Chant: An Oulipo Romance


Oulipo, a group of French-speaking mathematicians and writers, explore the way in which literature can be restrained through the use of formal constraints. The emphasis in such work is almost always on the way in which language is used, and not necessarily what it is used to mean. As they say, “Oulipo ends where the work begins.” So, too, in Rick Henry’s latest book, Chant.

As the title suggests, the book is structured by a chant, written in square notation, a mode of which begins each section. The characters in the book have no proper names as such, but are identified by the notes they represent on the scale. For example, the first mode begins with A, G, F, and E, who, in addition to B and C, have been living together in an abandoned monastery. The book opens on Festival day, an event held each year which marks the random selection, by means of bean, of the new Ordinate, who wears the robe of power and interprets the book of chants.Trouble ensues when an outsider, D, receives the bean and then declares that the book calls for harmony and love.


The chant itself is what controls the pacing of the story, when characters appear and in what combination, although the author is free to decide the specific details. The constraint itself, then, determines the direction of the book. But Chant is not merely a formal experiment, it is a love story – an Oulipan Romance. The epigraph from Aurelian sums it up: “As for the words that are assigned to these modes…they (mean) nothing, but (are)…expressions of joy.” — Matt Short


As for the words that are assigned to these modes . . . they (mean) nothing, but (are) . . . expressions of joy.
— Aurelian


They allow of absolutely no meaning, nor have the slightest significance. . . .
— Region of Prum