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Early Experimental Novels
Everything But Tradition

Early Experimental Novels
  • The Sound and the Fury and as I Lay Dyin... (by )
  • Ulysses (by )
  • Orlando: A Biography (by )
  • The Excitement of Verbal Adventure : A S... (by )
  • Winesburg Ohio (by )
  • The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy... 
  • Notes from the Underground (by )
  • White Nights, And Other Stories (by )
  • Pale Fire (by )
  • Tender Buttons (by )
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Experimental fiction is characterized by many techniques and styles including, but not limited to, metafiction, stream-of-consciousness, cut-up method, absurdist plots, fragmented narration, slipstream, collaging, visual poetry, hyperbolic wordplay, and erratic points of view.  

To put it simply, experimental fiction defies traditional concepts of fiction, wherein plot is linear, point of view is consistent, and language and syntax never stray too far from commonplace noun, verb, and descriptors. Relative to the bulk of fiction available, experimental modernist work like William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, James Joyce’s Ulysses and Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, feel strange enough to be almost modern, but in fact were written almost a century ago. Although they captured a certain type of experimental fiction using stream-of-conscious technique, they weren’t the first to depart so drastically from traditional fiction. 

The earliest cited experimental fiction is normally attributed to Laurence Sterne’s series of books The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, nine volumes appearing over the course of 1759 to 1767. The series consists of Tristram’s scrambled first person account of his own life, in which he continually interrupts himself with digressive discourses ranging from the influence of one’s own name and satires on solemnity to rants on obstetrics and philosophy.
The strange, if not somewhat disturbing, novella Notes from Underground, written by Russian literary giant Fyodor Dostoyevsky, presents the erratic, existential ramblings of an unnamed man in St. Petersburg. Published in 1864, it was one of the first existential fiction books. Part one, “Underground,” often reads like a one-sided dialectics essay:

Gentlemen, let us suppose that man is not stupid. (Indeed one cannot refuse to suppose that, if only from the one consideration, that, if man is stupid, then who is wise?) But if he is not stupid, he is monstrously ungrateful! Phenomenally ungrateful. In fact, I believe that the best definition of man is the ungrateful biped. (p. 18)

Winesburg, Ohio, written in 1919 by Sherwood Anderson, presented a subtle experiment with fiction through a collection of short stories about a town and its people. The stories present the struggles of specific townsfolk and are propelled not by plot and action, but by the insights of each and the loneliness that seems to permeate the town. Winesburg is one of the earliest examples of modernist literature, work marked by an intentional departure from traditional literature (i.e., Ezra Pound’s maxim, “Make it new”).

Other experimental works available in the World Library include Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons and Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, a book of which half is an epic poem in which a large part of the narrative unfolds in the annotations. The Harlem Renaissance also produced Cane (1923) by Jean Toomer, an early experimental novel consisting of short stories from different women’s perspectives and intertwined with poetry.

By Thad Higa

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