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The Chemistry of Stories

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Roussel

OuLiPo is a mainly French experimental literary movement (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle = Workshop of Potential Literature) which relies upon “constrained writing“—for instance refraining from using the letter “a” anywhere in a story or complete novel, or where the first word of each sentence on a page itself forms a sentence, or where the length of consecutive words must conform to the digits of pi, 3.1415926535897932… or whatever constraint.
As well as writing the extremely embedded poem New Impressions of Africa, which stimulated my first novel The Embedding, Raymond Roussel revealed in How I Wrote Some of My Books his working methods for fiction, which were OuLiPo avant le jour. He would take a phrase or sentence and warp it. For instance, Napoléon, premier empereur (Napoleon, first emperor) would become Nappe olé ombre miettes etc (tablecloth, cry-of-olé, shadow, crumbs etc) so that a Spanish dancer is performing on a table so brightly lit that crumbs cast shadows. Or he would start a story with a line which would also, with just one letter altered, be the final line; but, due to the intervening story, the meaning mutates. La peau verdâtre de la prune un peu mûre, ‘The greenish skin of the ripening plum’, leads to La peau verdâtre de la brune un peu mûre, ‘The olive skin of the ageing brunette’.
In the early 70s I wrote a crime story called “Die, Ethel Stilbestrol!” inspired by the synthesised endocrine disruptor diethylstilbestrol which was given to pregnant women from about 1940 to 1970, a bad idea due to long-term side effects. By the start of the 70s diethylstilbestrol was in the news, or at least in some of the news. The constraint on this story was to take a chemical compound and seek what homophonic (same sound, different meaning) clue might lurk in the name; plus, the chemical compound must feature in the action of the story. Stilbestrol seemed like a plausible enough North American name, although “Die, Ethel! Still beast, roll!” would be another possibility, featuring a female animal tamer who has an enemy, and a disobedient tiger. I liked my story but no one would publish it (or else I didn’t try hard enough) and the typescript has disappeared, or so it seems.
Another chemically constrained story could involve Lysergic Acid (= LSD; full name Lysergic Acid Diethylamide), yielding as theme “Lie, Sergei Cassidy!” in which a Russo-Irish spy will not betray his girlfriend and fellow agent, Ethel Amide, to his captors even while hallucinating. Amide isn’t at all a common surname anywhere; however, the digitised records of Great Ormond Street Hospital, London, reveal that an auctioneer’s daughter, Irene Amide, was admitted at the age of 4 days in 1897 and stayed for 12 days, due to an imperforate rectum, which is the absence of an anal opening; presumably she had one, neatly cut and sewn, by the time she left. It was during the 1950s that the CIA started experimenting with LSD, well in line with a Cold War Irish (or Irish American) spy for the Soviets. The auctioneer’s granddaughter Ethel could by then have been 30 years old or so. IRA, KGB, LSD, QED.

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