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My Life in CIA by Harry Mathews

My Life in CIA: A Chronicle of 1973 by Harry Mathews. Dalkey Archive, 2005.

“Harry Mathews” has a problem. As an unemployed writer living in Paris, seemingly of independent means, he has been mistaken as a CIA agent, not just by one person but by a whole number of them. The more he tries to deny it the more people think it’s true (protesting too much, as it goes). So, on the advice of some friends on New Year’s of 1973, he decides to give in. He starts pretending he really is in CIA (apparently real agents never say “the CIA”), and thus we have this “chronicle of 1973”. Mathews sets up a business front, purposefully acts suspicious, delivers messages and packages for shady characters, and even manages to get himself noticed by the real CIA.

A memoir? A novel? What I know of Mathews’ life certainly makes the identification between the “Harry Mathews” of the book and the Harry Mathews author easy enough. One part of the book involves Mathews’ first meeting with his future wife (though he makes no indication of her as his wife or future wife in the text). The brief inclusion of this meeting only tangentially fits in the with the narrative’s main thrust, but, like a memoir, it provides those realistic touches that make the work seem more memoir (he sees her, finds out who she is, and then she doesn’t appear again).

Crossing with the memoir is the spy story, which follows a classic plotline of a civilian getting caught up in the dangerous world of espionage. It begins in such a way that one believes it to be autobiography –with Mathews deciding to pretend he is a spy–but then a genre thriller slowly integrates itself into the story, almost unnoticed until suddenly the situation is fantastic.

Throughout the book, the idea of skillful lying is referred to either directly or indirectly. From the personal ability to lie well (and believably) to the State’s”official lie” (the books occurs the same year as Watergate). “Mathews” realizes that people believe a good lie more than the plain truth, thus his play-acting as a spy. It’s hard to not turn skillful lying into writing fiction. Fiction, storytelling, it is all a skillful lie.

Mathews has often spoken against the autobiographical impulse in fiction. In an interview with John Ashbery, he discusses the influence of Raymond Roussel:

I’d always thought that to write fiction you had to write more or less autobiographical stories, or stories of things that you’d observed in the world. It’s terribly hard to do that; at least it was terribly hard for me- to make it sing and glow. I think that’s why Roussel excited me so.

And in his 20 Lines a Day (a volume of pages where he endeavored to write “20 lines a day, genius or not” after a maxim by Stendhal), turning to a random page, I find a relevant passage. He brings up the possibility of doing automatic writing and what might emerge from that, things that he otherwise wouldn’t write:

In these workouts I don’t feel free to write only for myself; I’m checked by the sublimal thought that some day I may type up these daily ruminations to see if they “add up to something.” So others may eventually see them, now, or even after I’m dead, and writing down certain things could upset and retroactively modify relationships that I now depend on–M.C. [the aforementioned wife], my children, my friends. Perhaps I should have here written fictions or a fiction. I could have expressed my concerns forthwith, but the invented framework of situations would be strong enough to short-circuit any autobiographical reading of my words. (48)

This passage is telling. The people My Life in CIA deals with the most, other than Mathews himself seem either invented (spies, women, a character named Patrick, more on him below) or dead (one character Mathews confides in is Georges Perec, Jean Tinguely gives Mathews an airplane part which Mathews sells as part of a wrecked spy plane).

On one hand all the autobiographical work makes this novel all that more “realistic” than Mathews’ previous works, but perhaps only because it is so easy to start with Mathews as the protagonist and then fill in the rest as “real”. Certainly, the situations Mathews gets himself into are as fantastic as the treasure hunts in Odradek Stadium and The Conversions. The novel is an excellent example of the believability of a good lie.

Oulipian games/constraints have a few opportunities to make an appearance in the story. The strangest being when Mathews is given a number of unusual words and asked to rewrite the lyrics to a song using those words in rhymes, all while dancing the “Squat”:

…But the girl as fair (squat!) as spring jonquil
Turns me on (squat!) more than plonk will
Without her I’ll (squat!) never by tronquil
I drink to her in select rum
Pluck her sweet chords with my plectrum…

This scene also provides an example of the humor that is peppered through the novel. I often found myself chuckling at certain passages.

I read this book twice, and both times I went through it in one sitting. The writing is such that one moves through it unimpeded, following the plot as “Mathews”‘ game becomes ever more entwined with those not playing the game but living the game. By the climax I was unable to put the book down. Even at 2am I had to keep going until I reached the end. The thriller-esque plotting, well done by Mathews to keep the suspense growing and the confusion proliferating, adds to the enjoyment greatly.

In contrast to the seemingly endless churning out of memoirs that fill bookstore shelves, Harry Mathews has done what he does best, inventive, well-written fiction… err autobiography… an inventive, well-written fictional memoir.

(I add the next section prefaced by a warning, as I am “giving away” some of the plotting. You are forewarned.)

The Patrick character is most interesting. He and “Mathews” meet and strike up a friendship. “Mathews” confides in this new friend, telling all about his game. Patrick offers advice because he claims to be involved with similar information gathering work in the private sector. It is only late in the story that “Mathews”, unable to contact Patrick by phone, goes to his work and discovers that the actual Patrick is a completely different person. What I find noteworthy is that the real Patrick is the author of a dissertation on John Ashbery (a longtime friend of Mathews). In the “skillful lying” equals “writing fiction”, Patrick seems to be the true author here.