by John Allen Paulos
Raymond Queneau was a French novelist, poet, mathematician, and co-founder of the Oulipo group about which I wrote last year here. The group is primarily composed of French writers, mathematicians, and academics and explores the use of mathematical and quasi-mathematical techniques in literature. Their work is funny, experimental, weird, and thought-provoking.
A reader of my piece recently suggested I read Queneau’s 99 Exercises in Style. I’d read a lot of Oulipo’s writings, but never this collection of 99 retellings of the same simple anecdote. Each version is in a different style, if we interpret “style” loosely to encompass just about any variation in the telling. In almost all of the 99 variations the narrator gets on a bus in Paris, sees an argument between a long-necked man with an unusual hat and another passenger. Elsewhere and a while later the narrator sees the same man speaking with someone about button on his coat.
Queneau’s entries are clever, varied, and, taken in their entirety constitute a brilliant tour de force. The basic anecdote is banal, but that’s the point. Banality varied and repeated is far from banal. On a long overnight flight with nothing much to do, the entries inspired me to try my hand at writing a few of my own such short pieces rather than cite a sample of them from the book, many of which, incidentally, are only a half dozen sentences long. So here goes my comparatively feeble quota of stories a la Queneau, which are based on a different anecdote and set in Philadelphia. I hope other readers might be tempted to play with the idea as well, perhaps with the help of ChatGPT.
A guy is sitting on park bench absent-mindedly looking at a tall young man and woman as they circle the fountain at Washington Square. With each cycle the rather skinny man with his baseball cap on backwards appears to plead with the woman more and more desperately. Finally the man notices the guy focusing on them. He stops, mumbles something nasty-sounding, and the couple quickly walks away. A few hours later while waiting for a friend at Independence Hall the guy sees the thin man walk by alone with his cap on right and hazards the comment, “I hope everything’s better.”
She was tense and bitter which made her lanky companion hunch over into an increasingly submissive posture. His jaunty macho backwards-facing hat seemed rather incongruous. After a few perturbed orbits around Washington Square the dejected scarecrow noticed my perhaps nosy interest and said something that the screams of young children playing masked. I wasn’t sure whether he was angry or embarrassed that I had witnessed his sorrowful behavior. In any case the couple’s circular trajectory around the little pond in Washington Square turned into a tangent line as they exited the park down Walnut Street. As I was gazing at the nearby Liberty Bell later that day I came across him coincidentally and had the temerity to congratulate him on the more adult way he wore his hat and wished him well.
Sad Skinny Malink and Tiny Tetchy doing Ring Around the Rosie in the park. He with the cap beak backward and she with the woodpeckerish rib-jabbing finger. I peek-a-boo them and he berates me. They vamoosh in a huff and a puff. Beak forward, he appears later like a bad penny. I Mona-Lisa-smile at him.
The guy was about 6’4″ which together with the silly cap perched oddly on his head made him easy to pick out in the circular promenade before me. His girlfriend was 5’2″ at most but the bantam lady seemed to be effectively punching away at her basketballer and soon-to-be former boyfriend. Her seething antagonism (I’d give it an 8 on scale of 1 to10) was a dark cloud marring the serenity of the balmy day (about 70 degrees) and the natural beauty of the grass, trees, and water in Washington Square. Observing the dismal domestic drama, I must have unconsciously smirked. This elicited a 10-second hate stare from the long fellow after which the couple cut short their stormy trek and hurried away. Their departure reminded me of the joke about a thoroughly negative person leaving a party prompting people to wonder who had just arrived. (Subtracting minus 1 results in a positive 1.) I happened to see him alone a few hours later wandering about near the Liberty Bell. Feeling sorry for him, I smiled ingratiatingly and noted his now snugly fitting cap.
I saw them. He was tall. Wore a baseball cap. They were arguing. I noticed. He got mad. They left. Met again.
The wangly gorm probably deserved what the dainty dynamo was dishing out. Oblivious to the fater wountain and burrounding seauty they bleakly trudged on. Oddly only the wry witness wangered the corm with a wap who suggested the gatter fo luck himself. Connie and Blyde vacated the park, but later the wall tan and mitness came eyeball-to-eyeball later. After a hew fours they met again and blinked and winked since time wounds all heels.
John Allen Paulos is a Professor of Mathematics at Temple University and the author of A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper, Innumeracy, and, most recently, Who’s Counting –Uniting Numbers and Narratives with Stories from Pop Culture, Puzzles, Politics, and More.