Mark Ford. Cornell Univ., $35 (304p) ISBN 0-8014-3864-0

All but the most widely read students of the linguistic experiments of the past century will probably encounter Raymond Roussel (1877-1933) for the first time in poet Ford's (Landlocked) new biography. Ford's central proposition in this economical study is simply that his subject's writing is worth discovering. Roussel's success even in France has been minimal, though the list of highly acclaimed artists on both sides of the Atlantic who cherish his esoteric concoctions is impressive, including surrealists such as André Breton and Salvador Dalí, along with Jean Cocteau and Alain Robbe-Grilletand, Manhattan School poets John Ashbery (who writes the preface to this volume) and Kenneth Koch. Roussel's compositional technique, which he dubbed his procédé, generated a structure for the plots and images of his writing in much the same way that meter and rhyme control the arrangement of words in a sonnet. The author's goal was to create art that retained utterly no relation to the physical world. By exploiting the double meanings and shifting associations inherent in language, his procédé defined the laws of an insular universe. Ford neatly exposes the hidden machinations that produced Roussel's jumbled texts, while credibly linking his literary seclusion with the social isolation that his excessive wealth, clandestine homosexuality and delusional ambitions engendered. Roussel believed from his youth that he was destined for immediate and widespread recognition, a conviction that eroded in the face of his numerous and spectacular failures. However, through Ford's focused interpretation, the reader may appreciate the vivacity of Roussel's grotesque verbal sculptures, which contain a seemingly infinite proliferation of potential meanings. (Jan.)