I was considering beginning this column in praise of experimental fiction with one extremely long paragraph omitting conventional punctuation and including a few purposeful speling mistakes to subvert the readers’ expectation of meaning… eschewing full-stops and capital-letters and letting words roll into each other without heed of the beginning middle or end of sentences or maybe trying out some elliptical
showing how meaning is often
I’ll spare you any further sub-Joycean acrobatics, however, as they are perhaps less well suited to criticism than to fiction – indeed, novelists have long been trying out tricksy techniques, experimenting with how best to tell a story. There have, though, been more fertile eras of fictional experimentation than others, with some eras eschewing experiment in favour of more traditional modes, realist narratives with a beginning and middle and end, in that order.
Experimentalists know that the beginning and middle and end don’t always flow that way, that it is often more emotionally truthful to have a hint of the ending flickering in the beginning, the beginning repeating in the ending. “In my beginning is my end”, wrote a master of modernism, T.S. Eliot, in Four Quartets, explaining that:
“What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning
The end is where we start from”.
Other great experimentalists such as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce also devoted themselves to probing and playing with form, exploring streams-of-consciousness techniques to better express the flow of the chaotic world of thought and emotion more faithfully on the page than any conventional linear narrative can do.
There was a period more recently where experiment seemed to have stultified, giving way to traditional realist plot-based storytelling, a shift that Zadie Smith explored in an essay in the New York Review of Books entitled “Two Paths for the Novel”(2008), describing how a “breed of lyrical Realism has had the freedom of the highway for some time now, with most other exits blocked”. Drawing on the essay, in an article in 2010, William Skidelsky asked: Is experimental fiction making a come-back?
The awarding of a major prize such as the Baileys Womens’ Prize for Fiction to Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing (Galley Beggar Press / Faber) certainly seems to signal a hopeful shift into an era with a renewed confidence in novelistic experimentation; indeed, McBride has cited James Joyce as her literary hero. And reading the novel is certainly an intriguing experience; the modernist influence is everywhere apparent – even to flick through A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing and pluck sentences at random from it is like wandering through a field of words and pulling up wild flowers which surprise, delight, and the occasional nettle to sting and shock the senses into recognition of its characters’ raw sensations: “Quick the world rushed out like waters” and “I flower a tinct of what I’ve read alone upstairs” (page 51); and “Rip m open” (page 193). And such sentences and phrases do aim to rip the reader open, opening minds to the possibilities of how language can be used. Tools such as phonetic spelling can better capture the flux of lived experience, giving space for the inner world to shape the outer world of the page rather than allowing the exigencies of formal text-book English to confine and quash the complex inner world and the rush of real speech.
Other great contemporary novelists who refreshingly experiment with form and style include David Peace, David Mitchell, Ali Smith and Zadie Smith whose most recent novel NW displays stylistic influences ranging from Virginia Woolf to Roland Barthes’ autobiography, with a section of the novel consisting of short, numbered paragraphs.
This summer sees the publication of some new British fiction with refreshingly experimental elements including Mark Watson’s new novel Hotel Alpha (Picador) set in a London hotel: on his blog, Watson describes a companion volume to the novel, “an electronic collection of 100 short stories” to serve as a “sort of alternative version”. Watson goes on to explain how he has always been drawn to the idea of the ‘encyclopaedic novel’, “a book which tries to encompass as much of life as possible, acknowledges the chaotic and unmanageable nature of human experience, and refuses to be bound by the traditional strictures of the novel form”, going on to explore how the age of the internet demands new modes of storytelling.
There are many other experimental novels that have not managed to make the limelight, but hopefully the awarding of major prize to such a work as A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing will pave the way for brave and bold fictional experimentation reaching a wide readership rather than being confined to slush piles. The Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize winners for 2014 also include some champions of experimentation.
“Fail again, fail better”, said Samuel Beckett and often experiments are not always complete successes, but better a failed attempt to try something new with language, than none at all. As T.S. Eliot wrote about the task of “trying to use words”:
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion”
So when considering those experimental novels in which sentences might stop and stutter half-way, those with sudden elliptical pauses… it’s worth remembering that the supposedly half-formed things can actually be the most fully formed of all.
Anita Sethi is a journalist, writer and critic. She tweets @anitasethi and her website is www.anitasethi.com
Read her first post as Guest Editor, on this year’s winning eight Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize 2014 winners here.
Find out more about the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize 2014 winning titles here.