Experiments with Fiction, Part 3

No exploration of experimental fiction would be complete without reference to the Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle (Workshop of Potential Literature), or Oulipo.

This literary circle, founded by the Surrealist Marcel Duchamp and some friends in France in 1960, literally plays with words. The group is famous for making an almost mathematical use of “constraints” to stimulate creativity and form new works.

Italo Calvino, perhaps one of the more famous members, wrote a number of beautiful works of fiction, some of which experiment with their own creation. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler takes you, the reader, through a succession of novelistic passages, each one unique, and yet driving a plot forward as you search for your companion, another reader. Another elegant experiment of his is The Castle of Crossed Destinies (Italian version only), which builds a number of tales out of the archetypal figures of a deck of Tarot cards as they interact.

Georges Perec, another Oulipo member, and one of the more productive authors, wrote a metaphysical mystery novel called A Void, in which Parisian Anton Vowl goes missing, and as his friends search for him by reading his diary, they disappear as well. The original French novel was notable for never using the letter E, and the English translation completely captures the fun.  The Art and Craft of Approaching your Head of Department to Submit A Request for A Raise was crafted in the late 1960s with flow charts and the modern computer in mind, eliminating all punctuation and capitalization. In the age of texting, it deserves a second look, especially for its depiction of office anxiety and humor.

Raymond Queneau, another of the post-Surrealist founders of Oulipo, wrote a number of famous experimental texts, but his most influential was perhaps Exercises in Style, which tells the same story – a man sees a certain stranger twice in one day – 99 different ways. Another influential title of his is Zazie in the Métro, which is told completely in street slang, jargon, and cant (a much bigger difference in French).

2 thoughts on “Experiments with Fiction, Part 3”

  1. Yay, Wally! And don’t forget Seattle’s own Doug Nufer who wrote an entire novel, “Never Again”, without repeating a single word: no more than 1 ‘a’ or ‘the’ or anything!

  2. Thanks, Bruce! I’ve put this book on hold – I hadn’t heard of it, and the Library of Congress gave it the subject heading of satire, so it flew right past my radar.

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