Eunoia by Christian Bok

Bôk, Christian. Eunoia. Toronto: Couch House, 2001. Online version.

Reading Eunoia aloud is a singular experience. The repetition of sounds and rhymes, assonance and alliteration all make for a poetic work of prose. I found myself reading it at a steady clip, keeping the rhythm in the forefront. You probably haven’t read anything like this before.

The book Eunoia is made of two sections: “Eunoia”, the main work, and “Oiseau”, a small collection of related but secondary works. Both words are six letters long, five different vowels and only one consonant, highlighting the focus of the writing, vowels.

Eunoia consists of 5 sections each devoted to one of the vowels. Each is what the Oulipo call a univocalic text, using only one vowel. As Bôk explains in the afterword, that was not the only constraint. He also eschewed “y”, accented internal rhyme, and set a handful of semantic constraints (each chapter must involve a discussion of writing as an art, a feast, a scene of debauchery, and a nautical voyage). Perhaps hardest of all, though not something followed strictly, he endeavored to repeat words as little as possible and exhaust the possible lexicon as much as possible.

What those constraints lead to is an, expectedly, odd work. Each chapter is self-contained narratively. Chapter A tells the story of “Hasan Abd al-Hassad, an Agha Khan” and all the things he “can” do (“Hassan can start a war.” (25)). Chapter E retells the Iliad, focusing upon Helen. It includes a retelling in E of the Trojan horse myth (“Greek schemers respect shrewdness; hence, the shrewd rebels enter the sled’s secret recess, the sled’s nested crèche, where these few men keep themselves secreted…” (43)). Chapter I is written in the first person and includes a preponderance of verbs in the infinitive. Chapter O doesn’t have a unifying narrative that I can detect, and Chapter U, the shortest of the bunch, naturally tells a story borrowing Jarry’s Ubu, who among other things has a sexual encounter with Ruth and Lulu: “Ubu hugs Ruth; thus Ruth purrs. Ubu untucks Ruth’s muumuu; thus Ruth must untruss Ubu’s tux. Ubu fluffs Lulu’s tutu. Ubu cups Lulu’s dugs; Ubu rubs Lulu’s buns; thus Lulu must pull Ubu’s pud.” (79)

Eunoia is probably best served read aloud, the assonance and rhyme are more clearly heard, but it is also interesting visually as text. The repetitive vowels make the page appear strange, abnormal. Chapter O is round while Chapter I is sharp.

As narrative the chapters aren’t all equally interesting. The retelling of the Iliad in Chapter E goes on a little too long, while Chapter O holds no real coherence at all, semantically. These failings are made up for with the inherent interest of the linguistic acrobatics and the sonorous writing. “Eunoia” is a unique work, of a different order than Perec’s similar texts (his “Les Revenentes” and “What a Man”), and a great example of what a constraint can do for linguistic virtuosity, if not necessarily for rich narrative. In this case, the very difficult constraint perhaps limits a little too much what can be said. Personally I do get more pleasure from a text that is narratively interesting and less constrained (a fine balance).

The pieces that round out the volume, grouped under the title “Oiseau” are varied but supplemental to the main work. One consists of all words that are only consonants (i.e. utilizing Y as a vowel). Another is an homage to W the consonant that can make a vowel sound. “Vowels” is anagrammatic of the word in the title, and “Voile” is a homophonic translation of Rimbaud’s sonnet with the same title. Lastly, “Emended Excess” uses the remaindered words that did not fit into the Iliad retelling of Chapter E.

At the end of the volume Bôk kindly explains the constraints at work in the book.

The work as a whole is available online at the Couch House Books site, free, though they ask for donations which go directly to the author. Go check out some of the book and try reading it aloud.