The Book of Batchelors by Philip Terry

Terry, Philip. The Book of Bachelors. Special fiction issue of The Review of Contemporary Fiction 19.2 (1999): 7-108. Introduction by David Bellos, Afterword by the author.

Nine single men (bachelors, even) separated from the world, from people, separated from women by: windows, magazines, television screens, smoking, work. Philip Terry creates a series of stories about these men. They watch the world around them, or recreate it in fantasy, thoughts, and models, but none successfully get out of their interiority. A busboy struggles between the smoking he loves and the desire for a woman who demands he quit. A policeman stakes out an apartment building, watching the comings and goings from inside his car. A phased out train station master recreates the trains in models, alters them to fit the degradation he sees in society, and finally uses them to fashion his version of an ordered and civil society.

The stories are littered with a preponderance of waterwheels, waterfalls, masturbation, coffee-grinders, voyeuristic activities, descriptions of work. Voice and perspective shift admirably from one to the next: first person, second, third with shifting focus, longwinded monologues, terse sentences, fractured grammar. Each character has a certain distinction from the others, which contrast nicely with the recurring elements.

The cover of the book depicts Marcel Duchamp’s “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even” (also known as “The Large Glass”). The work represents nine “bachelors” situated at the bottom half of the piece separated from the “bride” in the upper half. Along with the characters are a number of machine objects such as a coffee grinder, the glider, and a waterwheel. The bachelors each have their name based on some contemporary occupations. Consummation is endlessly deferred in the piece: the bachelors never reach the bride; the bride never touches the bachelors.

Terry’s afterword outlines the origin of the book in relation to Duchamp’s work and the active constraints, though he does not fully disclose all the elements of constraint. He took the elements of the piece and fashioned a number of constraints, starting with the nine stories for the nine bachelors — a few of which had to be renamed to fit modern day occupations. Each story is written as a different lipogram in one letter (e, u, q, m, a, p, c, o, and i). The lipograms decided which other elements from “The Large Glass” were used (i.e. the lipogram in “e” would not include the waterwheel or the glider because those words are verboten due to the lipogram). He considers these three constraints the “systematic elements”. In addition he uses “non-systematic elements”: objects, situations, and themes based on Duchamp’s life (in one story a character is named Teeny (Duchamp’s wife)) and work (particularly elements from his “Etant Donnés”) or interpretations of his work (Octavio Paz’s use of the Actaeon myth in his writing on Duchamp). The combination of these constraints (formal, syntactic, and semantic) creates the recurrence and difference in the stories, tying them together in some ways and separating them in others.

I maintained a positive opinion of this short book from my first reading of it a number of years ago, and I was not disappointed on rereading. These are not “big” stories. They have a small, personal scale that manages to avoid excessive sentimentality. I would consider them quite “low key” and often darkly humorous. The use of the constraints certainly aided in creating the interesting and variegated prose style which offers numerous surprises. I think these pieces offer another excellent example of how constraints can be used to create writing that is novel without being obviously constrained or excessively odd to read, as well as a good example of mixing various types of constraints.

I’m not sure how easily available this is in print (order direct), but if you have access to some research databases (through your local public library or affiliated academic library), you should be able to find the Review of Contemporary Fiction, including this issue, indexed and available in full-text online. Personally, I have access to it through EBSCO’s Academic Search Premier and Chadwyck-Healey’s Literature Online (LION). It’s probably also available through ProQuest.

An excellent introductory site on Duchamp with lots of images and a detailed look at the machinery of “The Large Glass” including animation (it’s quite amazing) is Making Sense of Marcel Duchamp. Scroll along the timeline until you find the link to “The Large Glass”.