Paul Griffiths

The Oulipian strategy behind Paul Griffiths' short novel Let Me Tell You (Reality Street) is made plain on the book's back cover:

So: now I come to speak. At last. I will tell you all I know.... These are the words of Ophelia at the beginning of this short novel: literally her words, in that her narrative is composed entirely of the vocabulary she is allotted in Hamlet.

If it is true that fictional characters are literally no more than the words they are assigned in the text that gives them "life," Let Me Tell You illustrates that those words can go a long way. Through creative reshuffling and inconspicuous repetition Griffiths takes the fewer than 500 words Ophelia speaks (or sings) in Hamlet and fashions them into a convincing first-person account (with an interpolated play, several sonnets, and a soliloquy or two) of Ophelia's life before the events portrayed in the play, although in the words following those quoted on the back cover, she in effect acknowledges the difficulties of being liberated from the script she has until now always followed and that has set the terms of her existence:

. . .I was deceived to think I could not do this. I have the powers; I take them here. I have the right. I have the means. My words may be poor, but they will have to do.

    What words do I have? Where do they come from? How is it that I speak?

Very rarely do Ophelia's words seem obviously contrived to fit the new circumstances of their utterance, and as the text unfolds Ophelia convinces us she has the right and the means to speak for herself and that the origin of her words is secondary to her often affecting repossession of them.At the same time, one can never quite "lose" oneself in Ophelia's narrative. Its origin in the recycling of a precursor text, one that is no doubt well known to most who might read Let Me Tell You, must remain a manifest reality in the experience of reading the novel; it has very little claim on our attention, in fact, independent of its source in Hamlet and in Ophelia's role in the play. Admiration for the skill with which Griffiths rings changes on those 500 words is an unavoidable part of the reading experience. Indeed, the pleasure one takes in a work like Let Me Tell You is precisely the pleasure of witnessing in a particularly intent way the way a writer is using a structural device to bring character and event into existence.

In an interview with Mark Thwaite (Ready Steady Book), Griffiths himself comments on the utility of his structural device: "If you keep to some form—some command, if you like—you come up with things you could never come up with by yourself." Griffiths' initial decision to write under the "constraint" imposed by sticking to the text of Hamlet--what he has "come up with" by himself--allows him, or forces him, to invest form with the duty to produce "content." This is what fiction writers who fancy themselves as having something "to say" are rarely able to do. For them, form is mostly an inconvenience, the bare minimal means to be enlisted in the grander act of saying something. Their work is thus formally unimaginative and, usually, thematically banal. In Let Me Tell You, Griffiths trusts that his form will effect its own kind of "saying." That it results in a character with emotional depth and a narrative that plausibly develops a life story about which Hamlet is otherwise silent only validates the wisdom of the author's commitment to that form.

Ultimately, Let Me Tell You seems to me one of those experimental fictions that straddles the line between narrative fiction and poetry, although by "poetry" we now mean only one of the modes that was included under that heading prior to the emergence of the novel as a separate literary form ("prose fiction"). Before then, "poetry" essentially included all modes of literary expression. If it is often the case that, as Brian Phillips has it, poets who write fiction often tend to exhibit a "powerful narrative impulse" that "refashions fiction with fiction’s own materials, not with transposed notes of poetry" (Poetry), writers of fiction who challenge what Phillips calls "narrative straightforwardness" often create works of "prose fiction" that remain more or less identifiably in "prose"—they are not "poetic" because they indulge in flights of figurative language similar to what is found in an older mode of lyric poetry—but that challenge the equation of "fiction" with narrative, refashioning fiction by aligning it with the structural imperatives of poetry but leaving the "lyrical" elements of verse aside. Such a move still puts more emphasis on language, as the reader must focus more squarely on the writer's effort to turn prose to account for purposes other than "telling a story," but it represents an approach to prose fiction that might re-establish it as a "poetic" genre alongside lyric poetry.

Near the end of Let Me Tell You, Ophelia, on the cusp of her fatal madness, laments to an absent Hamlet that "I cannot tell you what I most wish to tell you, for there are no words for what I would say." This is at the same time a playful reference to the conditions imposed on Ophelia's speech by the text itself and an honest statement of the unavoidable conditions imposed upon all poetic saying: the urge to express is quickly confronted with the actuality that all such expression will be incomplete, that the substance of what would be said is always escaping between the words. But, as Let Me Tell You demonstrates, what can be done with those words is sometimes almost sufficient compensation.


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