Experimental fiction – difficult, isn’t it?
Well, no, actually, it doesn’t have to be. While works such as Virginia Woolf’s The Waves or James Joyce’s Ulysses have given it that reputation, it’s by no means a requirement that experimental fiction must be impenetrable. Georges Perec’s Life a User’s Manual remains eminently readable, I would argue, while playing a host of literary games. The same is surely true of Ulysses itself. Personally, I have always found myself drawn to the experimental aesthetic, to that sense of otherness to be found in such works. So I’m fond of the music of Schoenberg, for example, and the paintings of Max Ernst. Is it all just a question of taste, then? Perhaps. I once joined a reading group – I’m not sure why – and when my choice came around, I suggested Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, a beautiful and strange but admittedly, somewhat experimental book. It was slated, almost universally. I made no further suggestions. I’m still tempted, though, to join another and when my choice comes around to pick Finnegans Wake…
Experimentation isn’t modernism. Nor is its successor, post-modernism. Think of Tristram Shandy. Think of Nightmare Abbey. It’s about an approach to writing that says a novel can be more than just a narrative with a plot and characters. Sometimes it can be less than this and yet somehow more (think of Beckett’s Molloy). In my view, fiction has to aspire. Just as the development of photography (no pun intended) forced painting to raise its game, so film and then television asked questions about the purpose of fiction. To paraphrase something I once read, if most TV programmes were any good then the novel would be dead. The writer was striking a position, of course, but you can see what he meant. There will always be that beauty of language and clarity of thought to be found among the greatest writers, qualities sufficient in themselves but all too rarely found. Experimentation is one way to lift writing above the mundane, to create a point of genuine interest. And let’s not forget, while the experimentalists labour away in the literary laboratory, many of their ideas come to be incorporated into the mainstream in time. After all, Hemingway’s bold narratives were once considered experimental before a legion of imitators got in on his tough-yet-tender act.
Literary experiments take many forms. There are those metafictional games, challenging the artifice of the novel (Martin Amis appearing as a character in Money - the precise moment, according to the novelist, when his father, Kingsley threw the book across the room). There is the so-called stream of consciousness, that experiment in dialogue and thought, flowing from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (“riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay”) via Virginia Woolf and Jose Maria Marquez to James Kelman. Constrained writing is another playground. And so we have an entire novella written using just one vowel (Perec’s Les Revenentes) or the same, simple story told over again in 99 different ways (Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style). And for an example of constraint in my own writing, see Extract 2 from ‘The Great English Novel‘. Only the human imagination limits the possibilities. In the wrong hands, of course, such experimentation can be tedious, excruciating and quite possibly both. There’s a field day to be had by clowns and hoaxers. One has only to think of much of the free-form verse composed in the 1960s and 1970s. Again, perhaps the best comparison is with the visual arts. In the progression of Picasso’s art from the figurative to the semi-abstract, we can see that the great modernist was also a supremely skilled craftsman who’d have been capable of producing sublime representational works had he not been blessed with one of the twentieth century’s finest imaginations. Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, on the other hand, have exposed the opposite in moving from ‘conceptual art’ (i.e., Duchamp recycled 70 years after the event) to attempts at traditional representation.
Commercial pressures have resulted in a considerable degree of dumbing down so far as the novel is concerned, particularly here in the UK. The demise of the independent publisher and bookshop through the relentless logic of business efficiency has led to an overwhelming conservatism in the trade. Everything it seems these days must be clothed in grey and sniff around after money – even our imaginative space. The condescension with which the British reading public is treated puts me in mind of those book-writing machines in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, pumping out their pulp for the proles. What passes now for experimental fiction would never have been classed so in the past. I haven’t managed to finish reading David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, but it strikes me as a pretty conventional book, its ‘nested’ structure aside. Good stuff still occasionally gets smuggled through, but I suspect it won’t be long before we’re returning to our samizdat typewriters or committing books to memory Fahrenheit 451-fashion merely to keep alive the idea of writing that aspires.
Anyway, I’m off to the writing den to fix the guttering and to work on one of my two current fictional projects. Ah, the prosaic and the profound… Happy reading and/or writing!
All text © PSR 2013, image © Simon Crawford