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Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Cigarettes (1987) by Harry Mathews


Book Review
Cigarettes (1987)
by Harry Mathews

  I don't think the editors of the 1001 Books list eliminated many authors who only placed a single title on the initial list.  Rather, I think most of the 300 books that got cut in 2008 were authors with two or more titles. Cigarettes is the only title for American author Harry Mathews- he was also the best known (only?) American representative of the Oulipo movement, a Paris-based group of writers who were interested in applying specific restraints to the writing process.   It's a movement that has been more directly influential in Europe- you can think of the Lars Von Trier producing/Harmony Korine associated Dogme 95 movement, for one.  You can also consider the restraint driven work of multi-platform American artist Matthew Barney.

     In Cigarettes, Mathews undertakes the telling of a more or less conventional multi-generational family drama set in 1960's New York City and environs, but tells it by making each chapter about a single relationship between two characters.  Some of the characters reappear in subseqeunt chapters, but never the same pair.  So it's, father/daughter, daughter/lover father/father of second family, mother/son, etc.  Within the chapters there is less experimentalism, with Mathews prose echoing other New York centered authors from the 1980's.  Mathews also sets his characters against the back drop of the growth of the re-insurance industry in New York City.

   Re-insurance is when a company buys a valid insurance claim from a disaster victim- warehouse fire, ship sinking in a storm, etc, and then exploits the claim for maximum value making a profit on the difference between what they pay the disaster victim and what the insurance company pays them.   Mathews also touches on the lives of artist, intellectuals and gay culture.  It is, in other words, a familiar blend of materials.

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