Who's Counting: Google Made Surreal

The Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle (Workshop of Potential Literature), Oulipo for short, was the name of a small group of primarily French writers, mathematicians and academics devoted to the exploration of mathematical and combinatorial techniques in literature. Founded in 1960 (and still somewhat active), the group searched for new literary structures via the imposition of unusual constraints.

Raymond Queneau's "One Hundred Trillion Sonnets" is a prime example of Oulipo's combinatorial approach to literature. The work is only 10 pages long with a sonnet on each page. Cut crosswise, the pages allow each of the 14 lines of each sonnet to be turned separately. Thus any of the 10 first lines may be combined with any of the 10 second lines, resulting in 10^2 or 100 different pairs of opening lines. Any of these 10^2 possibilities may be combined with any of the 10 third lines to yield 10^3 or 1,000 possible sets of three lines. Continuing, we conclude that there are 10^14 possible sonnets. Queneau claimed that they all made sense, although it's safe to say that the claim will never be verified since there is more text in these 10^14 different sonnets than in all the rest of the world's literature.

Another good example of Oulipo's work is Jean Lescure's (N+7) algorithm for transforming a text. Take an excerpt from your favorite newspaper, novel or holy book and replace each noun in it with the seventh unrelated noun following it in some standard dictionary. If the original text is well written, the resulting text is a bit surreal, but usually retains the original's rhythm and even something of its sense. "Fourscore and seven yeast ago our fathoms brought forth on this continuance a new native, conceived in library and dedicated to the proprietor that all menageries are created equal."

Yet another quintessentially Oulipian work, Georges Perec's 300-page novel "La Disparition," doesn't contain a single letter E except, of course, for the four unfortunate instances in his name. Think of this -- no "the," "are," "were," "he," "she," "they" nor even an "even." In an essay on such lipograms, works that omit letters, Perec defends the sanity and seriousness of such an undertaking by arguing that constraint and artifice are the engines that have driven not only Oulipians, but also many mainstream authors to plumb obscure possibilities near the fringe of language and sense.

How, for example, might you merge texts by "multiplying" one of them by another (a bit like matrices of numbers)? Or how about mechanically including specified, but disparate plot lines in a single story like an improvisational troupe?

Search Terms Make Weird Fiction

I thought of Oulipo recently while visiting a Web site listing the Top 10 queries posed to Google for the week ending Feb. 21, 2005. (http://www.google.com/press/zeitgeist.html) In lower case, these queries were: 1. nascar, 2. hunter s thompson, 3. sandra dee, 4. constantine, 5. westminster dog show, 6. numa numa, 7. jeff gannon, 8. daytona 500, 9. us weekly and 10. american idol. The Oulipian constraint I considered was a weekly "news summary" incorporating all 10 of the queries.

It doesn't seem too difficult to develop new (or modify existing) fiction writing and search engine software to produce such a story, whose dream-like nature would constitute a kind of surreal, cartoonish week-in-review for a fantasy tabloid. There are countless possible stories. Here is a very brief example that only makes minimal sense only if you know to what the 10 queries above refer. (Check Google if you're interested.)

Nascar drivers racing round and round at the Daytona 500 morph into a swarm of canines prancing about the Westminster Dog Show. Some of the dogs begin to snarl and path-breaking journalist and gun enthusiast Hunter S Thompson jumps out of the viewing stands and starts shooting at them. Then Keanu Reeves in his new film role as John Constantine strides onto the infield looking confused as he tries to discern whether Thompson is an angel or a demon. It doesn't help that the public address system is simultaneously playing Gary Brolsma's Internet hit, the "Numa Numa" song, American Idol reject William Hung's song and Bobby Darin's "Beyond the Sea." The latter's widow, Sandra Dee, or maybe just her ghost, joins Constantine in the infield of the dog show and further confuses him. Just then the music stops cold and Constantine's cell phone rings piercingly. He answers it and it's Paris Hilton expressing her regrets about putting his private number on her hacked phone. Reeves accepts her apology and congratulates her for appearing on the cover of US Weekly. Then he announces to the hushed Westminster audience that he's chosen the dog that will be "best in show." It turns out to be a bald lap dog accompanied into the field by Talon news reporter Jeff Gannon, who asks Reeves how he deals with all the Hollywood actors who are out of touch with reality.

When they're good, Oulipo's artificially constrained stories can be stimulating. When they're not, the outlandish juxtapositions are simply tiresome. In any case, it's a little frightening that the "Top 10" mishmash above isn't much screwier than the real news stories from which it was constructed.

Finally, you no doubt have noted that this whole piece, by not referring to Thompson by his usual sobriquet, does not contain a single instance of the last letter of the alphabet.

-- Professor of mathematics at Temple University, John Allen Paulos is the author of best-selling books, including "Innumeracy" and "A Mathematician Plays the Stock Market." His "Who's Counting?" column on ABCNEWS.com appears the first weekend of every month.