Amazing Acrobatics and Aesthetic Apprehensions in Adam David’s The El Bimbo Variations (Youth & Beauty Brigade/CentralBooks, 2008)

first published in the Philippines Free Press, 28 February 2009

Despite the abundance of that commodity called humor writing in the local literary marketplace, there is very little of contemporary writing that is genuinely lighthearted—by this I mean delightful and delighting in ways beyond the perishable haha by way of cuteness and inconsequentiality produced by the majority of creative nonfiction, capped by the requisite tenderness—whether latent, explicit, or sardonic—toward the frailty of one’s inescapably middle-class human condition. In poetry, where the typical stance is meditative, if not brooding, lightheartedness is even harder to come by, its closest incarnations limited to the poignant lyrical moment or the erudite, read-up-to-get-the-joke allusion. It seems that to have any fun, we must keep things mindless (the foundation upon which the highly successful industry of comfort reading is built) and if we are to say anything of consequence, we can’t be cracking up at same time. These are easy equations, of course, and—as with any formula imposed upon writing—lacking in imagination, if not outright untrue.

What Adam David attempts to do in his first book, The El Bimbo Variations, is put these easy equations to rest by blasting them to smithereens and hopefully, beyond resurrection. To the skeptical reader weary of stunts, however, its hyperbolic premise—to rewrite the first two lines of the Eraserheads’ “Ang Huling El Bimbo” ninety-nine times—immediately raises red flags. There is the suspiciously effortless strumming of one’s heartstrings courtesy of the book’s running reference, where attention is not earned but ripped off from everyone’s favorite pop song by everyone’s favorite band, and then there is the potentially exasperating number of rewrites, the threat of a broken record looming, the consequent anxiety of the when-will-this-end variety, similarly endured in the face of a Lav Diaz film or a performance, however short, of John Cagean, chance-driven music. David is himself a skeptic of the most impatient, grim-and-determined sort, as evident in the caustic criticism he practices and publishes in this magazine, which makes the need to walk the talk all the more imperative, and the failure to do so all the more shameful.

Having said that, I must also say that I wrote the introduction to The El Bimbo Variations (of which there are two existing versions, one printed on demand by CentralBooks and out of print, and the other, with minor revisions, available as a downloadable pdf from the author’s blog, wasaaak.blogspot.com), the mere fact already a statement of my high regard for the book. But having written the introduction more than a year ago, I think the book and my thoughts on it are ripe for revisiting, distance being a sufficient impetus, as well as the context of David’s newer work. The El Bimbo Variations, to me, remains genuinely lighthearted, delightful for its hysteria by way of excess and corresponding schizophrenia, the risk of redundancy repeatedly confronted with the obsessive imagining and re-imagining of a couple of lines. The only way to appreciate this is to see it in action. Here is “Déjà vu”: “Kamukha mo si Paraluman/nung tayo ay bata pa/Si Paraluman kamukha mo.” Here is “Forgetful”: “Kamukha mo si…” Here is: “Doubtful”: “Kamukha daw niya dati si Paraluman. Daw.” Here is “Derogatory”: “Yuck./Paraluman.” Here is “Tanaga”: “Babaeng lusog-hita/(Sa El Bimbo’y bihasa)/Sino ang ’yong kamukha?/‘Si Paraluman (nung bata)!” Here is “Acronymic”: “Exuberant loneliness:/bosoms in motion beyond observation.” Here is “Lipogram on ‘A’”: “My thoughts: persistently perturbed by memories of you.” Here is “Univocalism on ‘O’”: “‘Oh, God, no, don’t go!’ Old Boy longs for Joy, now lost to ghosts of old folks; food to frogs, to dog gods, to gross brown worms.” Here is “Tautogram on ‘U’”: “Utilizing utmost urbanity, underdog uberpoet – ultimately unloved – unbosoms unencumbered ursine upwellings; utterances unsaid, unbeknownst.”

Accumulation-over-arc at its most extreme finds a proponent in The El Bimbo Variations, the ninety-nine experiments an overall success because of a working method of constraints in which David clearly thrives, a pool of parameters ranging from descriptive (as in the variations called “Doubtful,” “Derogatory,” “Sarcastic,” “Insistent”), to traditional (as in the local “Diona,” “Tanaga,” and “Dalit,” or the foreign “Limerick” and “American Haiku”), to graphic (as in the Kenneth Koch-inspired “The Art of the Possible,” the Edward Gorey-inspired “Gashlycrumb Tiny,” or the plain and simple “Chordbook”), to genre-based (as in “Erotica,” “SpecFic,” and “True Philippine Ghost Story”), to Western-canonical (as in the variations channeling William Blake, Gertrude Stein, and James Joyce), to Oulipian (as in the “Tautogram” and “Lipogram” series, constraints concocted by the French math-and-lit enthusiasts comprising the movement known as Oulipo). The variations escape monotony, hard evidence of the author’s impressively elastic vocal register. Each variation is a unique counterpoint to the Eraserheads’ original lines, and each variation, by virtue of the peculiar alchemy triggered by a change in tone, sensibility, language, available alphabet and vocabulary, syntax, etcetera, is a transformation of one particular idea. Its resistance to closure lies in its nature as a book, its hysteria most evident when read as a whole, whether in sequence or hopscotch. Being rewrites, the book’s plot doesn’t thicken, it only changes its face again and again. The entire collection delights in the multiplicity of experiences residing in the province of language; the discrepancy between the base text and each variation as well as the diversity of variations prove, again and again, that what you say is how you say it, that form and content are inextricable from each other, that every wording of an experience is itself the experience.

