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Ad Verbum, by Nick MONTFORT (USA), 2000 and
JABBER: The Jabberwoky Engine, by Neil HENNESSY (Canada), 2001

It is difficult to make summary historical observations about Oulipo (Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle), the French group who have championed the use of constraints in literature. They place themselves in a very particular tradition: constrained literature that preceded them (in English, Nabokov and Sterne are favored) is mere anoulipism - anticipatory plagiary - and those contemporaries that happen upon the same praxis are not members of the circle: Oulipian, maybe, but not Oulipo. It is difficult to reckon where the group begins and ends. Digital media, founded upon the productive constraints of binary code, provides rich soil for work in this area, and Oulipo has produced countless offspring claiming ancestry but not officially recognized by the Ouvroir. Two such are Nick Montfort's Ad Verbum and Neil Hennessy's JABBER: The Jabberwocky Engine.

Montfort, a PhD candidate at the University of Pennsylvania, acknowledges his debt to Oulipo in the introduction to Ad Verbum, which is his contribution to the dwindling phenomenon of interactive fiction. All interactive fiction (or IF) - text-based games not unlike more elaborate versions of the 1980s Choose Your Own Adventure books - operates with innumerable constraints built in. The reader/player is confronted with a situation, or simply a description of a physical space, such as this, the opening to Ad Verbum:
This is the mansion's spacious ground-floor antechamber. The wallpaper is peeling and bits of plaster have fallen from the ceiling here and there. There is a stairway, stable enough to ascend. The big area to the west must have once been a separate room, but the demolition crew seems to have already taken out a wall. A living room is east. On the south side is the front door. A Dumpster has been dumped here.
From this premise, one has the ability to move in any of the directions mentioned by typing 'go east' or 'climb stairs' or what have you; and in so doing, one is presented with new rooms and new situations. Ordinarily, IF has traded in popular genres, chiefly derivative fantasy: the protagonist vanquishes the dragon and finds treasure in the dungeon. Montfort has completely sidestepped this tendency in favor of what is at first glance a rather pedestrian quest: emptying a (wizard's) house of its garbage. Moreover, he complicates the norm by employing constraints in addition to those fundamental to IF (drolly, many of the hallways in the fiction are described as "constrained"). Mostly, Ad Verbum uses simple alliteration: a study is described as "[s]mall, shadowy, stifling []. Softwood slats (stain: sandy) surround," and the descriptions, in addition to further alliterative clues, must be read as riddles in order to progress in the game. The present author, with no previous IF experience, was at something of a loss in playing, let alone winning, the game; presumably, an experienced IF player would better appreciate Montfort's efforts. (For others without IF experience, take note of the 'hint' command.) Nonetheless, Ad Verbum's ingenuity is everywhere apparent and suggests that the medium has possibilities heretofore untapped.

Hennessy, part of the Coach House Books milieu (with whom he has published online), often sits alongside the more widely known Anglophone Oulipo-aspirant, Christian Bök (of Eunoia fame) - apart from both contributing to the journal OL3, Hennessy and Bök have similarly playful aims. The most successful jeu d'esprit that Hennessy has authored, JABBER: The Jabberwocky Engine, attempts an Oulipian revival of an anoulipist subject: Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky." Carroll's poem is a marvel of suggestive but meaningless neologisms - the peak of nonsense as a genre: it begins," `Twas brillig, and the slithy toves / Did gyre and gimble in the wabe." These lines, and those that follow, have inspired prodigious nonsense, some derivative, some inspired. Hennessy's particular endeavor falls in with the latter category. JABBER: The Jabberwocky Engine is a small java program that lets loose a number of letters to float about a small screen, bumping into one another and, when appropriate, bonding to form sequences and eventually words. Several trials resulted in the following fine examples: estsistra, holosormi, yippinect, biconalve, kohenflumb, outagler, and (a term Carroll would no doubt have approved of) yalagirgs. These terms are sufficiently redolent of meaning as to be worth one or two poems if combined correctly. Just as poets resort to rhyming dictionaries, fledgling nonsense versifiers now have JABBER: The Jabberwocky Engine.

The true Oulipian, however, spends more time in theory than practice; conjuring new constraints is perhaps the most central aspect of the project. Atlas Press' magnificent Oulipo Compendium largely consists of rules for word games and recipes for disordering language; far more rare are applications of these systems. True to form, Montfort and Hennessy are both theorists as well as practitioners: Montfort has published a book with MIT Press considering IF at length, and Hennessy has considered the predecessors and mathematical principles of JABBER with great precision at OL3. Between the two of them, it may be time for Oulipo to consider recognizing their illegitimate sons.

Patrick Ellis


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