Today I’d like to highlight three novels I read that challenged the accepted definitions of what exactly a novel is. During my life I’ve gone through several reading phases. I had my Star Wars phase, my Science Fiction & Fantasy phase, my Bohemian phase, my Gothic phase and my American phase, but during my early college years I became interested in Experimental Fiction. I was drawn to Modernism and the Avant-Garde, because these books focused not so much on the story itself than on the way it was told. I was also excited by the challenge of reading novels that were considered difficult to read.
Each of the three novels I’m going to list today helped both my reading and my writing. I think every writer can benefit from reading experimental fiction- even if it is not their chosen genre- because what experimental fiction does is it examines the craft of storytelling- the techniques of how a story is told. It takes a step back and investigates the basic workings of narrative exposition, and finds new ways to tell a story. I picked the novels listed below because each one innovates in a way that relates to the theme its narrative explores. Enjoy!
Author: Alain Robbe-Grillet
First Published: 1957, Les Éditions de Minuit
Opening Line: “Now the shadow of the column- the column which supports the south-west corner of the roof- divides the corresponding corner of the veranda into two equal parts.”
Synopsis: On a tropical banana plantation, a jealous husband spies on his wife through Venetian blinds, convinced that she is having an affair.
How It Innovates: According to Vladimir Nabokov, Jealousy is “the finest novel about love since Proust,” and far be it my place to criticize one of 20th century’s most iconic literary figures, but I’m not sure it’s got anything to do with “love” as such. I can’t get his comment out of my head, because I want to see what he saw when he was reading it. I remember there being a lot of jealousy- and plenty of connotations of lust and sexual tension- but not too much love. More so than anything else, the dominant theme of this short novel is the nature of reality- which is Robbe-Grillet’s favorite theme to work with (see Les Gommes and Le Voyeur). I remember being confused while reading this novel- because it seemed like I was reading the same events over and over again. I then learned that what was happening was that the narrator was constantly replaying the same moments over and over again in his mind to the point that it becomes impossible to distinguish between his observations and his suspicions. It’s this aspect of the novel that reminds me of A Sport and a Pastime; both feature jealous narrators and it’s never revealed whether the events of the book actually happened or if they are the creations of those jealous narrators. The difference Jealousy has with A Sport and a Pastime however, is that unlike the latter it is not a conventional novel, and cannot be approached as such. Robbe-Grillet wrote Jealousy as a novel with what he referred to as an “absent third-person narrator”. The husband is never once referred to in the book, never speaks, never acts, never named. The idea of the jealous husband is one that is inferred by the reader, once they realize that the events of the book are framed as though being observed by someone. There are subtle clues as to the narrator’s existence- such as the number of deck chairs on the veranda or the number of places at the table. This is a book that will make you a creative reader, because a creative reader is what the book requires. On the surface it is merely a sequence of repeated scenes, each of them written with a meticulous and exact sense of geometry. There’s something very mathematical about the book. The smallest angles and dimensions create a sense of perspective, and provide evidence that there is indeed a narrator. And the green landscape of banana trees that enclose the house represent the jealousy of this view, since green is the color of jealousy.
The Sound and the Fury
Author: William Faulkner
First Published: 1929, Jonathan Cape & Harrison Smith
Opening Line: “Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting.”
Synopsis: The fall from grace of a Southern aristocratic family is chronicled over 30 years through the memories of three brothers obsessed with their sister.
How It Innovates: The novel is divided into four parts. The first three sections detail the memories and thoughts of the three brothers Benjy, Quentin, and Jason- each of whom has a different relationship with their sister Caddy that consumes them in various ways. The fourth section of the novel is written from a third-person omniscient point of view, and Caddy- the heroine, the central figure of the book- has no narrative voice at all. And yet this only makes her presence seem all the more powerful, as our image of her is filtered through the views of her brothers. And ultimately that is what the book is about; not Caddy herself so much as what she means to her brothers. It is the first two sections of the novel that are the most interesting to scholars because they are unlike anything else in fiction. Benjy, the voice of the first section, is cognitively disabled and non-verbal. His passage is so interesting because he is trapped in the past, going over various events in his life linked by visceral sensations. It makes for challenging reading, because the time shifts abruptly every couple paragraphs or so, and we are presented with this splintered, kaleidoscopic mélange of scenes. I got the hang of it when I realized that the temporal shifts are indicated by italicized lines (Faulkner originally wanted to have different colors of font to mark the alternating time periods) but it still makes for very challenging reading. It’s not the sort of book you wanna rush, or take to the beach and unwind with in the sun. It’s the sort of thing you have to methodically work through and re-read again and again. The second section though, is even more difficult. It’s narrated by Quentin as he slowly loses his mind. He is tortured by his father’s nihilistic world view and his sister’s sexual promiscuity. Benjy’s section, when you get used to the temporal shifts, is more or less a series of physical sensations and images. He’s non-verbal, so there is no voice to speak of. Whereas with Quentin, we are given a rush of pained emotions and neuroticisms. I honestly marvel at Faulkner’s genius here, because the psychology of the narrators are as interesting as you will find- it is as though he wants to get to the very heart of the human soul and its agonies. As Quentin’s mental state rapidly deteriorates, all sense of grammatical structure and punctuation is thrown out the window. And that’s what I meant in my opening paragraph about experimental fiction reinventing narrative techniques to reflect the themes of a story. Faulkner does not subvert convention for its own sake, but because it serves the book’s themes. Quentin is one of the most fascinating characters in American literature- in some way representing the chivalric, “white knight” psyche of all Southern men- and Faulkner’s abandonment of form makes for an unforgettable account of the man’s depressive state. I’m not sure if I have a favorite novel, but The Sound and the Fury is definitely a contender for the title. Although it’s ball-bustingly difficult, it’s actually a very entertaining story with plenty of cinematic scenes in its more straightforward final two sections.
Author: Julio Cortázar
First Published: 1963, Editorial Sudamericana Sociedad Anonima
Opening Line: “Would I find La Maga?” or “Yes, but who will cure us of the dull fire, the colorless fire that at nightfall runs along the Rue de la Huchette, emerging from the crumbling doorways, from the little entranceways, of the imageless fire that licks the stones and lies in wait in doorways, how shall we cleanse ourselves of the sweet burning that comes after, that nests in us forever allied with time and memory, with sticky things that hold us here on this side, and which will burn sweetly in us until we have been left in ashes.” (depending on where you start the novel)
Synopsis: An Argentine writer living in Paris searches for his mistress La Maga, before going home to his native Buenos Aires and seeing her everywhere he looks.
How It Innovates: Hopscotch is described by its author as a “counter-novel”. As you may have noticed above, I put two opening lines for the book. How can a book have two opening lines, you ask? Well that’s because it was written as being “many books”, although it is two above all. If you want you can read it from the first page in a straightforward manner like you would any other novel, and the book ends at chapter 56. There are 155 chapters in total, but the last 99 are considered “expendable”. Thinking that I would not read this again for many years, if at all, I decided to read it the second way, where you “hopscotch” from chapter to chapter using a code indicated at the front of the book. This way, you read all of the chapters, starting with chapter 73, and using the code to figure out which chapter comes next. It was super-interesting and completely unlike anything else I’ve ever read. The expendable chapters provide deeper insights into the characters as well as random musings that serve to fill in the gaps of the main narrative that runs through chapters 1-56. It’s been a few years since I read the novel, but it’s an interesting read and the protagonist makes for an intriguing, isolated tumbleweed that goes from place to place without really finding a sense of belonging.
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