If "American Idol" dumped the music and concentrated instead on the glorious quirks and diverting wonders of words, the show might resemble — in some tiny, fleeting, hopelessly inadequate but endearingly earnest way — the legendary performances of the ragtag band of intellectual adventurers profiled by Daniel Levin Becker in his fetching new book, "Many Subtle Channels in Praise of Potential Literature" (Harvard University Press).
Levin Becker made it his mission to get to know this group, based in Paris and cloaked in myth and mystery. Known as Oulipo — which, as Levin Becker explains, is "an acronym for Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle, or Workshop for Potential Literature" — the society is "a sort of literary supper club" whose public performances can be "joyous occasions of sublimely mischievous wit."
Those adjectives work as well for Levin Becker's glorious book. His account of acquainting himself with the men and women who are determined to discover "the potentially surprising ways to behold the literary possibilities of language" is all of that: joyous, sublime, mischievous, surprising and filled with possibility.
The Oulipo was established in 1960, the author reports, as an outlet for restless creative energy for its members. Public readings — the "American Idol" component — began a decade later.
There are 38 names on the roster, including Levin Becker's; after investigation of the Oulipo during a Fulbright Fellowship year in Paris, he was offered membership in 2009 — only the second American to be so honored.
Of the 38, 17 are dead. That is one of the more original aspects of the Oulipo: Death is largely irrelevant. It only means, Levin Becker notes, that the late member is definitively excused from club activities, "owing to the handicap of being deceased."
Imagine playing Sudoku with letters of the alphabet instead of numbers and you'll have a fair idea of the kinds of games favored by Oulipoians. They write entire books with one letter missing — not an extraneous letter like "x" or "y," but a crucial one, like "e."
They scribble — and then read aloud — love stories with no genders revealed. Levin Becker dreamed of writing "a set of vignettes linking a randomly coupled first and last sentence poached from other works" and "a cycle of stories whose themes were determined by their word count."
Even if the ever-fluid, defiantly whimsical and borderline wacky nature of the group's goals leaves you unmoved, however, you will still be enchanted by Levin Becker's book. He is obviously very smart, but he doesn't need to show you that; instead, he leads with his curiosity and his humility.
One of the most entertaining chapters deals with his participation in an event to organize the Oulipo archives. These are people, he says, who adore language and who "allow themselves to be seduced by its pitfalls and pratfalls and pliable protocols."
Levin Becker has lived in San Francisco since his return from Paris. In an email exchange, he dived into the question of whether the Oulipo movement could have originated anywhere but in Paris:
"The optimist in me likes to believe that every language has built-in potential for structural playfulness — but it's true that French culture is particularly heavy-handed in the way it both teaches and fetishizes structure, so I think a mischievous relationship to linguistic rules is already developed in anyone who comes up through the French education system, then nurtured by the apparent national pastime of naming businesses after terrible puns — which, for the sake of comparison, is limited in the U.S. to hair salons and dog-grooming boutiques."
Living in a land that allows salon names such as From Hair to Eternity, we know just what he means, doggone it.
JULIA KELLER, the Chicago Tribune's cultural critic, won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing.
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