3 Interesting Books by Authors Who Think Outside the Box
“Gimmicky” novels get a lot of flack. Over at The Daily Beast, Caryn James says,
“We have entered the Age of the Stunt Novel, literary fiction that relies on gimmicks: photos splashed throughout the text, codes for your smartphone, stand-on-your-head structures, anything that screams ‘Look, this isn’t a boring old book.'”
She has a point; gimmicks can be used to mask banal writing, empty characters, or uninventive plots. And, while that may not be a new trick, it certainly does seem to be a lot more common these days. However, there are some recent novels that use “gimmicks” in their experiments with form while still maintaining what James referred to as the “rigorous artistic principles” of Beckett and other infamous style shape shifters. The interesting books on this list go way outside of the box of expected form and style without sacrificing the quality of the writing. If these books are gimmicks, consider me pro-gimmick, I guess!
This 135 page novel takes place entirely in the span of a man’s lunch hour, mainly detailing his trips up and down the escalator that bookend his break. The journey of Howie, the young office worker, to and from the mezzanine where his office is located is written in a stream of consciousness, free associative narrative where interrupting thoughts are written as footnotes. As you can imagine, that many pages describing a trip up and down an escalator involves paying attention to every single tiny detail and the thought process each one triggers. These digressions allow Baker to play with the notion that footnotes in a text are usually considered less important than the “main text,” afterthoughts that can be read later. On some pages, there can be as little as one line of “main text” because the footnote is so large it takes up the majority of the page (even, at one point, a footnote about footnotes), making it a very interesting book.
The smallest, most minute (and easily ignored) details trigger lengthy, even philosophical, meditations from Howie. As he ponders the plausibility of two shoelaces breaking in the same week, the mystery of why straws float, the history of ice cube trays, he carries these thoughts as far as they can go, thoughts that we would usually let flit through our minds momentarily. Howie’s free associative exercises often end in a poignant memory or sociological insight, revealing his own brand of surprisingly touching “escalatorial happiness.”
2. The Age of Wire and String, Ben Marcus (1995)
The cover calls The Age of Wire and String “stories by Ben Marcus” but these pieces are not your typical short stories. The book defines itself on the first page as “cataloging a culture” and the “stories” are then divided into the sections “Sleep,” “God,” “Food,” “The House,” “Animal,” “Weather,” “Persons,” and “The Society.” The stories are usually less than a page, sometimes just a couple of sentences, and they function as parts of a weird, surreal, sociological document. At the end of each section there is a glossary. The glossaries reveal that the seemingly basic survival terms which title the categories do not mean what we think they mean. Nouns become verbs, familiar terms become unfamiliar. For instance, “Jennifer” is the “inability to see […] To jennifer is to feign blindness,” and “eating” is an “activity of archaic devotion in which objects such as the father’s garment are placed inside the body and worshiped.”
In a world where there is “a second appearance of 1983,” Marcus alternates between humor and lyricism to break the rules of narrative, completely unsettle us, destabilize language (“rhetoric” means “the art of making the truth less believable”), and come at truth from unsuspecting angles. The more lyrical passages include the definition of “Mother” as “the softest location in the house. It smells of foods that are fine and sweet” and “Rain” as a “hard, shiny silver object, divided into knives and used for cutting procedures… when one dies, the rain is seen slicing upward from its body. When death is converted into language, it reads ‘ to empty the body of knives.'” This notion of death becoming language echoes the Emerson epigraph, “every word was once an animal,” that signals to the readers that in this interesting book, language is alive, fluid, and impossible to control.
3. Zong!, M. NourbeSe Philip (2008)
This is one of the most interesting books I have ever read, and one of my favorite books of the last few years. The title reference the 1781 slave ship Zong. The captain of Zong ordered some 150 Africans be murdered so that the ship’s owners could collect the insurance. Using only the words of the legal document related to this massacre (which is included as an appendix), Zong! uses poetry to fracture history’s authority.
Philip argues that the only way to solve the paradox that there is no telling this story, but that it must be told, is through what she has termed “un-telling.” She resists the language that she must use, a language that is contaminated, a language that not only wrote this story out of Western history but also justified it, and she rips it apart, “castrating verbs … creating semantic mayhem,” refusing to let her words be ordered. She uses footnotes to imagine possible names for the murdered Africans, to play with the insurance companies “underwriting” of lives. She says “I mutilate the text as the fabric of African life and the lives of the men, women and children were mutilated.”
This is one of the pages from the section “Ebora.” The book veers into visual poetry in this section, where the image of the page as a whole becomes more important than being able to make out the individual words, which have been overlapped and lightened so much that legibility is impossible anyway. This image serves to reinforce the fact that the voices and stories of the victims who were thrown overboard can never be told. The language of history, the very language used for this poem, has silenced their voices. There are gaps in the story that can never be filled and it is, in fact, the blank spaces that your eye is drawn to first. Philip has taken the remnants of this event and the weaponizing of language, and she has created an archaeological mourning in this haunting poetry collection.