Exercises in Style has been one of the most beloved books in the New Directions catalog since they first published it in 1981. No other book on the ND list is quite like it. Is it a novel? A guide book? Whatever it is, it’s certainly conceptual. The author, Raymond Queneau, was a famous French writer and mathematician who founded Oulipo, a renowned group of literary experimentalists that included Italo Calvino, Georges Perec, and Harry Mathews. Exercises in Style is a classic example of an Oulipo text. Queneau created a simple story — a narrator witnesses a small altercation between two men on a bus, and later sees one of the men getting a button mended on his jacket — and from that small narrative proceeded to do the extraordinary: rewrite the story in ninety-nine different ways.
For the 65th anniversary edition of Exercises in Style (it was first published in France in 1947), New Directions has taken the idea and run with it. Ten contemporary writers were asked to create new exercises in homage to Queneau. Among these, Jonathan Lethem’s “Cyberpunk” exercise is featured below. Also added to the new edition are twenty-eight never-before-translated exercises making their English debut, including “How the Game is Played” which is posted here.
He jacked the passengerbus mainframe, but some interface residue snizzled up his data stream slightly, reducing optic input to a distracting 5-D glance at an idiot avatar with a comically distorted head-to-shoulders assembly and spex-ribbon ringing his head like a doll’s bow. It more than figured that 68Gasm would parachute him into the passenger-grid unannounced; typical sense of humor for a four-hour subroutine maxed out of spare giggs. Even while observing this, Queneau detected a noisy lattice overlay just beneath the horizon of his optics, the scuffling of one infoshoe against another, vying to divvy the limited floorgrid. He took little notice. Putting aside static one avatar might offload to another, the scuffle was merely a generic output of the overlay.
Abruptly now he veered: in a segue that could have been lightyears or a pixel blink, he found himself exo-gloved into the Saint-Lazare spectrum, the brink of the matter at hand. These pitches always nauseated Queneau, no matter how inured he should be by now to the recursion-toxicity. The button! he screamed silently. Change the button!
HOW THE GAME IS PLAYED…
The game is played with two dice and a board (included).
If you roll 8 or 4, get on the S bus (84). If you roll 1 or 7, go back to 17 (Parc Monceau). If it is full, go to 1 (miss a turn), otherwise go to the Porte Champerret. Make your way back to Contrescarpe. If you roll 7 or 3, go to 73 (the young man with the long neck) or to 37 (the plait of the hat). If you roll 10 with 6 and 4, go to 64 (squished toes). If you roll 12 with 6 and 6, go to 65 (the quarrel). If you roll 1, go to o (the empty spot).
If you roll 9 twice, go to the Gare S[ain]t-Lazare. From there, with a 3 and 2, go to 71 (the encounter), and with a 3 and 2 to 62 (Button).
The game is played with [four crossed out]
The Conductor ————————————— Clubs
The Spectator Joker
The Passenger —————————————– Diamonds
The Big Bad Wolf ———————————— Spades
The Sartorial Adviser ——————————– Hearts
If the Conductor rolls 3 or 4, he goes to the Parc Monceau (16)
If the Spectator rolls 7 or 12, he gets on the bus (32)
If the Passenger rolls 4 or 8, he puts on his large ribboned hat
If the King of [blank], this is called “Doing the Big S”.
Translated by Chris Clarke
Jonathan Lethem’s novels include The Fortress of Solitude, Motherless Brooklyn, and most recently, Chronic City. He teaches at Pomona College.
Chris Clarke was born in Western Canada, and is currently a Ph.D. student of French at CUNY. These are his first published translations of Raymond Queneau.
Raymond Queneau (1903–1976), the French poet and novelist, co-founded the acclaimed experimental writing group Oulipo, which included Italo Calvino, Harry Mathews, and Georges Perec.