Two men on a bus, a bit of confusion, an argument over a seat and a misplaced button.
This is the plot of one of the most interesting literary experiments ever conceived: The bizarre collection of short vignettes called Exercises in Style, written by French avant-gardist Raymond Queneau, tell the same story in a variety of different stylistic forms. Writers need to practice reading as much as practice writing, but it helps to have a diversity of books–or a diversity of perspectives–at your disposal.
Queneau was a French author who took part in the post-war OULIPO movement in France. By blending aspects of surrealism and postmodernism, their purpose was to play with language to challenge the conventional forms of narrative storytelling. George Perec, one of his counterparts in the movement, wrote a book called A Void, which doesn’t contain the letter ‘e’.
Think of Exercises in Style as the ultimate palette cleanser. Queneau goes to extremes to take a different perspective on a single event, and in doing so, prevents our mind’s eye from seeing the exact same thing every time.
Queneau emphasizes the importance that language has in constructing meaning. While the story itself is relatively meaningless, the 99+ different vignettes show just how unlimited different perspectives and different uses of language can be. If you’re suffering from Writers’ Block, read this book.
Here are some examples of the book’s chapters (the titles are in bold):
An ironic delivery of the story where the drama is purposefully understated, leading the reader to believe that perhaps something is being missed by the narrator.
Queneau dramatizes the story and the setting with a series of over-the-top metaphors.
“In a bleak, urban desert, I saw it again that self-same day, drinking the cup of humiliation offered by a lowly button.”
The narrator tells the story backwards, with the button incident described before the bus incident.
Queneau picks a set of arbitrary words (“Dowry, bayonet, enemy, chapel, atmosphere, Bastille, correspondence”) and tells the story while including all of these.
The narrator looks back on the event and is not exactly sure of all the details, guessing that it was on a bus. “There were…but what were there, though? Eggs, carpets, radishes? Skeletons? Yes, but with their flesh still round them, and alive.”
The story, told with meticulous exactitude. (“In a bus of the S-line, 10 metres long, 3 wide, 6 high, at 3km, 600 m. from its starting point, loaded with 48 people, at 12.17 pm…”)
The Subjective Side
Told from the perspective of one of the characters on the bus.
But then it gets weirder:
A description of the story from the perspective of the hat, as though it were alive. (“one hat among many others, jumping only when the bumps in the road were transmitted to him by the wheels of the automobile vehicle.”
Most of the words are scrambled up. (“In the S sub in het hurs hour a pach of tabou swinettyx, who had a glon, hint cken and a tah mmitred with a droc…”)
Perhaps the most direct and realist description and written in a courier script, the “official letter” leaves us with an ironic demand: “In view of these circumstances, I would request you to be kind, Sir, as to intimate to me the inference which I should draw from these facts and the attitude which you would deem appropriate that I adopt in re the conduct of my subsequent mode of life.”
The narrator describes the story in overt noises.(Whereupon, phfftt, he threw himself on to a free seat and sat down, plonk.”)
The narrator acts like a reluctant storyteller being forced to describe the event. (“Personally, I don’t know what they want of me, Yes, I got on an S bus about midday. Were there a lot of people? Of course there were, at that hour. A young man with a felt hat? It’s quite possible.”)
The first syllable of every word is omitted. Confusing to say the least. (“Ot us sengers. Ticed ung an eck embled at affe ring at ith ted ord.”)
The narrator tells the story, but the neurotic part of their mind gets in the way of the telling. (“The bus arrived bulging with passengers. Only I hope I don’t miss it, oh good, there’s still just room for me.”)
Parachesis is a type of alliteration where the same sound is pronounced in a succession of words. (“On the butt-end of a bulging bus which was transbustling an abundance of incubuses and Buchmanites from bumbledom towards their bungalows…”)
Describes the feelings of surfaces on the bus. Queneau applies all five senses to the mix. (“Buses are soft to the touch especially if you take them between the thighs and caress them with both hands…”)
Narrator satirizes French slang by speaking it innacurately.( “One zhour about meedee I pree the ohtobyusse and I vee a zhern omm with a daymoorzuray neck…”)
The switching of sounds in words.(“Noe dya about dimday on teh rera playform of a sub, I toniced a nam whoes cenk saw oto glon nad whoes aht ahd a rost of strnig…”)
By this time, we know the story. We just didn’t realize it could be parsed down to so few words and syllables.
“Summer S long neck
plait hat toes abuse retreat
station button friend.”
“Psst! h’m! ah! oh! hem! ah! ha! hey! well! oh! pooh! poof! ow! oo! ouch! hey! eh! h’m! pfft!
well! hey! pooh! oh! h’m! right!”
Queneau defines the bus, “a rectangular parallepiped”, as such:
” y” + PPTB(x)y’ + S = 84 ”
The argument between the two passengers is described as: “two homoids…cannot suffer point contact at their lower extremities without proceeding upon divergent courses.”
Let us know what you do to get rid of writers’ block in the comments!