to work on it, would they produce Eunoia?
This sort of speculation is the kind of thing that makes Eunoia interesting. Otherwise it really is a bunch of enjoyable nonsense, the product, I think, of the kind of frustration and burn-out I talked about earlier. After all, the book is dedicated “for the new ennui in you”, and the epigraph tells us that “The tedium is the message.” But as a manifesto-in-action it is peerless. For what it tells us about the relationship between form and content, inspiration and its raw materials, the spirit and the word, and for the energy of its expression, exploding piston-like in every paragraph, it is surely one of the most remarkable poems this country has produced.
But all the same, I wouldn’t want another.