Let's Try an Experiment. . . .

Vision 65

Let's Try an Experiment. . . .

By

Sumaya Bouadi

Copyright © 2011 Sumaya Bouadi, All Rights Reserved

 

At the moment, I'm reading House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski. For those of you unfamiliar, House of Leaves is a postmodernist novel regarding a film. However, the plot isn't what caught my eye. The formatting, on the other hand, did. Beginning as a simple novel, House of Leaves quickly becomes a literary labyrinth, with text boxes randomly arranged on the pages, some pages with a single word, while others are packed full of words, some upside down, some mirror reflections. In short, it is a prime example of experimental fiction, a genre which is slowly becoming more and more accepted.

So firstly, what is experimental fiction? In short, it's a work of literature that uses a new, innovative literary style. And, used properly, it can bring depth and additional meaning to books. How?

Stream of Consciousness: One of the oldest techniques, stream of consciousness is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it can bring depth and humanity to a character – after all, who doesn't have illogical, intertwined mental ramblings? – and allows a smoother transition into an old backstory, or introducing a character, just by going through the character's thoughts. It's probably the easiest way to get into backstory, and can definitely serve as a way to bring up unusual facts or stories. Furthermore, stream of consciousness can work as an effective tool for exploring the thoughts of a character, especially in a tense situation, and can give the reader insight into the character. It can also more fully represent the character's environment in the way that they experience it: rather than just pure description, the reader can see the world as the character sees it, focusing on what the character focuses on, and feeling the character's own feelings. It can also be used to explain actions more thoroughly, as once the reader's inside a character's mind, it becomes easier to understand why they do what they do. However, taken too far, the book can dissolve into a mess of tangents and digressions, never getting to the actual point of the story. Of course, once you start experimenting, sometimes digression is the point.

Literary example: Ulysses, by James Joyce

Footnotes/Endnotes: Footnotes and endnotes can soften the stream of consciousness style, while losing very few benefits. Sometimes, something just has to be explained that does not quite fit with the overall flow of the story, and footnotes come in handy. It can also be used to keep two stories running side by side: one in footnotes, and one in the main text. It stops the main text from becoming too cluttered or overrun with different threads and plotlines, but allows you a quick and easy way to explore the ideas you want to explore. Some authors also use this technique to make reading easier on the reader. For example, if you use foreign phrases, or technical medical phrases, your reader will be infinitely grateful for a translation in the footnotes. It can be a useful way to bring in other stories and digressions into the text without packing the main text too deeply and confusing the reader too much. Of course, the greatest catch is that you might always have that one reader that assumes because it's a footnote, it's not worth reading.

Literary example: Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace

Typographical experimentation: Basically, all this style means is interesting arrangements of words on the page. The great thing about this technique is that it can really engross the reader in the work. For example, as Danielewski uses it, once the characters enter the labyrinth, the text on the page begins to resemble a labyrinth, winding around itself and turning upside down and changing sharply. Used properly, changing the presentation of the words on the page, especially within a horror novel, can slightly disturb the reader by changing their expectations, adding to the creepiness of a novel. Or simply changing the placement of words to reflect the situation or the place the characters are in – reverse words for a hall of mirrors, swirling text for a whirlpool – can pull the reader even more strongly into the text. However, just as spices, this sort of experimentation works best in small doses. Overload your reader, and they may get tired of it. It's best used as a strong spice: a little goes a long way.

Literary example: House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski.

Patchwork: This is a term I coined to describe a book that includes more than just traditional text, like pictures or flipbooks. I really like this technique, simply because it allows the reader to truly visualize everything the author imagined. It can be used quite effectively to bring life and vitality to a text, and can pull the reader in, in a way that pure text simply cannot. It can also provide a (literal) brightness to the text, shocking the reader enough to bring them back into the story, or illustrate certain details about a character, such as a snapshot of a messy room, or a sketchpad covered in notes. Furthermore, changing the color of certain words, especially if they are central to the text, can bring the reader's attention to those words, and make sure they get special attention (and analysis, if that's what you are aiming for). It can also be used to cement the final message of the novel. After all, a picture's worth a thousand words, and a well-placed picture can express ideas and themes that sometimes, words struggle to capture.

Literary example: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer

Metafiction: Metafiction is tricky territory. Basically, metafiction address the elements of fiction within the novel itself. It can be as simple as the knowledge that the main character is the author of the story, or as complex as a story about a reader reading a book, with the reader's book described within the overall novel itself. Metafiction basically shows literature as a work of art, rather than truth. This technique can stop he reader from being absorbed within the story, especially if they are constantly reminded that it's only a story. However, used properly, metafiction can be both intriguing and gripping. It can also provide a deeper link with the author, as within metafiction, the author can expose themselves and explore their own feelings within the text. Again, metafiction is a technique that ought to be used sparingly. Taken too far, it can come off as overly pretentious or annoying. In smaller doses, it can be seen as a clever, and can create a deeper connection between the reader and the author. Moderation is key within metafiction to create that perfect balance between cleverness and an engrossing story.

Literary Example: Lost in the Funhouse, by John Barth

Time Jumps: One of the easier (and more common) techniques is detached time. This technique can be as simple as skipping ten years in the space of a single sentence, or as a complex as constant flashbacks, flash-forwards, and time resets. This technique can be especially beneficial in a story that takes place over a long period of time, allowing you to skip time more easily, and focus on the periods of time which you want to focus on. Furthermore, it can allow for interesting parallels, aging children even as the father is holding them. It also keeps the reader's attention by making them work, catching the small details to try to reorder the story. Flashbacks and flash-forwards can also add momentum to a story: a flash-forward revealing a mysterious, as of yet unexplained future, a flashback expanding on a yet unexplored dark past.

Literary Example: Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut

The key to experimentation is boldness. Try out something new! It might bring a dying story to life, or add momentum to a story that's beginning to slow down. These techniques allow you more room to experiment and thrive, and can definitely bring inventiveness and life to any story. Just be careful: Don't let cool tricks get in the way of telling an incredible story.

 

Ulysses, James Joyce, Simon & Brown, 978-1613820650

Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace, Back Bay Books, 978-0316066525

House Of Leaves, Mark Z. Danielewiski, Pantheon, 978-0375703768

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer, Mariner Books, 978-0618711659

Lost In The Funhouse, John Barth, Anchor, 978-0385240871

Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut, Dial Press, 978-0385333849