Sunday, 16 May 2010

Books That Don’t Make Sense

What strange wasps of creative madness buzz inside the brain of the experimental novelist? What makes those risk-taking maverick heroes of fiction reach such heights of indulgence that their texts become unbearable to read, almost impossible to assimiliate?

As someone who attempts awkward feats of differentness with varying degrees of success, I’m always ultra-conscious of going so far as to alienate, infuriate and depress the reader. See, readers are the most fickle beings on earth. I should know. I am one.

When a reader doesn’t understand something in a book, a flaming wall of hatred is erected at once between themselves and the author. How dare the author write a complicated metaphor referencing four hundred Greek texts! How dare the author write nine hundred pages in Esperanto! How dare he kill the ornithologist with the cute bum!

See, I have come up against such hate. When I used to write nonsensical stories on the Urbis workshop, people were so outraged by the absence of meaning in my work, I went into hiding. My mate Salman took me in and gave me a sympathetic hug and lemon squash. It was tough.

Then, when I grew up a little, I encountered novels written in wildly experimental ways. When I read Perec’s La Disparition (A Void in English) at 20 or 21, I was outraged that someone had sentenced the E to alphabetical exile. I cried for days at this E-strangement. I couldn’t work my way through the book, since my readerly foundations had been shaken to the core. I was being ruffled in a terrifying way, not the nice way with feather dusters.

Eventually, I re-read the book. I didn’t fully understand it, nor did I find the E-lessness particularly effective, but it opened me up to endless possibilities of frolics to be had in my own writing. The linear mediocrities of previous fictions could be consigned to the dustbin. A new future was before me! Stories written in spaghetti! Stories told backwards, at the wrong angle, on the ankle of an albino spinster! Stories that danced around the point of telling a story, that didn’t involving having to disclose any real emotions! Bliss!

The question then arose – is there a threshold of experimentation for contemporary writers? Finnegans Wake is too much. There won’t ever be another Finnegans Wake, and anyone who tries to write a 21st century Finnegans Wake will be laughed from the building and doused in sneery phlegm.

The evolution of the experimental novel has, in a sense, been an act of devolving from Joyce’s unreadable second opus to a more palatable mixture of the obscure and the accessible. We still want texts that entertain us, but we love to have a creative thumb shoved up our rumps.

Recent texts I’ve read on my MA Course have helped me to ponder this matter. Essentially, the experimental novelist, like the rock band launching into that 20-minute solo, the child stealing chocolates from the tub, will do whatever they can get away with before the audience cracks. If they are in a position to get away with unlimited outrageous hijinks, they will exploit it and run giggling.

Sorrentino’s Mulligan Stew is an example of a book that is indulgent, overlong and sometimes unreadable. For the most part, though, it is hilarious, original and very reader friendly. This one straddles the line between gross indulgence and reader accessibility in the most harmonious way I’ve seen yet.

On the other hand, a novel like Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch represents the sort of experimentation I revile – that which panders to an elitist readership and squanders its originality for arrogance. In this novel, chapters can be read randomly, though no devious plot ingenuity takes place, and the author misses his chance at extreme cleverness. The same could be said about B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates (which I liked).

In terms of an obsessive singularity of style, I’m opposed to gross excesses. Recently, I read Todd McEwen’s Who Sleeps With Katz. It’s narrated in a garbled New York idiolect which made me want to self-harm. Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker is impressive but requires study notes to be understood. Nicola Barker’s Behindlings breaks down into gibberish around page 200.

I say the best experimental texts, and it pains me to say this, do have their eyes on a commerical market. Steven Hall’s The Raw Shark Texts is a readable thriller which wears its experimental influences on its sleeve. House of Leaves isn’t readable but its USP that it is the most experimental novel ever written in history, ever, wow, look at what I’m doing!

OK. Blog done. I’m now going to be very predictable and abandon any proper conclusion, and break off in mid-se


  1. A long time ago whenI had to study the history of art, the tutors had us write on all kinds of whacky themes. In one of my submissions I came up with an dea I still think is valid.

    In any art form, there are three aspects:

    1. The artist's trigger or driver. They keep at it until they are satisfied with their solution.

    2. What the audience get out of that art work. It can be a bland "very pretty", an intelectualisation, or something the work drags up from their subconscious. (Let's ignore the "this is what I'm told to think about the work").

    3. If 1. and 2. match up, we probably have communication.

    In mymind, all three aspects are valid in their own right.
    So if an experimental work gets me off, I'm OK with it. If it doesn't, I dont care - I'm not going to argue about it's value. Just express a personal, subjective, "I didn't like that."

    I get my intellectual game kicks from other things.

  2. I have a hard time with experimental writing that is just experimental and leaves the reader without much to cling on. When I read "A Brief History of Hideous Men" I kept think - ok you are clever but so what?

  3. Mike: I agree, if a reader responds negatively to a work it's usually the fault of the work, not the reader. Then again, there are times when that is utterly wrong and people are idiots.

    Readers can't be trusted.

    Jessie: Experimental with no purpose is unforgivable. When they have a motive, it can be gorgeous. See Perec.

  4. Some stories do require work from the reader.

    If that is why they don't like it, or if they don't put in the work - they have just chosen the wrong book.

    With my stuff, I filter out the opinions of those readers.