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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



The Book of Bachelors

by
Philip Terry


general information | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Book of Bachelors



Title: The Book of Bachelors
Author: Philip Terry
Genre: Novel
Written: (1995)
Length: 108 pages
Availability: The Book of Bachelors - US
The Book of Bachelors - UK
The Book of Bachelors - Canada
  • Written 1991-1995, The Book of Bachelors was first published (and is currently available only) as a special fiction issue of the Review of Contemporary Fiction (Vol.XIX, no.2, Summer 1999).
  • Introduction by David Bellos
  • Afterword by Philip Terry

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Our Assessment:

B+ : entertaining stories, successful within their OuLiPo-constraints

See our review for fuller assessment.




The complete review's Review:

       "(I)n the first instance,the idea was to tell the stories of the nine bachelors in Duchamp's Large Glass," Philip Terry explains in his afterword. The resulting book is, indeed, based on the famous picture (also known as The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors), as Terry has adapted the figures and their stories (as he imagined them) for his purposes. In addition, Terry decided to write the stories as lipograms -- that famous device of the OuLiPo in which only words that do not contain a certain letter (or letters) are used. (The most famous example of the lipogram is Georges Perec's e-less La Disparition (brilliantly re-fashioned in English by Gilbert Adair as A Void).)
       The lipogrammatic form is, initially, the book's most obvious feature. One perhaps pays too much attention to it at first, still expecting more of a novelty act than literature, but the stories themselves quickly manage to draw one in. Each story is a different lipogram (i.e. a different letter is excluded), including one for each of the five vowels (the others lipograms being c, m, p, and q). Various natural constraints arise -- including the impossibility if writing the i-lipogram in the first person, or the e-lipogram in the third person.
       Terry also ties in the Duchamp picture in other ways, imposing other constraints on the stories as he tries to integrate various aspects of the picture in the texts. (Terry explains his method in his afterword.) It is an interesting exercise, and the stories are worth parsing (preferably with a large-scale reproduction of the picture at one's side), but they are also enjoyable in their own right, without concern for all the constraints under which they were created.
       Terry has updated the professions of some of the bachelors, and set them in a contemporary England. There are the watchers and guards -- the policeman ("PC") and the security guard ("Monitor"), booksellers and poet/journalists ("Copy Writer"). The stories vary, from simple narratives of a typical day to more extended accounts.
       Among the most amusing is "Copy Writer". The magazine that the narrator works at has been bought by a conglomerate that believes that only sex sells. The narrator, the redactor of the poetry section, is forced to find some way of fitting in, and he does by writing an advice column based on Ovid's Ars Amatoria. Writing under a pseudonym ("Void"), the column is, for a while, a stunning success, and no one recognizes its Ovidean borrowings.
       Other stories deal with the constraints in different ways, including "Session Man" with its deliberate misspellings. A c-lipogram, it avoids the letter by force: "You remember'Woody', from the Base Itty Rollers," for example.
       The stories are remarkably varied, as Terry explores different approaches and covers different themes. It is less the cleverness that one admires (though there is a great deal of it here), than that he has not drowned the stories in cleverness (as, one suspects, might easily happen). The stories are at the fore, and they are good stories and enjoyable reads, regardless of the artifice behind them.
       A neat little collection, an interesting gloss on Duchamp, well-written and well-done. This is writing that teases, amuses, and involves the reader -- something one wants to turn back to. Certainly recommended.

       Published in this unusual form -- as a "Special Fiction Issue" of the estimable Review of Contemporary Fiction -- this isn't your typical book-format either. No matter. Aside from the fact that it is an attractive package (with the Duchamp-picture on the cover) it offers the added bonus of some of the usual Review fare -- their extensive book review section -- as well as a fairly amusing "Dear Editor" section of responses to reader inquiries and comments. Worthwhile !

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Links:

The Book of Bachelors: Reviews: Duchamp's The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors (Large Glass):
  • Chapter one of Calvin Tomkin's Marcel Duchamp biography, centered around The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors
  • A computer project based on Large Glass
OuLiPo: Other books under review that might be of interest:
  • See Index of Oulipo books under review

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About the Author:

       Philip Terry teaches at the University of Plymouth, Exmouth.

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© 1999-2009 the complete review

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