Other ninety-nines

Having read the translation of Queneau's Exercises in Style (and before I found the original French), I wondered if the notion of taking a single histoire and "retemplating" it in such a large number of ways within the same work had been used anywhere else. Queneau was a founding member of the French Oulipo, a hugely influential school even now, but I wanted to know if his own work rather than that of the Oulipo had been carried forwards.

I was already acquainted with the fact that B S Johnson had cheerily, brilliantly experimented with something like retemplating, as part of his attempt to explode the Victorian-narrative novel. House Mother Normal remains shocking and a bit horrifying in its conclusions, while pushing the boundaries of what the novel form can do. As in Exercises, the novel consists of the retelling of the same set of events in an old people's home by the occupants, where each page counts for a minute—for the same minute—of the story from their point of view, and white space is made to stand for their mental absence: the inner monologues of the Alzheimer's sufferers are heartbreaking in their blankness. Still, Johnson was arguably working in the tradition of James Joyce, parallel to Queneau rather than following in his footsteps.

Georges Perec was more obviously a devotee of Queneau, and so maybe a more likely starting point for a "Queneauvist school." His magnum opus Life A User's Manual certainly has the flavour of variation, or at any rate accretion: the story is told by each chapter listing, often quite plainly, the items in a single room of an apartment block, along with their backstory. When we look deeper, we see even closer correspondences: Perec chose the order of the chapters by zig-zagging around a map of the apartment block in a "knight's tour", mimicking the movement of that particular chesspiece on a board. And by missing out a single square in a ten-by-ten grid of rooms, he wrote: ninety-nine chapters.

Online, I found Matt Madden's excellent 99 Ways to Tell a Story relatively quickly (thanks to Andrew who pointed me in the right direction). Madden has applied the general thesis of retemplating, taken directly from Queneau, to the notion of the graphic novel: how to retell the same basic story in cartoon form many times. Along the way he (probably necessarily) discarded Queneau's own list of rhetorical templates in favour of his own choice of graphical representations.

And of course I also found anything else you could get from Wikipedia and Google, including a few other Oulipian resources such as Perec's Le Grande Palindrome. I blagged a copy of the Oulipo Compendium (again, from Andrew). But otherwise, I largely drew a Johnsonian blank. Maybe as you'd expect.

If you wanted to delineate an obvious school of Joycean thought in literature, then despite Joyce's groundbreaking and influential work it would probably only really contain a handful of people like Johnson, Flann O'Brien, maybe Anthony Burgess. Even David Mitchell's experimentation in Cloud Atlas pales in comparison with the master's efforts. Similarly, I found that the school of Queneauvist—as opposed to Oulipian—writing was relatively small. Maybe that's because Queneau was really picking up on an existing and fairly simple method of producing art, that of the variation of a theme; maybe it's because the notion of variation, like a lot of Joyce's motifs, came from music rather than literature, and therefore just didn't find fertile ground; maybe there's only so much you can do in ninety-nine steps.