I have long felt that Harry Mathews is one of the best American fiction writers who came of age in the mid-twentieth century, and his newest fiction confirms my opinion. Mathews’s 2005 work, My Life in CIA, might be said to represent a late-career shift in style and subject, imbuing his work with a new accessibility not unlike that of Gertrude Stein, whose late-life The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas has generally been represented by critics (including myself) as a simplification of her previous bravura techniques. Like Stein, Mathews appears in this work to be writing an autobiography, strange as that lived experience may seem, a work very different, for example, from his earlier convoluted tale of an obsessive journalist (hero of The Journalist) who uncovers shockingly “secret” information about his family and friends.
At this point, the reader also begins to realize that the seemingly plausible “adventures” of the author begin to move into the realm of marvelous fabulation, as Mathews describes various escapades, including several sexually unconsummated encounters with a beautiful woman and an interrupted sexual episode with a weaver of Turkish rugs, which ends with him being rolled up in the rug and his accidental delivery to a party of right-wing conspirators who, after a lavish dinner, play an Oulipean-like game of Squat in which he is forced to improvise lyrics rhymed with words such as swastika, haddock, jonquil, plectrum, gardenia and farthing while he and others dance.
Los Angeles, August 1, 2006