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The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium

Mathews, Harry. The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium (1971). Dalkey Archive, 1999. ISBN: 1564782077.

Some time ago I read an interview with Harry Mathews wherein he said something that seemed so obvious yet when I thought about it became a touchstone for my thoughts on the writing of fiction (albeit, there having been little of that so far)…

…Having just reread two interviews with Mathews (both from the Review of Contemporary Fiction, one with John Ash, the other with John Ashbery), the closest I found, not surprisingly, is a quote related to Raymond Roussel:

Harry Mathews: “…Reading Roussel cleared my mind of the idea that you had to write illustionistic representational fiction. If you’re writing fiction, you can do anything. Roussel’s rule was “Nothing that hasn’t been made up,” and this opened up a whole world of possibilities in me.” (from Ash interview, p.27 in the print form)

Making things up. So simple, yet… one gets the feeling that it is too often overlooked.

Anyway, Harry Mathews makes things up and, having been influenced by Roussel, they are often very odd things. This sets him a part from most authors.

The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium is an epistolary novel about a treasure hunt. Zachary is a librarian (!) living in Miami exchanging letters with his recent wife Twang who is from the Asian country Pan Nam and writing to him from Italy. They are searching for an Italian treasure that is possibly buried somewhere in the Carribean.

What I found most difficult and annoying in this novel is also one of the most interesting stylistic traits of it: the letters of Twang. Twang’s English is very poor in the beginning of the novel. Her first letter begins: “Pan persns knwo base bal. The giappan-like trade-for mishn play with it in our capatal any times.” (6) It becomes quite a chore to read her letters, especially when they become rife with her research on various Italian historical figures (Medicis) involved with the treasure, when her poor English mixes with Italian names and terms. I’ll admit to a certain distaste for dialect writing, and this creates a similar effect. Interestingly enough, though, Twang’s English gets better over the course of the novel, a well-crafted stylistic conceit.

Zachary and Twang both get involved with some shady characters as they research the treasure, and while Twang tells buddhist-like parables from her country, Zachary meets rich men, joins a kind of secret society, and describes the crazy carnival that goes on in Miami during the story. Throughout, Mathews’ imaginative powers are in evidence and, often, elements of the story read as if they were created with Roussel’s “method” or some other constraint, yet this novel pre-dates Mathew’s involvement with the Oulipo.

The title of the novel remains a mystery until the very last letter, in fact, it is the only novel I can think of where the title actually forms an element of the story in itself (which is hard to explain without giving it all away). The novel also contains an index, which has left me with a single mystery related to one of the character’s last name — which is unstated in the text proper but found in the index — a last little mystery that I need to look into.

While I was often frustrated with this novel, it was ameliorated by the enjoyable strangeness of much of the events.