“Every time I sit down to write it’s a fucking experiment.” – Richard Yates
The professor in my Experimental Fiction class at Johns Hopkins asked us to report on a book outside of the course reading list that we found to be experimental — meaning that it challenged what we have come to consider as essential to the fictional story in terms of structure, character and theme.
We are a class of twelve and each person selected a different book, which means that I’m adding nearly eleven new books to my ever-growing reading list. Here are the books we shared with one another:
The Indefinite State of Imaginary Morals by Rae Bryant. This was my choice. I loved so many of the stories in this collection and appreciate the way Bryant played with the conventional expectations of a short story to convey messages about the pain, the beautiful and the ordinary in the lives of women. A wedgie-picking Superwoman? Check. A narrator whose essence is separate from the puppet body onstage? Check. A woman who eats through her arm to escape a man to whom she never promised a long-term commitment? Check. I especially enjoyed her “centerfold section,” in which she placed narrative onto reprints of art by Gustav Klimt. The collection is innovative, gutsy, feminist and funny.
The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinkski. I’m haunted by the mere description of this book. The story follows a dark-haired, olive-skinned boy, abandoned by his parents during World War II, as he wanders alone from one village to another, sometimes hounded and tortured, only rarely sheltered and cared for. The novel shows what tortured children can become, and it’s not for the weak of stomach.
Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges. We read two stories by Borges in class, but one of us wanted more and read an entire collection. If you love Borges – as many people do – you’ll enjoy these journeys into the bizarre, the intellectual and the labyrinth. I, along with others in class, was particularly inspired by Inferno, I, 32.
Decreation by Anne Carson. This book may be the most experimental of all that were presented. Carson incorporates the widest range of references, moving from Aphrodite to Antonioni, Demosthenes to Annie Dillard, Telemachos to Trotsky, and uses a number of forms, including opera libretto, screenplay, poem, oratorio, essay, shot list, and rapture. This seems to be a book that might scare away beginners of Experimental Fiction; I, for one, am starting with her (allegedly) more accessible book The Autobiography of Red.
Dream Angus by Alexander Macall Smith, the author of “No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency” series. “Dream Angus” is a part of the Canongate Myth Series, a series of short novels in which ancient myths from myriad cultures are reimagined and rewritten by contemporary authors. “Dream Angus” is a contemporary reworking of the ancient Celtic myth of the dream-giver god, Angus, familiar from Yeats’s poetry.
Undercurrents by Marie Darrieussecq is a tale of a mother and daughter who escape to a deserted seaside town in Spain and find the lure of the ocean becomes a defining character in their lives. This book is described as a sensual, surrealistic literary experience in which the main character emerges as the sea.
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. See also: hipsters. This book reminded the reader of Borges’ story “The Garden of Forking Paths,” with its truly infinite story and moving, circular pattern, and he claimed that the experience of reading this book is the experience of the characters in it. This book is at the top of my 2013 reading list.
The Woman Who Cut Off Her Leg at the Maidstone Club by Julia Slavin. Imaginative and satirical, this collection of stories tells of ordinary people who do extraordinary things, such as the lovelorn woman who sprouts teeth all over her body to the man who literally falls to pieces. The reader of this collection could trace influences to most of the poets and fiction writers we studied in class.
The Mezzinine by Nichalas Baker. Readers follow the journey of a man up the escalator while learning why straws don’t sink in milk cartons; whether the hot air blowers in bathrooms are really more sanitary than towels; the physics of shoelaces; and how the most trivial of objects can lead to the deepest revelations of the human heart. By focusing on the bleak, ordinary thoughts that take up most of our time, the book may very well capture the “truth” of reality better than any conventional novel.
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Wolf, is the story of a family and assorted guests on holiday on the Isle of Skye. I plan to read this book over the holidays, paying special attention to the book’s mastery of syntax and experimental form. In this book, the plot is secondary to its philosophical introspection. The reader described its sentences as un-mapable, replicating the human mind.
The Sea by John Banville. This is the story of Max Morden, a middle-aged Irishman who has gone back to the seaside town where he spent his summer holidays as a child to cope with the recent loss of his wife. Sounds like a conventional novel, right? It was described by the reader as “metacognition” – thinking about our thinking — and philosophy disguised as fiction.
Dog Boy by Eva Hornung, was described by the reader as parabolic with a twist. It’s the story of a small boy in late twentieth-century Moscow, abandoned and left to fend for himself. He falls into a pack of stray dogs and slowly abandons his human attributes to survive two fiercely cold winters. Able to pass as either boy or dog, Romochka develops his own moral code. As the pack starts to prey on people for food with Romochka’s help, he attracts the attention of local police and scientists. His future, and the pack’s, will depend on his ability to remain free, but the outside world begins to close in on him as the novel reaches its conclusion.
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