Some Novels Are More Experimental Than Others
Tony White is the author of five novels including Foxy-T and Shackleton's Man Goes South, as well as numerous short stories. He was creative entrepreneur in residence in the French department of King's College London, and has been writer in residence at London's Science Museum and the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies. He has also collaborated with Faber Social to co-curate ‘Under the Paving Stones: a night of experimental fiction’ on 19 February 2018, featuring live readings from Joanna Walsh, Eley Williams, Stewart Home, Kirsty Gunn, Iphgenia Baal and White himself. His latest novel The Fountain in the Forest transforms the traditional crime narrative into something dizzyingly unique: an avant-garde linguistic experiment, thrilling police procedural, philosophical meditation on liberty and counter-culture bildungsroman. Below, exclusively for Foyles, Tony talks about the joys of experimental fiction, and recommends three classic works by Stein, Burroughs and Calvino
Writing in the TLS recently, Rosie Šnajdr said that 2017 had been ‘a sensational year for experimental fiction,’ adding that small presses were leaders in this form of literary innovation. To back up her point, Šnajdr was reviewing a number of critically acclaimed recent works, including two highly original short story collections from small presses: Attrib. and Other Stories by Eley Williams, which is published by London’s Influx Press, and Worlds from the Word’s End by Joanna Walsh, from Sheffield’s And Other Stories. Both are books that I too would highly recommend, from small but influential publishers, each of whom continually take risks with their world class lists.
As well as referring to literary innovation, Šnajdr uses the word ‘experimental’ to mean literature that is opposed to the dominant forces of realism, the mainstream and celebrity. Which is an excellent counter to the old saw that goes something like this: since the novel as a literary form has always been infinitely open to reinvention, then all novels are by definition experimental. Well, that always felt like a bit of a stretch. All novels are experimental, we might concede with apologies to Orwell, but some novels are more experimental than others… I’m fascinated, for example, by the overtly experimental work of Oulipo – the Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, or Workshop of Potential Literature – a group of writers including the great Georges Perec, who from 1960 onwards produced literary works using mathematical and other constraints – among them ‘lipograms’ (works in which a specified word or letter is absent), or ‘mandated vocabularies’, where the words to be used in writing a story are somehow predetermined. Perec’s work in particular is highly experimental, and all the more thrilling for that.
Finding something original and innovative, a book that can take such risks and make you look at language or writing – and perhaps the world – anew, remains one of the great pleasures and surprises of reading. Here then are three books, particular favourites of mine and each experimental in its own way, which readers might enjoy:
Three Lives by Gertrude Stein
Comprisiing three novella-length stories, each focusing on a very distinctive single female character, and written in strikingly unusual prose styles, Three Lives is hypnotic, repetitive and deeply affecting. Influenced as she was by the artists Paul Cézanne and Picasso, Stein suggested that her own contribution to innovation in literature was to adopt a painterly approach to composition, so that, just as with the brush strokes in a Cézanne painting, every part of the text might be as important as any other, each part ‘as important as the whole’. Three Lives draws on the work of Paul Cézanne in other ways, too. Supposedly, all three characters and their stories were inspired by a single painting: Cézanne’s 1881 portrait of his wife, which – bought by Stein’s brother Leo – hung above her desk while she was writing.
Nova Express by William S. Burroughs
One of Burroughs’ so called ‘Nova Trilogy’ of novels from the 1960s written using ‘the cut-up’ and ‘fold-in’ techniques (text collage processes developed with his friend and collaborator the artist Brion Gysin), by means of which existing texts are literally cut and recombined to create something new. Once available only as a pulp science fiction paperback, Nova Express has recently been restored and reissued, with an introduction by Burroughs scholar Oliver Harris. Railing in dense and fractured prose against control in its many forms – bureaucracy, the war on drugs, big business, planetary pillage, language itself – Nova Express is shot through with rage and very bleak comedy. Featuring Nova Mob criminals like The Subliminal Kid and Izzy the Push, Nova Express is a darkly hallucinatory space age nightmare, like Damon Runyon on very bad acid.
The Castle of Crossed Destinies by Italo Calvino
‘In the midst of a thick forest there was a castle that gave shelter to all travellers overtaken by night on their journey…’ But in The Castle of Crossed Destinies, as in any fairy story or a folk tale, such hospitality comes at a price. Guests find that they have lost their powers of speech, and are compelled to introduce themselves and to tell their stories by dealing tarot cards. This of course means that Calvino must do likewise, and indeed, the margins running alongside each of the stories that make up this extraordinarily vivid short novel are filled with tiny reproductions of the particular cards used to generate them. By dawn, the table is covered by a grid of cards. In the second half of the novel, travellers find themselves in a tavern, dealing from a different tarot deck, but with the same timeless, human compulsion to tell stories.
In an author’s note, Calvino tells how he ‘realised the tarots were a machine for constructing stories’, and saw the grids that he created in writing the novel (in which stories read both ‘across’ and ‘down’) as ‘a kind of crossword puzzle made of tarots instead of letters’. I was dumbfounded to read these words again just a month or two ago, when I picked the book up for the first time in perhaps 30 years. These two ideas of Calvino’s must have lodged somewhere in my unconscious, and cross-fertilised, for it was a similar imperative that found me using the solutions to actual crossword puzzles from a particular period in history – the 90 days in 1985, between the end of the Miners’ Strike and the notorious Battle of the Beanfield – as precisely ‘a machine for constructing stories’, an Oulipian ‘mandated vocabulary’ that is at the heart of my latest novel, The Fountain in the Forest.
Author photo © Chris Dorley Brown