Cigarettes by Harry Mathews

Harry Mathews and Cigarettes

1987

Oscar knew that Harry Mathews, like Italo Calvino, was a member of the OuLiPo, but he had never read any of his works. Cigarettes came lauded as an ingenious novel that was readable, innovative, and moving, but Oscar approached the work with an open mind. He did not want to be swayed by others’ opinions before reading it himself.

He discovered that the plot of Cigarettes is complex enough to defy any simple synopsis. It revolves around relationships, sexual and otherwise, between members of New York’s privileged class in the 1930s and 1960s, set against tales of the art world, an insurance scam, sadomasochism, and mental illness.

As he read the first chapter Oscar became puzzled, though not by Mathews’ prose, which is beautifully clear and succinct throughout. He was puzzled by the wide array of characters and details. He felt he was missing crucial keys to comprehension. However, as he moved onto chapter two he came to understand the distinctive narrative structure of Cigarettes, and was drawn into Mathews’ creation. Different chapters focus on relationships between different characters, and reveal more and more background information. By the end of the novel Oscar had discovered a multitude of characters, all connected in an intricate web. Mathews’ technique is the controlled release of information, and its effect is not dissimilar to a detective novel.

He smoked a cigarette. He had enjoyed the sense of peeling away the layers of this intricate novel, but perhaps he was more fascinated by the characters. They are complex entities, with motives that are sometimes unclear, and they inhabit a melancholy world. Mathews’ depiction of their society has much of the faded elegance and repressed emotion of the world of The Great Gatsby.

Oscar put his cigarette out and leant back in his chair. He marvelled at the depth and intricacy of Mathews’ creation. It had been, while he read it, more addictive than real cigarettes, and left a far more memorable impression.

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