No writer in Seattle is more interested in the raw physicality of words than Doug Nufer. Nufer is interested in the shape of words, the multiple meanings they carry, the sound of them when spoken aloud, the look of them when aligned on the page next to each other. The meat and bones of words — before even the meaning imbues them with a kind of soul — fascinates him.
Nufer is at once a brilliant writer and a curious lexicologist. Every new book he produces is a kind of Jurassic Park for words — a place where he investigates the very DNA of language, to see what happens when he introduces constraints and discovers patterns and then unleashes them into a new environment.
Nufer’s latest book, The Me Theme, is a tiny little pocket-sized thing. The designers at Sagging Meniscus Press crafted the poetry collection into a disguise: it looks stately and trim, like a self-help book from the 1930s — the kind that confidently warns readers to only drink steaming hot water and avoid ice cubes in order to maintain the viscosity of their humours.
Wrapped in such an authoritative package, the linguistic jokes that Nufer pulls off feel a little more dangerous and anti-establishment than they would between more playful covers. If you believe that words are sacred delivery systems for meaning, and that each word only has one meaning and those meanings are concrete, Nufer will reach out from The Me Theme and cheerfully tweak your nose.
Most of Nufer’s books hew to some literary high concept — typically a constraint of some sort. He’s written a novel that doesn’t use the same word twice (Never Again), and he’s placed bets for three fictional characters at Emerald Downs and then incorporated those real horse races into a novel (By Kelman Out of Pessoa), and he’s told a story entirely in negative statements (Negativeland). This time, he’s exploring repetition and a tautology of spelling in a book that reads like a never-ending echo of itself. It unfolds from itself in a continual lexicographic origami.
The gimmick is very difficult to explain without providing an example. Here: to give you an idea of what Nufer is pulling off with The Me Theme, here’s the very first line:
O pen, open an aesthetic anaesthetic tome to me.
Get it? The “O pen” is a plea to Nufer’s pen and it bounces back immediately with the “open.” Same with the “tome” and “to me,” which is maybe the most straightforward example of the narrative trick in the book. The real work in this sentence, though is the “an aesthetic anaesthetic.” This is serious stuff: the same set of letters twice, but with two very different meanings. When arranged in this order, Nufer seems to be calling for The Me Theme to be a beautiful-but-numbing experience.
Turns out, Nufer’s wish for the book doesn’t come true: The Me Theme is anything but anaesthetic. Instead, it’s engaging, a book best read with a dictionary in hand and patience in your heart. At first blush, many of the lines in the book seem like nonsense, but with a little effort a reader can coax much meaning from Nufer’s constraint-based obfuscation. I particularly like this passage about belief and nothingness:
The or-ist theorist
A verse averse
A version aversion
The ism theism
A theism atheism
It’s a passage that abuts opposites up next into each other and forces the reader to think about how two words with the same roots can mean something so completely different. As a reader, you can leave The Me Theme thinking that words mean nothing or that words mean everything. Of course, Nufer reminds us, both interpretations are true.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the LA Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant