Experimental Novels and Novelists

Literature is forever transforming. A new literary age is new precisely because its important writers do things differently from their predecessors. Thus, it could be said that almost all significant literature is in some sense innovative or experimental at its inception but inevitably becomes, over time, conventional. Regarding long fiction, however, the situation is a bit more complex.

It is apparent that, four centuries after Miguel de Cervantes wrote what is generally recognized the first important novel, Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605, 1615), readers have come to accept a certain type of long fiction as most conventional and to regard significant departures from this type as experimental. This most conventional variety is the novel of realism as practiced by nineteenth century giants such as Gustave Flaubert, Leo Tolstoy, Charles Dickens, and George Eliot.

The first task in surveying contemporary experiments in long fiction, therefore, is to determine what “conventional” means in reference to the novel of realism. Most nineteenth century novelists considered fiction to be an imitative form; that is, it presents in words a representation of reality. The underlying assumption of these writers and their readers was that there is a shared single reality, perceived by all—unless they are mad, ill, or hallucinatory—in a similar way. This reality is largely external and objectively verifiable. Time is orderly and moves forward. The novel that reflects this view of reality is equally orderly and accountable. The point of view is frequently, though not always, omniscient (all-knowing): The narrators understand all and tell their readers all they need to know to understand a given situation. The virtues of this variety of fiction are clarity of description and comprehensiveness of analysis.

After reading Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857; English translation, 1886), one can be confident that he or she knows something about Emma Bovary’s home, village, and manner of dress; knows her history, her motivations, and the way she thought; and knows what others thought of her. Not knowing would be a gap in the record; not knowing would mean, according to standards against which readers have judged “conventional” novels, a failure of the author.

Modernism and its Followers

Early in the twentieth century, a disparate group of novelists now generally referred to as modernists— James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, Franz Kafka, Marcel Proust, and others—experimented with or even abandoned many of the most hallowed conventions of the novel of realism. These experiments were motivated by an altered perception of reality. Whereas the nineteenth century assumption was that reality is external, objective, and measurable, the modernists believed reality to be also internal, subjective, and dependent upon context. Reflecting these changing assumptions about reality, point of view in the modernist novel becomes more often limited, shifting, and even unreliable rather than omniscient.

This subjectivity reached its apogee in one of the great innovations of modernism, the point-of-view technique dubbed “stream of consciousness,” which plunges the reader into a chaos of thoughts arrayed on the most tenuous of organizing principles—or so it must have seemed to the early twentieth century audience accustomed to the orderly fictional worlds presented by the nineteenth century masters.

Once reality is acknowledged to be inner and subjective, all rules about structure in the novel are abandoned. The most consistent structuring principle of premodernist novelists—the orderly progression of time—was rejected by many modernists. Modern novels do not “progress” through time in the conventional sense; instead, they follow the inner, subjective, shifting logic of a character’s thoughts. Indeed, the two great innovations of modernist fiction—stream of consciousness and nonchronological structure—are inseparable in the modern novel.

Among the most famous and earliest practitioners of these techniques were Joyce (especially Ulysses, 1922, and Finnegans Wake, 1939), Woolf (especially Jacob’s Room, 1922; Mrs. Dalloway, 1925; and To the Lighthouse, 1927), and Faulkner (especially The Sound and the Fury, 1929; As I Lay Dying, 1930). Many of the experimental works of post-World War II long fiction extended these techniques, offering intensely subjective narrative voices and often extreme forms of stream of consciousness, including disruptions of orderly time sequences.

In La traición de Rita Hayworth (1968; Betrayed by Rita Hayworth, 1971), Manuel Puig employs (among other techniques) the words of several sets of characters in different rooms of a house without identifying the speakers or providing transitions to indicate a change in speaker. The effect may be experienced by the reader as a strange solipsistic cacophony, or something like a disjointed choral voice; in fact, the technique is a variation on stream of consciousness and not so very different from the tangle of interior monologues in Faulkner’s novels.

