Locus Solace: The Bizarre World of Harry Mathews

Theme:  International Thrillers

Books weren’t much use, aside from a few novels, and who can trust a novelist?

                              -Harry Mathews

Harry Mathews is special.  Special because he is the first American to be featured on Salonica.  He achieved this status because he is the only American to be a member of the prestigious group, Oulipo .  If he is good enough for them…

And Harry Mathews is not to be trusted.  Even though he is not to be trusted as a novelist, never fear, dear reader, you will be in capable hands.  Someone clever enough to deceive a reader, to make the reader reach for any literary truth to grab hold of, is more than capable as a craftsman.  My Life in CIA: A Chronicle of 1973 by Harry Mathews is a subdued thriller about a bored American writer named Harry Mathews, circa 1973, who pretends he is in the CIA.  The wily Mathews pens this mock-memoir style so we are never quite sure what is fact and what is fiction.  Was he involved in a clandestine plot that would eventually lead to his escaping his own death?  No one, and maybe not even Mathews himself, knows for sure.  This is the kind of high-wire act Mathews manages to pull off with ease.

It all began when someone inferred he was with the CIA and instead of denying it, he wholeheartedly ensconces himself in the life of a spy.  He cases joints, he marks walls with chalk, he invents a business, he gets involved in subversive politicking and he manages to bumble his way into bizarre situations in which he has no idea he is being set-up.  Which leads the reader to constantly feel as if they are being set-up.  Did this really happen to him or is this the fictional part that connects two seemingly unrelated events? As a reader, you ask yourself this on almost every page.  Amazed that even half of these things could be true, it’s difficult to ignore the blending of a life lived on the edge because he was tired of denying he was CIA and a writer writing on the edge because he was mistakenly assumed to by CIA. 

Only a deft hand and a certain type of writer could incite this vertiginous feeling in the reader – to actually feel like you’re floating in that invisible, intellectual space known as suspension of disbelief.  It’s all so plausible and simultaneously off-kilter, almost unbelievable as in this plot hatched while Mathews skies one day:

Two qualities are required of an intelligence officer in the field:  placement and access, that is , knowing whether information can be found and how to get it.  What activity could supply those qualities?  Something involving travel to Iron Curtain countries.  If I worked for CIA, I could run a real travel agency; short of that, couldn’t I set myself up as a travel advisor?  Thus a new and necessary entity was born on the last schuss of my trail:  Locus Solus – International Travel Counsel.

The name was the clincher.  Locus Solus had been a little magazine I’d started thirteen years before with three poet friends (it was originally the title of a work by one of our idols, Raymond Roussel).  The magazine was officially published in Lans-en-Vercor, or rather, unofficially: then as now I wanted to avoid bureaucratic hassle, and I managed to persuade the quiet, friendly man who ran – and was still running – the local post office to let me use my personal address as the magazine’s.

It’s the simplicity of style with which he delivers the story but also the simplicity of Mathews himself that lulls the reader into a an intimate relationship.  This matter-of-fact retelling or inventing is written with a wink.  We know it happened because he told us so.  But like with any memoir, the subjectivity of the memory of the subject colors the truth, the facts, and as we readers we are left to choose to believe or not to believe if this is “how it really happened.”  This is partly why My Life in CIA: A Chronicle of 1973 is a tricky thriller.  It’s not until the end that we know that all his play-acting has landed him in life-threatening trouble.  People are on to him, but they have no idea what he is onto.  And so Mathews comes across as a Keystone Cop who is missing a partner.  Even if he know this, he gains confidence from the idea of playing a game that no one knows about.  He creates a fictional world to live that soon outpaces the life he has established in Paris:

I now was beginning to see that what my intellectual friends cared about was not anything I needed or wanted.  They may have had the answers.  I noticed, however, that their answers frequently came from commentators on the authors they revered rather than from the authors themselves – they were like students taking refuge in essays on Shakespeare instead of tackling Hamlet on their own.  They reminded me of 4th-century Manicheans who hoped that if they ate a fig from the right tree they might eventually sigh forth some particles of the Godhead.  My friends were looking for the figs of intellectual correctness. For me, what matter was not the rightness of the ideas I’d collected but the process of thinking, something that often led to confusion – in my opinion, a very productive state of mind.  So I went on listening to the talk about post-structuralism or Maoist theory, as interested as ever, but keeping my mouth shut, unless there was an urgent reason for me to open it.

As thrilling as this novel is, in it’s friendly style, there’s comfort in it as well.  There is stability in the intellectual pursuits Mathews amuses himself with in between faux espionage episodes; there is Nureyev and Makarova dancing Swan Lake in the courtyard of the Louvre, the meetings with George Perec and Souzay performing Schumann.  There are the historical events that buttress some of the excitement – the chaos of Baader-Meinhof Gang, mention of George Bush as Nixon’s last ambassador to the UN and the uprisings in Chile.  All these happenings and historical accuracies lend solace to the reader, they give us locus, a place we know. 

Mathews writes with a worldliness that makes us feel as if we are a reader of the world.  We are present there, in Paris, in 1973, getting drugged at a Communist Party Meeting or having a coffee with Perec at a cafe on Saint Germain.  I think Mathews is overlooked for his creativity as well as his writing.  It doesn’t matter if his story is true or not, it’s a good one and it’s as thrilling as Mathews is. 

Movie Pairing:  Get your fill of Oulipo with George Perec’s Un Homme Qui Dort. 

My Life in CIA: A Chronicle of 1973
by Harry Mathews
Dalkey Archive
Paperback, 249 pp.
ISBN: 9781564783929

Listen to a podcast of Harry Mathews being interview by Michael Silverblatt ~

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