In 1973, the American expatriate writer Harry Mathews, often presumed to be a CIA operative due to his wandering travels and independent means, decided to play along. Taking on the archetypal Cold War cover of a “travel consultancy,” he befriended a fellow American with interests in opera and international oil markets, had a secret map stitched into ornate tapestry, and eventually became the inadvertent target of a murderous dispute between New Left revolutionaries and fascist thugs. Thirty years later, another American expatriate writer named Harry Mathews dramatized these misadventures in his semi-novel or non-memoir My Life in CIA. If espionage is, as the real counterintelligence head and paranoid modernist-poetry enthusiast James Jesus Angleton described it, a “wilderness of mirrors,” the ones in Mathews’ book have a distinct funhouse warp.
Mathews is typically introduced as the only American member of the Oulipo, or “workshop of potential literature,” a French literary group devoted to writing in constrictive forms: palindromes, lipograms, mathematical schemes. Prisoners think of the most imaginative escape routes. (Daniel Levin Becker, 50 years younger than his countryman, recently became the second U.S. inductee.) Despite stories such as “Country Cooking from Central France,” which employs every technique and ingredient of European cuisine, most of Mathews’ longer prose works were not written under Oulipean conditions, but they retain that sense of playfully rigorous experimentation. His novel Tlooth begins at a baseball game inside a Siberian gulag and comes to involve such fictional religious sects as the Defective Baptists.
It also passes through Afghanistan and India, Venice and Morocco and France. Mathews’ lightly carried wit and mischievous erudition never become insular, like the old-money WASP milieu he soon fled, perpetuating itself out of habit. They’re often implied to be an elegant distraction from what’s driving events, disjointed feints. His 1987 novel Cigarettes, whose chapters were determined by a subtle mathematical formula, ends with a consideration of mortality I sometimes leaf towards backwards, as if through a hidden passage: “Your father dies: you hear his laugh resounding in your lungs. Your mother dies: in a store window you catch yourself walking with her huddled gait. A friend dies: you strike his pose in front of an expectant camera. Beyond these outward signs, we take up the foibles, the gifts, the unrealized failures and successes of those we have watched and watched die.”
I try to avoid reading the news in the same terms as a film or a novel or a song or, these days, a cable-TV drama, because artifice means more to me in all of them than verisimilitude. Reality is just the grist closest to hand. But as Edward Snowden’s flight from the American government turned increasingly bizarre, I kept thinking of My Life in CIA. The minor details, many more mundane than purported, could be period-adjusted Mathews jokes: Snowden’s “exhibitionist” girlfriend Lindsay Mills (really just typical of her/my demographic), or his correspondent Glenn Greenwald’s brief financial interest in the porn business (irrelevant, albeit endearing). Even the leaker’s current scramble for a plane to some leftist Latin American haven, as long as it can skirt U.S. airspace, reminds me of the scene where that fictional Harry Mathews advises dyslexic clients how to travel anxiety-free (only book trains with symmetrical departure times).
There are better jokes in My Life in CIA, such as the protagonist’s agonizingly protracted, unconsummated trysts with one Marie-Claude Quintelpreaux, wordplay so clever you don’t mind missing it until halfway through (say the name out loud). Alongside this is a running précis of contemporary newspaper headlines, distant American atrocities and French strike actions. When the protagonist does get tripped up by his own intrigues, which tends to happen when he feels most pleased with his mastery of fake spycraft, it’s something ludicrous that delivers him. That aforementioned tapestry ends up with Mathews hastily rolled up inside it; arriving at a fascistic dinner party, he’s spirited away by a beautiful dwarf who almost brings him off with her feet. Like Sheila Heti’s later How Should a Person Be?, the blur between fact and fiction is secondary, almost incidental, facts having little to do with the truth.
It’s certainly true that the NSA’s surveillance programs are administered and planned with no unendurable qualms by people more banal than Edward Snowden, and the security state slavering for their data isn’t funny at all. But then, Mathews’ thriller takes place during the first September 11th massacre. He once said that the meaning of his work does not exist outside that work, “whose essential interest is its process”—the reader creates it in the act of reading. And I find following both of these strange stories distantly alike in how they reveal the absurdity of espionage. Does that sound apolitical, neutral, quietist or defeatist? If you make the players look silly enough, will people start questioning the rules of the game?