Tim O’Brien’s novel of the Vietnam War, Going After Cacciato (1978, revised 1989), is another example of a work that makes fresh use of a modernist strategy. Here, reality at first seems more external and hence clearer than in Betrayed by Rita Hayworth. The bulk of the action concerns a rifle squad that follows a deserter, Cacciato, out of Vietnam and across Asia and Europe until he is finally surrounded in Paris, where he once again escapes. The chapters that make up this plot, however, are interspersed with generally shorter chapters recounting the experiences of the point-of-view character, Paul Berlin, at home and in Vietnam. In another set of short chapters, Berlin waits out a six-hour guard shift in an observation post by the sea. The most orderly part of the novel is the pursuit of Cacciato, which moves logically through time and place. The perceptive reader eventually realizes, however, that the pursuit of Cacciato is a fantasy conjured up by Berlin, whose “real” reality is the six hours in the observation post, where his thoughts skip randomly from the present to the past (in memories) to a fantasy world. As in the best modernist tradition, then, the structure of Going After Cacciato reflects an inner, subjective reality.

The post-World War II writer who most famously and provocatively continued the modernist agenda in long fiction was Samuel Beckett, especially in his trilogy: Molloy (1951; English translation, 1955), Malone meurt (1951; Malone Dies, 1956), and L’Innommable (1953; The Unnamable, 1958). In each successive novel, external reality recedes as the narrative voice becomes more inward-looking. In Molloy, for example, the title character searches for his mother, but he is lost from the beginning. He can find neither her (if she truly exists) nor his way back home, wherever that is—nor can he be sure even of the objective reality of recent experience. In one passage Molloy notes that he stayed in several rooms with several windows, but then he immediately conjectures that perhaps the several windows were really only one, or perhaps they were all in his head. The novel is filled with “perhapses” and “I don’t knows,” undermining the reader’s confidence in Beckett’s words.

The subjectivity and uncertainty are intensified in Malone Dies. At least in Molloy, the protagonist was out in the world, lost in a countryside that appears to be realistic, even if it is more a mindscape than a convincing geographic location. In Malone Dies, the protagonist spends most of his days immobile in what he thinks is a hospital, but beyond this nothing—certainly not space or time—is clear. As uncertain of their surroundings as Molloy and Malone are, they are fairly certain of their own reality; the unnamed protagonist of the final volume of the trilogy, The Unnamable, does not know his reality. His entire labyrinthine interior monologue is an attempt to find an identity for himself and a definition of his world, the one depending upon the other. In those attempts, however, he fails, and at no time does the reader have a confident sense of time and place in reference to the protagonist and his world.

The New Novel

With The Unnamable, long fiction may seem to have come a great distance from the modernist novel, but in fact Beckett was continuing the modernist practice of locating reality inside a limited and increasingly unreliable consciousness. Eventually, voices cried out against the entire modernist enterprise. Among the earliest and most vocal of those calling for a new fiction—for le nouveau roman, or a new novel—was a group of French avantgarde writers who became known as the New Novelists. However, as startlingly innovative as their fiction may at first appear, they often were following in the footsteps of the very modernists they rejected.

Among the New Novelists (sometimes to their dismay) were Michel Butor, Nathalie Sarraute, and Claude Simon. Even though Simon won the Nobel Prize in Literature, probably the most famous (or infamous) of the New Novelists was Alain Robbe-Grillet.


Alain Robbe-Grillet

Robbe-Grillet decried what he regarded as outmoded realism and set forth the program for a new fiction in his Pour un nouveau roman (1963; For a New Novel: Essays on Fiction, 1965). His own career might offer the best demonstration of the movement from old to new. His first published novel, Les Gommes (1953; The Erasers, 1964), while hardly Dickensian, was not radically innovative. With Le Voyeur (1955; The Voyeur, 1958), however, his work took a marked turn toward the experimental, and with La Jalousie (1957; Jealousy, 1959) and Dans le labyrinthe (1959; In the Labyrinth, 1960), the New Novel came to full flower.

The most famous technical innovation of the New Novelists was the protracted and obsessive descriptions of objects—a tomato slice or box on a table or a picture on a wall—often apparently unrelated to theme or plot. The use of this device led some critics to speak of the “objective” nature of the New Novel, as if the technique offered the reader a sort of photographic clarity. On the contrary, in the New Novel, little is clear in a conventional sense. Robbe-Grillet fills his descriptions with “perhapses” and “apparentlys” along with other qualifiers, and the objects become altered or metamorphosed over time. After Robbe-Grillet’s early novels, time is rarely of the conventional earlier-to-later variety but instead jumps and loops and returns.

One example of the transforming nature of objects occurs in The Voyeur, when a man on a boat peers obsessively at the figure-eight scar left by an iron ring flapping against a seawall. Over the course of the novel the figure-eight pattern becomes a cord in a salesman’s suitcase, two knotholes side by side on a door, a bicycle, a highway sign, two stacks of plates, and so on—in more than a dozen incarnations. Moreover, Robbe-Grillet’s objects are not always as “solid.” A painting on a wall (In the Labyrinth) or a photograph in a newspaper lying in the gutter (La Maison de rendez-vous, 1965; English translation, 1966) may become “animated” as the narrative eye enters it, and the action will transpire in what was, a paragraph before, only ink on paper or paint on canvas.

