99 Bottles of Beer... in French
The plot of Exercises in Style is simple: a man gets into an argument with another passenger on a bus. However, this anecdote is told 99 more times, each in a radically different style, as a sonnet, an opera, in slang, and with many more permutations. This virtuoso set of variations is a linguistic rust-remover, and a guide to literary forms.
As Ted Gioia explains,
Writing teachers and crime scene investigators both know that a hundred different people could witness the same incident and describe it differently. But only Raymond Queneau, a French author with ties to the Surrealist movement, has put all one hundred accounts into a book.
Okay, not quite one hundred. Queneau stopped after ninety-nine retellings of his story (at least in the first edition of his work). The resulting book, Exercises in Style (1947), may have started as a lark, but is now Queneau's most beloved work, translated into more than 30 languages, from Pashto to Esperanto—not an easy feat, given the author’s frequent wordplay and untranslatable effects in the original
Who would imagine that the repetition of the same sequence of events, presented 99 times in a row, would result in a classic? And Queneau adds to the challenge by choosing a banal incident as the recurring 'plot' of Exercises in Style, a humdrum encounter without even enough drama or inherent interest to justify a short story, let alone a whole book of them.
Here again is the incident: a young man on a crowded bus gets upset at a fellow passenger, whom he accuses of stepping on his toes whenever people get on or off the vehicle. After a testy exchange, the young man moves to a vacant seat. Later that same day, he is seen standing in front of a train station, where a friend is advising him to adjust one of the buttons on his overcoat.
Yes, that's all. Oh, Queneau throws in a few more details. We are told that the young man has a long neck, and wears a plaited string on his hat instead of a ribbon, but not much more. The key milestones in the narrative arc — if I can apply such noble phrase on so meager a tale — remain stepped-on toes and a poorly-placed button. Your Uncle Willie’s 16 millimeter vacation films are a paragon of excitement by comparison.
But the very banality of the raw material makes Queneau's achievement all the more impressive. As the title of the book states clearly, only the style of the narrations draws the reader into this oft-told tale. We read the story in the form of an astrological forecast: "When midday strikes you will be on the rear of a bus…." Or in the style of an official letter: "I beg to advise you of the following facts….Today, at roughly twelve noon, I was present on the platform of a bus….." Or delivered with scientific precision: "In a bus of the S-line, 10 meters long, 3 wide, 6 high, at 3 km. 600 m. from its starting point…." We get it in the passive voice: "It was midday. The bus was being got into by passengers…." We read the story as conveyed by a telegram: "BUS CROWDED STOP…."
No Hollywood studio will ever make a movie out of Exercises in Style (although some very fine movies, from Rashomon to Vantage Point have drawn on the same concept of multiple narratives of a single incident). Nor will a reader looking for a gripping page-turner find much reason to turn these pages. But writers, and especially aspiring writers, can benefit from Queneau's quirky volume. Anyone teaching a class on fiction techniques should consider this for the syllabus—and a perfect class assignment would be to invite students to come up with their own version of the bus-and-button story.
That said, I have my gripes with Queneau. Like many of his colleagues in the Oulipo movement—a loose gathering of experimental authors that also included François Le Lionnais, Georges Perec and Italo Calvino —he is almost obsessively interested in wordplay and numeric patterns. This led Queneau to include a dozen or so almost unreadable chapters in Exercises in Style, based on anagrams, pig Latin, spoonerisms or other mind-numbing methods of rearranging letters on a page. I am hardly opposed to word games, and have a lamentable habit of indulging in alliterations, puns and other ignoble techniques in my own writing. But Queneau goes several steps too far in his mania, and soon forgets that there is difference between an exercise in style and a puzzle.
A cryptogram is not prose, no matter how cleverly constructed.
On the other hand, how unfortunate that Queneau did not look around at his own intellectual circles in postwar France, and build some chapters on the reigning dogmas and ideologies of his day. I would have happily read a Marxist account of the bus story, as well Freudian, Fascist, Existentialist, Jungian and Behaviorist, to cite a few promising perspectives on the inhumanity of bus passenger to bus passenger. I am still unsure about whether such ideologies grasp the essence of our quotidian lives, but they definitely impact how true believers write stories, and any inquiry into style that ignores the sway of ideology is inevitably incomplete.
Yet Queneau, for all my fault-finding, still retains his place in the syllabus, and demands inclusion on any serious writer's bookshelf. Nor will this change for the foreseeable future…and for a very good reason: no one else has done a better job at exploring the range of narrative styles in one compact work. But someone else should write another book of this sort, updating and expanding the concept, with less wordplay and more satirical insight. I could only imagine what a Zadie Smith or a Jonathan Lethem, a David Mitchell or Jennifer Egan would do with a similar project. (Indeed, Lethem contributes his homage to Queneau in the new English translation of Exercises in Style.)
Given the ascendancy of fragmented and recursive narrative techniques in current-day literary fiction, the experimental approach that Queneau unleashed on an unsuspecting public back in the 1940s might just find an even more receptive audience in the present moment.