7 Experimental Books That Will Turn Your Head Inside Out

It takes someone who just does not give a fly frick to push things forward. It’s true in art, politics, science, math. It’s true of all the things, but it’s especially true of literature. The avant-garde forward-thinkers are mainly put on the sidelines when regular authors are publishing regular stories, but sometimes the punk rock-minded writers need a spotlight.


Some of these writers are contemporary, some are from the 70s, and some are from a long, long time ago. They are all here, though, assembled in a list of glorious weirdness.


1. Cent Mille Milliards de Poemes (1961) by Raymond Queneau


Cent Mille cover

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This French book of poetry translates to English as A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems. The thing is, there are actually only ten sonnets inside. Queneau wrote ten sonnets with the exact same rhyme scheme, so each line in any of the sonnets has nine alternatives. There are fourteen lines in a sonnet, so that means there are 10^14 sonnets (a.k.a. 100,000,000,000,000).


Queneau collaborated with mathematician Francois Le Lionnais on the book, and from their collaboration sprung the experimental writing group Oulipo. Several of the writers on this list were at one point members of Oulipo. If you’re interested in reading some of Queneau’s hundred thousand million poems, follow this link and generate one or two!


2. A Void (1969) by Georges Perec


A Void

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As a member of Oulipo, Perec was also interested in the sort of writing Queneau did. Perec’s mainly known for the constraints he put on himself, as is the case in La disparition (translated as A Void), in which he doesn’t use the letter “e.” This sort of constraint is called a lipogram, and Perec’s a madman (genius) for sustaining one for 300 pages. But imagine translator Gilbert Adair’s challenge in then translating the French book into English, still without the eltter “e.” Yikes.


3. Tender Buttons (1914) by Gertrude Stein


Tender Buttons

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Stein is, basically, a punk rocker through and through. She’s a badass. Nobody was writing poetry like her when Tender Buttons dropped in 1914. Then again, a lot of people hate her, some considering her writing gibberish. I mean, you can hardly blame them. Though Tender Buttons is intended to be read as a single, long poem, its most famous piece is probably “A Carafe, that is a Blind Glass,” and it’s short enough to include:


A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in a system to pointing. All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The difference is spreading.


Though this may indeed sound like gibberish, what Stein wants her readers to do is to…not read. This is poetry, more than other poetry, that demands audio. You need to listen not to Stein’s words, but to her sounds. Her goal was a sort of verbal Cubism (i.e. bringing Picasso to poetry). Listen to the sounds her poem makes. Read it out loud three or four times. Stop hearing “not” as “not” until it becomes “knot” or “nought” or starts bleeding into the other words and brews an entirely new association. In short, Stein was weird and spectacular.


4. If on a winter’s night a traveler (1979) by Italo Calvino


Winter Night

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Oulipo writer number three, Calvino is, hands down, the greatest writer. Having written a series of cosmic fables (Cosmicomics, then continued in t-zero), turned Romantic narratives topsy-turvy (Castle of Crossed Destinies), and, essentially, reinvented architecture (Invisible Cities), Calvino’s postmodern masterpiece If on a winter’s night a traveler takes on literature in the most wonderfully meta way possible.


Following the story of a reader searching for a specific book, each chapter is split into two sections. The first is told in second-person and is about the reader (“you”) looking for the book in question. The second section is the beginning of a new book with no endings provided. While you may feel totally lost, being dropped in and out of different novels over and over, the ending coalesces nicely. Give it a try.


5. A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing (2013) by Eimear McBride



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Put simply, McBride’s novel is about a young girl who must deal with mounds of trauma as she moves to and then away from Dublin, Ireland. Though it sounds simple, McBride’s prose is unlike any other’s. She just doesn’t process words in her head the same way you or I do. In a somewhat Joyce/stream-of-consciousness style, McBride’s story unfolds in really tragic, bizarrely wonderful ways.


6. Hopscotch (1963) by Julio Cortázar



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Cortázar’s stream-of-consciousness novel is 155 chapters long, but the last 99 chapters are deemed “expendable.” Yeah. Basically, chapters 1-56 contain the book’s plot, and chapters 57-155 contain scenes or vignettes that add to the characters’ world or journey in some way. Sort of like deleted scenes.


Interestingly, Cortázar provides the reader instructions, outlining three possible routes of reading the book. The first is to read the first fifty-six chapters in their proper consecutive order. The second is to “hopscotch” through the 155 chapters by Cortázar’s design. Lastly, the reader can find their own way through the narrative in no particular order. That’s either totally freeing or way too much pressure.


7. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-1767) by Laurence Sterne


Tristram Shandy

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Sterne’s 18th century masterpiece is one of English literature’s earliest, most groundbreaking works of humor. It’s an extraordinarily, laughably long book considering the vignettes Tristram tells of are really brief. His bungled birth leads to a crooked nose, which, according to a weird theory proposed by his father, means he’ll have a messed up love life (because noses are double entendres for penises, obviously). Even though the book purportedly tells Tristram’s life story, Tristram’s telling of his life is so disastrously sidetracked by his own digressions, obsessive thoughts, and hilariously offbeat philosophies on life and the order of things.


On one notable occasion, Tristram finds himself meditating on the difficulty of writing about a short scene of his life because it takes so many words to capture a single moment that by the time the moment has been adequately illustrated, a hundred other moments must be written up. In this way, Sterne writes the most seemingly absent-minded, yet truly thoughtful books on language out there.


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