Such techniques indeed seemed radically new, far afield of the novels of Joyce and Faulkner. However, it is generally the case with the New Novelists, especially with Robbe-Grillet, that this obsessive looking, these distortions and uncertainties and transformations imposed on what might otherwise be real surfaces, have their origins in a narrative consciousness that warps reality according to its idiosyncratic way of seeing. The point-of-view character of In the Labyrinth is a soldier who is likely feverish and dying; in The Voyeur, a psychotic murderer; in Jealousy, a jealous husband who quite possibly has committed an act of violence or contemplates doing so. In all cases the reader has even more trouble arriving at definitive conclusions than is the case with the presumably very difficult novels of Joyce and Faulkner.

Ultimately, the New Novelists’ program differs in degree more than in kind from the modernist assumption that reality is subjective and that fictional structures should reflect that subjectivity. As famous and frequently discussed as the New Novelists have been, their fiction has had relatively little influence beyond France, and when literary theorists define “postmodernism” (that is, the literary expression that has emerged after, and is truly different from, modernism), they rarely claim the New Novel as postmodern.


A far more significant departure from modernism occurred when writers began to reject the notion that had been dominant among novelists since Miguel de Cervantes: that it is the chief duty of the novelist to be realistic, and the more realistic the fiction the worthier it is. This breakthrough realization—that realism of whatever variety is no more than a preference for a certain set of conventions—manifests itself in different ways in fiction. In metafiction, also known as self-mimesis or selfreferential fiction, the author (or his or her persona), deliberately reminds the reader that the book is a written entity; in the traditional novel, however, the reader is asked to suspend his or her disbelief.

Often the metafictive impulse appears as little more than an intensification of the first-person-omniscient narrator, the “intrusive author” disparaged by Henry James but favored by many nineteenth century writers. Rather than employing an “I” without an identity, as in William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair: A Novel Without a Hero (1847-1848), metafiction makes clear that the “I” is the novel’s author. Examples of this technique include the novels of José Donoso in Casa de campo (1978; A House in the Country, 1984) and of Luisa Valenzuela in Cola de lagartija (1983; The Lizard’s Tail, 1983).

In other novels, the metafictive impulse is more radical and transforming. When Donald Barthelme stops the action halfway through Snow White (1967), for example, and requires the reader to answer a fifteen-question quiz on the foregoing, the readers’ ability to “lose themselves” in the novel’s virtual world is hopelessly and hilariously destroyed. Another witty but vastly different metafictive novel is Italo Calvino’s Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore (1979; If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, 1981), in which the central character, Cavedagna, purchases a novel called If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by an author named “Italo Calvino.” Cavedagna finds that his copy is defective: The first thirty-two pages are repeated again and again, and the text is not even that of Calvino; it is instead the opening of a Polish spy novel. The remainder of the book concerns Cavedagna’s attempts to find the rest of the spy novel, his blossoming romance with a woman on the same mission, and a rambling intrigue Calvino would surely love to parody had he not invented it. Furthermore, the novel is constructed around a number of openings of other novels that never, for a variety of reasons, progress past the first few pages.

Metafiction is used to represent the impossibility of understanding the global world, particularly the complexity of politics and economics. Critically acclaimed metafictive novels include Australian Peter Carey’s Illywhacker(1985), American Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves (2000), Canadian Yann Martel’s Life of Pi (2001), and South-African Nobel laureate J. M. Coetzee’s Slow Man (2005). Junot Díaz won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for his first novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007). The novel is ostensibly a love story about a Dominican American man in New Jersey, but through a series of extended footnotes and asides the narrator relates and comments on the history of the brutal dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic. The novel has different narrators and settings, as well as occasional messages from the author, and is filled with wordplay and lively slang in English and Spanish.

Fiction as Artifice

One might well ask if metafiction is not too narrow an endeavor to define an age (for example, postmodernism). The answer would be yes, even If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, for example, might more properly be described as a novel whose subject is reading a novel rather than writing one. Metafiction is best considered one variation of a broader, more pervasive impulse in post-World War II long fiction: fiction-as-artifice. Rather than narrowly focusing on the process of writing fiction (metafiction), in fiction-as-artifice the author directly attacks the conventions of realism or acknowledges that all writing is a verbal construct bearing the most tenuous relationship to actuality.

