It’s a simple but profound truth: the novel is capable of anything. There are some writers who give us straightforward narratives in which we can envelop ourselves and feel comforted. But there are other writers who attempt to push against the barriers of fiction in order to create works that defy classification. Experimental novels can be pretty hit or miss. But there are some experimental novels that reward you generously for doing the work of reading them. We decided to compile a list of our ten favorite experimental novels of the 21st century so far. Let us know what you think, and which of your favorite experimentalists we should have included, in the comments section.
Danielewski’s follow up to the terrifying bestseller, House of Leaves, is about a couple of eternal teenage lovers attempting to outrace time and history. But what truly makes this a novelistic experiment is its poetic, stream-of-consciousness style, as well as the way the narratives of the young lovers are arranged. You can read the book from Hailey’s point of view, then flip the book around and read it from Sam’s point of view.
Markson’s story begins with an intriguing premise: the protagonist is the last person left on earth. She sits alone at her typewriter, documenting her thoughts, opinion, and searches for other life. Like Danielewski’s book, this one isn’t experimental merely for its unconventional narrative and stream of consciousness style. What truly sets it apart is the way inconsistencies become layered in the protagonist’s narrative, casting doubt on whether she really is the last person on earth, or has actually gone mad.
Smith’s fourth novel experiments with form, style, and voice. It follows four primary characters, but the real focus of the novel is its NW London setting. The formal pastiche that Smith paints—switching from first to third point of view, from long narratives to short stories, from stream-of-consciousness to formally rigid screenplay dialogue—is meant to mirror the polyphonics of modern day urban life.
This novel confuses genres and therefore confuses reality. The protagonist is a young Ben Marcus, and is told from the point of view of Ben and each of his parents. The language of the novel is highly inventive, creating a world so detailed and unique it seems like a reality unto itself. Aside from genres and realities, the novel also confuses time. And if that isn’t mind-bending enough for you, some of the blurbs on the book jacket feel real and normal, while some seem like inventions: “How can one word from Ben Marcus’s rotten filthy heart be trusted?” –Michael Marcus, Ben’s father.
When it comes to experimental fiction, Padgett Powell is one of the definitive contributors to the canon. Perhaps his most experimental novel, The Interrogative Mood is comprised exclusively of questions. In spite of this, the novel is still a well contained and grounded, if unconventional, story. How he pulls it off is something you’ll have to read to find out.
Remainder made Tom McCarthy a notable modern experimental practitioner. The novel follows a man who is injured in a freak accident and who receives an immodest sum of money as compensation. His memory is damaged, and as images and moment begin to come back to him, he uses his money to stage these memories so that he can actually experience them again. These events become more and more violent as the novel moves forward, begging questions of what sort of worlds exist with each of us, and what would happen if we brought those worlds to life?
McBride’s debut novel took nine years to secure a publisher, finally being released in 2013. This speaks to its uniqueness, inventiveness, and difficulty. Since being released it has achieved much acclaim and won many awards. It tells the story of a girl and her brother who struggle against the tragic chaos of their lives. It’s told from the girl’s point of view, which is scathing and angry and often difficult, though always rewarding, to parse. Aside from awards, McBride’s novel has garnered comparisons to James Joyce, Virginia Woolfe, and Flann O’Brien, all three of whom could easily be on an Experimental Literature Mount Rushmore.
Mitchell’s third novel is distinguished by its nesting-doll structure—story within story within story, etc. The narrative begins in the nineteenth century and moves all the way through time into a post-apocalyptic future, and then, of course, moves back through time into the nineteenth century. Here the first half of the first story, hundreds of pages later, concludes. It’s another one of those novels, like many on this list, that seems near impossible to pull off, but somehow Mitchell does.
This Pulitzer Prize winning novel defies labels. Is it an interconnected short story collection, or is it a somewhat fragmented experimental novel? Read it and decide for yourself. However you see it, this book manages to pull off a number of complete narratives in a relatively short amount of space. If that isn’t experimental enough, the book also features a chapter (or story) written entirely as a PowerPoint presentation.
This list wouldn’t be complete without David Foster Wallace, whose second novel, Infinite Jest, was as unique and inventive a book as has ever been written. His final, unfinished novel, The Pale King, is perhaps equally as inventive. The novel changes forms on a dime—from descriptive scenery, to dialogues, to excerpts from the Illinois Tax Code, to character sketches—and also features sections narrated by a fictional “David Wallace.” The story, for the most part, focuses on characters who work for the IRS. It’s not possible to say what Wallace would have changed, added, or taken out had he lived to publish it. However, as it stands, The Pale King is an ambitious novel from one of our most ambitious writers.
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