I recently read a strange little book by Tao Lin, called Eeeee Eee Eeee. It is fiction, a novel of sorts, although its characters are almost uniformly flat and disaffected (including the dolphins and the bears), anything resembling a plot dissolves after a few pages of slightly bored or mildly anxious introspection, and the language feels deeply repetitive. I would recommend it to you, but when all the usual crowd pleasers are missing, how can I?
And yet I do. The book made me laugh because it was strange, and if you like having the narrative rug pulled out from under you, you might enjoy it as well.
But it begs the question, a bit. What kind of book does this to a reader? Well, helpfully enough, the Library of Congress has created the subject heading “experimental fiction.” A closer look reveals some classic authors and titles, but also some newer names, for those of you up to a little literary experimentation. This week, a few of the classics.
The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, by Laurence Sterne.
In this 18th Century, nine-volume classic (our copy is only one volume!), Tristram relates the nature of his birth, although his predilection to tangential exposition doesn’t allow the reader to hear this part until over halfway through the book. Noted for its humor and possibly the first use of stream-of-consciousness narrative, this might be the most influential piece of experimental fiction out there.
Finnegans Wake, by James Joyce
Not the oldest in the “genre” but possibly the most challenging. Scholars are still working out the multi-layered, multilinguistic puns that make this novel almost a prose poem. It is best appreciated when read aloud.
Pale Fire, by Vladimir Nabokov
A 999-line poem, commentary on the poem, and footnotes that reveal the actual plot of a king who escapes the Soviets by means of tunnels and disguises. The book was actually used to demonstrate the new idea of hypertext in the 1950s.
Jacob’s Room, by Virginia Woolf
Jacob’s life from childhood through his death in World War One is related entirely through the impressions he made on people around him. Woolf’s masterful use of language to evade and elude the subject makes this novel more emotionallly moving than a straight biography could have done.
Naked Lunch, by William S. Burroughs
William Lee flees the police in search of his next fix, winding up in a bizarre realm called the Interzone. Burroughs’ use of cut-up words and phrases rearranged to form new passages broke new literary ground.