One of the earliest examples of fiction-as-artifice in the post-World War II canon is Raymond Queneau’s Exercices de style (1947; Exercises in Style, 1958). The title states where Queneau’s interests lie: in technique and in the manipulation of language, rather than in creating an illusion of reality. The book comprises ninety-nine variations on a brief scene between two strangers on a Parisian bus. In each retelling of the incident, Queneau uses a different dialect or style (“Notation” and “Litotes”). The almost endless replication of the single scene forces the reader to see that scene as a verbal construct rather than an approximation of reality. Such “pure” manifestations of fiction-as-artifice as Exercises in Style are relatively rare. More often, fiction-as-artifice is a gesture employed intermittently, side by side with realist techniques. The interplay of the two opposing strategies create a delightful aesthetic friction.

One of the most famous and provocative examples of fiction-as-artifice is Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire (1962). The structure of the work belies all traditional conventions of the novel. Pale Fire opens with an “editor’s” introduction, followed by a long poem, hundreds of pages of annotations, and an index. The reader discovers, however, that this apparatus tells a hilarious and moving story of political intrigue, murder, and madness. Does Pale Fire, ultimately, underscore the artifices of fiction or, instead, demonstrate how resilient is the writer’s need to tell a story and the reader’s need to read one? Either way, Pale Fire is one of the most inventive and fascinating novels of any genre.

The same questions could be asked of Julio Cortázar’s Rayuela (1963; Hopscotch, 1966), a long novel comprising scores of brief, numbered sections, which, the reader is advised in the introductory “Instructions,” can be read in a number of ways: in the order presented, in a different numbered sequence suggested by the author, or perhaps, if the reader prefers, by “hopscotching” through the novel.

A similar strategy is employed in Milorad Pavic’s Hazarski renik: Roman leksikon u 100,000 reci (1984; Dictionary of the Khazars: A Lexicon Novel in 100,000 Words, 1988). The work is constructed as a dictionary with many brief sections, alphabetized by heading and richly cross-referenced. The reader may read the work from beginning to end, alphabetically, or may follow the cross-references. An added inventive complication is the Dictionary of the Khazars’s two volumes, one “male” and the other “female.” The volumes are identical except for one brief passage, which likely alters the reader’s interpretation of the whole.

Although fiction-as-artifice is European in origin— indeed, it can be traced back to Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1759-1767)—its most inventive and varied practitioner is the American writer John Barth. In work after work, Barth employs, parodies, and lays bare for the reader’s contemplation the artifices of fiction.

In his unified collection Lost in the Funhouse (1968), for example, Barth narrates the history—from conception through maturity and decline—of a man, of humankind, and of fiction itself. The story’s telling, however, highlights the artificiality of writing. The first selection (it cannot be called a “story”) of the novel, “Frame Tale,” is a single, incomplete sentence—“Once upon a time there was a story that began”—which is designed to be cut out and pasted together to form a Möbius strip. When assembled, the strip leads to the complete yet infinite and never-ending sentence “Once upon a time there was a story that began Once upon a time. . . .” The novel’s title story, “Lost in the Funhouse,” contains graphs illustrating the story’s structure. “Glossolalia” is formed from six brief sections all written in the rhythms of the Lord’s Prayer. In “Menelaid,” the dialogue is presented in a dizzying succession of quotation marks within quotation marks within quotation marks. Barth’s experiments in Lost in the Funhouse are continued and intensified in later novels, especially Chimera (1972) and Letters (1979).

In The Broom of the System (1987) by David Foster Wallace, the protagonist, Lenore Stonecipher Beadsman, feels sometimes that she is just a character in a novel. Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996) is a massive work about a future North America where people become so engrossed in watching a film called Infinite Jest that they lose all interest in other activities. Wallace’s fiction moves back and forth in time without warning and combines wordplay, long sentences, footnotes and endnotes, transcripts, and acronyms to create a disjointed postmodern language.

Mark Dunn’s Ella Minnow Pea: A Progressively Lipogrammatic Epistolary Fable (2001) is an epistolary novel about a fictional island off the coast of South Carolina, where the government forbids the use of one letter of the alphabet, at a given time; in effect, the government is parsing the alphabet. The novel is a collection of letters and notes from inhabitants, often less than a page in length, written with a diminishing set of alphabet letters.

