Talking with Doug Nufer, Seattle's constraint-based superhero

Doug Nufer is freed by constraints. Nearly everything written by Seattle’s most valiant bearer of the Oulipian torch is born of one constraint or another; one narrative is told through the stultifying language of corporate biography, another is an homage to old Ace Doubles genre storytelling, a third is a story told only in negatives. His newest novel, Lifeline Rule is a conovowel text, which is a form in which every consonant alternates with a vowel. You read that right; the whole book is a string of alternating consonants and vowels, with no consonants touching and no vowels touching. Some passages of Lifeline Rule require you to read them two or three times in order to squeeze meaning from them, but other passages are clear as a bell, albeit a bell ringing with a weird deep vibration that initiates a tickling feeling in your genitals:

Were we not alive? To cogitate was a basis of a live human, or an ability to live by. But as I more cogitated on usages, ability, humanity, marine life, pirates, et. al., I become more remote, removed in a recovery to be beside my body. Beside my body, my cogitated ego sum arose to make me decide we were yet alive. To so decide was one more level a live human operates on, in an average life.

You have never read cogito ergo sum in language quite like that. This Sunday, Nufer presents Lifeline Rule at Gallery 1412 with a very special guest: Italian Oulipian Paolo Pergola. (Though in Italy they call Oulipo “OpLePo”.) If you’ve never read any Oulipian works, you’re missing out on a splendid tradition. I’d recommend starting with Raymond Queneau’s book-length storytelling experiment Exercises in Style and attending this reading, which will bring European and American constraints-based writing together for a single evening.

You’ve always been a great lover of literary constraints. What interests you about the conovowel form, specifically?

My favorite constraints are elegant and difficult, easy to see but hard to do. Conovowel has a huge lexicon and provides the use of most prepositions and to-be forms, so it's possible to write many sentences that sound normal, but it's very difficult to go on without getting into strange territory. Conovowel is flexible enough so I can apply it to other constraints, and sometimes these digressions into song lyrics, punchlines, and renderings of cartoons, monster movies, scenes from great books, and so on, seem to me to be as important to the book as the story.

Which comes first to you—the constraint or the story?

With Lifeline Rule, the constraint came first, and that's probably how it has been with most of my books. I saw a line in a newspaper where vowels and consonants alternated, and immediately I saw the potential of this constraint. Before I got into it, I checked with friends in OULIPO and others to see if anyone had done it, and it was William Gillespie who coined the term conovowel and used it to write a poem in his collection Table of Forms, published under the name Dominique Fitzpatrick O'Dinn (Spineless Books). So the constraint had a certain provenance but it offered a challenge to do more.

Although constraints are often defined as “arbitrary," even by those who do this kind of writing, I think the content must spring from and express the form. One of the first steps I took was to go through a regular dictionary and make a list of all conovowel words except for arcane scientific terminology (though I did add a science section later), and the idea of having a protagonist who specializes in "codes" and who serves in the "military" as a "marine" seemed not only appealing but also mandatory.

After fiddling with making up sentences and vignettes, I got the feel for the limits I was up against while I wondered how to exploit this constraint to make it tell the story it was meant to tell. In the case of conovowel, what I'm dealing with is an extreme commitment to alternation. Things are always changing. The protagonist goes through obsessively perverse metamorphoses. Even something as basic as sexual orientation gets twisted as he (or he/she) changes into different organic entities. He even turns into non-organic entities. This extreme bent towards alternation applies to the nature of the book, too. How "real" is it? Is it the novel he writes to get his degree or the afterlife musings of someone who was cryogenically frozen and never woke up?

Along with this extreme alternation, I get into these situations of extreme ambivalence about topics I wouldn't ordinarily address, such as the nature of religion. Not just, is it good to have a god? Is it good to be a god?

Could you talk about how this visit from Pergola came to happen? I don't imagine we get very many international Oulipians visiting Seattle that often.

Paolo wrote to me after he heard about my novel Never Again, where no word appears more than once. He had been working on that constraint in Italian for OPLEPO, and someone there knew about me and that book. He's also a marine biologist who comes through Seattle, where his wife is from, en route to teach a class in Friday Harbor. My book party happened to present an occasion where he could show what he does.

Are any of Pergola’s writings available for our readers?

Almost all of what he writes is in Italian, and my wine shop/ tourist Italian isn't good enough to make recommendations of his work. Most of it is unavailable here. I might begin by looking up the Wikipedia entry on OPLEPO.

Pergola has also translated Popeye comics into Italian. If you had to write comics about a cartoon character, which one would you write and why?

Years ago when I was writing Negativeland, I read all of the Superman Bizarro comics I could find. I wanted to study how they constitute a scheme of opposition that negates what we expect on Earth. That gave me an appreciation for how difficult it is to come up with a coherent system of opposition because there is often no single opposite to any particular thing or idea.

Super heroes may lend themselves particularly well to constraint writing, and I can imagine how it would be a great project to go through such comics and devise a particular constraint to deal with each hero. I might start with the Flash just so I could call it Flash Fiction.