This, of course, is my solemn paraphrase of what transpires in The El Bimbo Variations; that the book is funny while my description of it is not only emphasizes the credibility of its theses as well as the ease with which it combines providing pleasure and provoking thought. This book will make you laugh; it is filled with jokes, puns, tricks, and parodies, turning the act of writing into a game, which it in turn plays well. Some of the constraints are ridiculously precocious and playful, demanding that the source text be rewritten using only the letters on the left or right side of the computer keyboard (see “Left-Handed” and “Right-Handed”), or the vocabulary of computer programming (see “ALGOL”), or only words beginning with the same letter (see the “Tautogram” series). They taunt, goad, and dare, challenging even the most lethargic of spectators to recognize the wordplay, maybe even turn into participants delighting in the malleability of language and bent on outwitting the game’s morphing constraints. After applauding adamantly anti-academic, avant-garde author, amateur audience—abandoning apprehensions and activating adventurous attitude—applies appealing absurd activities, attempts anaphora, acronyms, and acrostics, asserting artifice. Amateur author—also ambivalent and androgynous, avidly alleluia-allergic, anal and ambitious—acquires alphabet addiction, accumulates arrhythmic adaptations, amusing aphorisms, auditorily agreeable anthems, and amiable allegories, all-in-all above-average art. Ahaha! Ayun.

A surefire way to kill something funny is to explain it, which perhaps also accounts for the tendency to overlook the complexity of ideas embedded in casual, irreverent texts like The El Bimbo Variations. A reader who is not particularly careful or conscientious may simply pick up the book and laugh at its jokes; the more sophisticated reader, on the other hand, equally entertained, may easily dismiss the collection as an elaborate finger exercise, its author merely goofing off. Anticipating this, David provides an aggressive antidote in the form of extensive notes, ensuring the elevation of the variations—many of them one- to three-liners—into Poetry, Literature, Art. In the tradition of T.S. Eliot’s notorious “Waste Land” notes, David risks infuriating the reader by making his authorial voice present and prominent, diminishing the reader’s autonomy through an annoying habit often associated with control freaks who are also figures of authority: hovering. The corollary risk is, of course, killing the joke with explanation, and very learned explanations at that. While some of the notes are detached definitions of the many terms that certainly need defining, others are not. They are chatty and anecdotal, and at times slightly breezy explanations of literary concepts. Through the notes, David insists that the word games in the book be read in the tradition of the Oulipo, that the amusing verbal acrobatics be seen as outcomes of exacting attention to craft, that the allusions be recognizable and not possibly missed, that the book’s pedestrian-accessibility not be interpreted as a sign of shallowness, that the surface effects be read beyond their surface appeal. In case the reader fails to get it, the notes say that The El Bimbo Variations is not just funny, it’s also literary. The gesture smacks of defensiveness, which runs contradictory to the lightheartedness of the work.

I am sure David is aware of this, and—heavy-handedness and initial irksome effect arising from the didacticism aside—I actually appreciate the notes, and I am happy David made the Eliot gamble. The reader unaware of such things is certainly better off coming out of The El Bimbo Variations with new knowledge of Raymond Queneau and Georges Perec, of univocalism and spoonerisms or the dalit and cento, of William Burroughs and Byron Gysin, of Finnegans Wake and Tender Buttons. Sure, these may appear as props to validate the literariness of David’s work, subtracting from the devil-may-care attitude that of course, still emanates and remains forceful in this book that undoubtedly proposes an ecstatic alternative to the timidity that infects most of creative nonfiction or the humorlessness in most poetry, but it is a small sacrifice in exchange for the education that this book—in many ways a manual of writing complete with ninety-nine examples—offers.

David has gone on to write a second book called Texticles, a collection of dagli, also downloadable from his blog, and is working on an Oulipian novel called Abecediarya, with chapters comprised of tautograms following the order of the alphabet, excerpts of which appear in the soon-to-be-released anthology, Philippine Speculative Fiction Volume 4. (An advocate of self-publishing, David is a firm believer in creating alternative spaces for publication unfettered by the policing of designated literary authorities; he also happens to be a staunch critic of speculative fiction as packaged and practiced here, but these are other long stories.) Texticles and Abecediarya, among other things, are elaborate extensions of some of the experiments in The El Bimbo Variations; a constraint explored in two lines in the first book, for example, balloons into a full-length chapter in the newer work. David is certainly evolving as a writer, one who can be counted on to surprise us again and again. It looks like The El Bimbo Variations, a feat in itself, is bound to soon absorb the identity of prelude to other, more spectacular inventions.