Fiction or Nonfiction?

Even at his most experimental, however, Barth never abandons his delight in storytelling. Indeed, virtually all the long fiction addressed thus far show innovations in certain technical strategies but do not substantially challenge the reader’s concept of what is “fictional.” A number of other writers, however, while not always seeming so boldly experimental in technique, have blurred the distinctions between fiction and nonfiction and thus perhaps represent a more fundamental departure from the conventional novel.

The new journalists—such as Truman Capote (In Cold Blood, 1966), Norman Mailer (The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel, the Novel as History, 1968), Tom Wolfe (The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, 1968), and Hunter S. Thompson with his Fear and Loathing series (beginning in 1972)—blur the lines between fiction and nonfiction by using novelistic techniques to report facts. However, the subtitle of Mailer’s work notwithstanding, the reader rarely is uncertain what side of the fictionnonfiction line these authors occupy. The same cannot be said for Don DeLillo (Libra, 1988). For his interpretation of the Kennedy assassination, DeLillo spent countless hours researching the voluminous reports of the Warren Commission and other historical documents. With this factual material as the basis for the novel and with assassin Lee Harvey Oswald as the central character, the degree to which Libra can be considered fictional as opposed to nonfictional remains a challenging question.

The question is even more problematic in reference to Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts (1976). Kingston conducted her research for her memoir not in library stacks but by plumbing her own memory, especially of stories told her by her mother. At times, Kingston not only is imaginatively enhancing reconstructed scenes but also is inventing details. Is this a work of autobiography or a kind of fiction?

Publishers had trouble classifying Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine (1988) and W. G. Sebald’s Die Ausgewanderten (1992; The Emigrants, 1996). The reader is fairly certain that the point-of-view character in The Mezzanine is fictional, but in what sense is his experience fictional? The work, made up of essaylike contemplations of whatever the persona’s eye falls on as he goes about his business on a mezzanine, recalls in some ways the intensely detailed descriptions of the New Novelists but with even less of an apparent conflict or movement toward climax one expects in fiction.

Sebald’s work is in some ways even odder. His short biographies of a selection of dislocated Europeans have a documentary feel—complete with photographs. The photographs, however, have a vagueness about them that makes them seem almost irrelevant to their subjects, and the reader has the uneasy impression that the book may well be a fabrication.

The distinction between fiction and nonfiction was brought into new relief in 2003, when James Frey published A Million Little Pieces, his memoir of escaping drug addiction. The memoir was aggressively gritty in its detail of the author’s struggles, and Frey was widely praised for his courage and honesty in revealing his own mistakes and weaknesses. In 2005 the book was named to Oprah’s Book Club, and soon after topped nonfiction best-seller lists. In 2006, however, much of the material in the “memoir” was found to have been fabricated. The resulting clamor from talk-show host Oprah Winfrey, Frey’s publishers, and readers led to a lively and interesting public debate over art and truth. Frey claimed that the work presented the “essential truth” of his life. Many readers continued to value the book as an honest accounting of what life is like for some addicts, but readers who felt that they had been defrauded were offered a refund. The Brooklyn Public Library, for example, moved the book to its fiction section.

Just as Baker and Sebald call into question what earlier generations would have thought too obvious to debate—the difference between fiction and nonfiction— one consistent impulse among experimenters in long fiction has been the question, What is necessary in fiction and what is merely conventional? Their efforts to test this question have brought readers some of the most provocative and entertaining works of fiction in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

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BS Johnson with pages from his 1968 novel-in-a-box The Unfortunates, which could be shuffled and read in any order.

Currie, Mark, ed. Metafiction. London: Longman, 1995. Collection of articles on experimental themes and techniques.
Friedman, Ellen G., and Miriam Fuchs, eds. Breaking the Sequence: Women’s Experimental Fiction. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989.
Levitt, Morton. The Rhetoric of Modernist Fiction from a New Point of View. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 2006.
Robbe-Grillet, Alain. For a New Novel: Essays on Fiction. 1965. New ed. Translated by Richard Howard. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1996.
Seltzer, Alvin J. Chaos in the Novel: The Novel in Chaos. New York: Schocken Books, 1974.
Shiach, Morag, ed. The Cambridge Companion to the Modernist Novel. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
Waugh, Patricia. Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction. New York: Routledge, 2005.
Rollyson, Carl. Critical Survey Of Long Fiction. 4th ed. New Jersey: Salem Press, 2010.


Categories: Experimental Novels, Literature, Novel Analysis

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