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Harry Mathews’s Parting Gift: An Ode to Story

In 'The Solitary Twin,' stories offer salvation.

Twins arrive in a small town. Their names are John and Paul (yes, like The Beatles). Despite being “in agreement about virtually everything” (they even share a lover), the two men live separate lives and are never seen together.

Two couples — Andreas and Berenice, Geoffrey and Margot — want to know why.

The premise of Harry Mathew’s posthumously published novel, The Solitary Twin, seems more than capable of filling 116 pages. But Mathews, long associated with the New York School of poets, has more inventive designs. The twins might be the main attraction, but the book zigs and zags into other stories, one after another after another, enveloping you in a fictional funhouse.

Like the films of Wes Anderson, the novel revels in its own whimsy, inventiveness, and odd detail (“…high-heeled black patent leather sandals; a flounced red taffeta skirt, half-calf length; a broad belt of green snake skin…”). Less interested in being a story about something, The Solitary Twin exudes a near-puritanical joy in just being itself.

For instance, there are the tales Andreas, Berenice, Geoffrey and Margot tell per Andreas’ dictum that each will “take turns telling a story.” And so we learn of Hubert (a valet who, following a mythical experience, yearns to communicate it to the world) and Malachi (a holocaust survivor turned Ford dealership owner who wants to write a fiction that would avenge his parents’ murders). Along the way, we also hear stories of the storytellers (Geoff’s “terrible secret” that “for ten years I was a writer”), as well as stories from the twins, their lover Wicheria, and the town itself.

All the characters in the novel — and the characters in those characters’ narratives — evangelize story, which Mathews suggests can not only communicate the uncommunicable, but offer a certain salvation. Geoff, for instance, tells of long drives across France with other young men where one of the group would tell about whatever “nasty foolishness” they may hold in their hearts “so we were well prepared to bludgeon it to death on the way home.” The result amounts to something out of a Francophile’s On The Road:

The roadsides of several autoroutes were littered with the corpses of homophobia, machismo, family values, and racism (mainly toward Arabs) that our happy fools at last metaphorically chucked out the window, and the four of us would drive into the weirdly carless streets of the metropolis singing the passably irrelevant stanzas of L’internationale.

The effect of all these stories folded into one another does suffuse the novel with a general flatness in tone. Like a Russian doll, then, the joy comes as much from the unpacking itself as what is unpacked. It’s fun to see how each story relates to one another, and how, as the novel develops, these connections grow more and more urgent, uncanny, and overdetermined. Mathews, like Borges and Barthe before him, places his readers in a playful postmodern conundrum, where first we lose track of the reality of the stories, then the reality of the storytellers, then the reality of the world they reside in, before ultimately axing the reality of the novel (which, of course, was illusory all along). By the book’s end — and after a final-hour shift in perspective — Mathews emerges firmly in charge, the last storyteller left alive. The Greek tragedy that befalls his characters, then, is not so much felt as it is appreciated, like an expert magician’s final trick or an improviser’s out.

Yet what Mathews may lack in emotional punch he makes up for in endlessly imaginative storytelling and a beautiful ear for language. What one does feel is his love of story, his love of words.  For instance, we watch Andreas on the dance floor with Wicheria,

dropping to his right knee and taking her waist in his two hands to support her arabesque now penché, her raised leg perfectly vertical, sheathed to the slight parenthesis of her underbutt in glittering-green, irregularly see-through pantyhose.

The sound of the prose alone — the r’s and g’s graced by the touch of an ‘esque’ and ‘penché’ and ‘parenthesis’ — transmits this sense of love as only literature can. In the words of one of Mathews’ characters, “…I remembered what Kafka said about expressing love. A bouquet of roses can’t do it. There is only coitus and literature that can achieve this end.”

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FICTION
The Solitary Twin by Harry Mathews
New Directions
March 27, 2018

Harry Mathews was a prolific writer of novels, poetry, and memoir. He was also a translator of French. The Solitary Twin was published posthumously.

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