Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Most Commercially Successful Work of Experimental Fiction Ever Written

Don't worry, my piece is atonal ontological.
Picture this scene, feeling free to add berets and hipster glasses if you like: A group of men gather at a pub near a university campus. One of them leans forward and tells the others he's got an idea for a new book, something to really blow the minds of everyone who bought into the twaddle he tossed off a few years ago. Being literary young men at a pub near a university campus, they want to hear it. OK, the first thing he tells them is that the novel is going to have an appendix, yeah, that's right, an appendix for fiction; a footnoted appendix with songs, poems, and histories of stuff that happens hundreds of years before anything in the book itself. One asks if they'll be an index. Naturally, he scoffs. Then he moves on to explain that he's drawing extensively from medieval stories, mostly Beowulf but other historic mythologies, to, essentially, re-create, with as much authenticity as possible, a speculative Saxon mythology. (Did he mention, that with the price of paper being what it is, he'll probably need to break it up into several volumes, but one must sometimes compromise.) And he's going to use his hyper-academic understanding of linguistics to invent like, five languages, including their alphabets, their histories, and as much of their surrounding culture as he can squeeze out of his brain before he dies. He concludes his description (after sipping from a local craft beer, of course) by saying he's more creating a life's project than writing what most would consider a “book.” You know, he doesn't want to be limited by what corporate publishing thinks is a story. Sounds, in a lot of ways, like James Joyce or maybe even David Foster Wallace or someone from the linguistically and systemically obsessed Oulipo, or maybe even one of the Hungarian novelists like Peter Nadas or Lazlo Krasznohorokai. Probably published by Melville House or Dalkey Archive, or maybe New Directions.

With a goddamn index.
Of course, I'm describing The Lord of the Rings, and, with that description, contending that Tolkien's novel is simply the most popular work of experimental fiction ever written. Need more proof its experimental?

Tolkien was a professor and scholar of dead languages. Does it get any more ivory tower than that? His characters, for the most part, were recreations of Old English heroes. As I mentioned above, he did to Beowulf what Joyce did to The Odyssey, re-appropriating major aspects of the historic story (Hrothgar is referred to as “the lord of the rings,” because he would give chain mail as gifts.) to modern themes and sentiments. And then there's his storytelling structure and style. As highlighted by what's left out of the movies, Tolkein wandered pretty far afield from his core plot. Can you imagine what a sane editor would have done when reading the Council of Elrond, a 42 page committee meeting, where freaking everybody has something to say? (Yes you can. Said editor would cut it.) In The Two Towers, rather than weaving back and forth between the two sets of characters, as the movie does, as any editor would suggest, as nearly every reader would expect, he tells the entire story of one set of characters (Aragorn and Friends) and then tells the entire story of the other set of characters (Three's Company). The Appendix have footnotes. There's even an index. And let's not forget the last little bit of daring forced on Tolkien by the bold publisher swept up in the euphoria of originality; the title of the third volume GIVES AWAY THE ENDING. (Which, since we're talking about plot structure, the book has a whole extra mini-climax, The Scouring of the Shire, with a much smaller battle with much lower stakes happens, AFTER the SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT BATTLES THE WORLD HAD EVER KNOWN. Seriously. It's like ending a James Bond movie with a few minutes of Bond bitching about his cable bill.)

Appropriate signage could've saved the empire.
Finally, there is, at least to me anyway, Tolkien's most important and most groundbreaking creation; Gollum. An ordinary man caught by forces beyond his control who ends up living a life of addiction only to be given one chance to redeem the content of his life and in the crisis moment is overcome by those very same forces that condemned him to tragedy in the first place and it is only through folly (Seriously, dude. The literary cajones Tolkien had to make the destruction of the ring a freaking accident, I mean, the climax of the book is a slip and fall.) that his personal curse is lifted and with it, the threat all of Middle Earth. I can think of two, maybe three, characters with equivalent complexity and contradiction; Lucifer from Paradise Lost and Don Gately from Infinite Jest, with maybe, Quentin Compson from The Sound and the Fury and Absalom! Absalom!.

Christopher Tolkien's used bath wather.
Even when discussing Tolkien's impact on modern literature, everyone pretty much says “The Lord of the Rings is an experimental novel,” without ever using the word “experimental.” Everyone is always saying how groundbreaking it was, how nobody had ever written anything like it before, how it met a previously unmet cultural need, and how Tolkien essentially invented an entire genre of fiction. In short, shift a few terms around to match specifics, remove a gigantic pile of cash, and you find that people talk about The Lord of the Rings the exact same way they talk about Ulysses.

See those books? Dead languages. All of them.
The point is not really that The Lord of the Rings is an experimental novel (though it is) but that somehow the idea of “experimental novel,” has become automatically associated with elitist academics and willfully obtuse authors, (Side note, I don't think such a thing exists. Writers write to be understood and just because a writer's particular vision is difficult to grasp doesn't mean that writer is intentionally trying to avoid being grasped. That would defeat the entire fucking point of writing.) with books that are needlessly difficult and frustrating whose only purpose is to prove to somebody just how smart the author is or how smart the few readers that read it are. (Something similar has happened to the term “post-modern” as well.) (Oh, and since we're talking about authors proving how smart they are; TOLKEIN INVENTED ENTIRE FUCKING LANGUAGES. How the hell does that not count as showing off?) This association misses two key factors.

The first: by definition, some experiments are supposed to fail. As authors try new ways of telling stories, some of those ways are going to totally suck. Or, some of those ways will connect with some readers, while not with others. That's how experiments work, by trying everything everybody can think of until we find something awesome. In fact, you shouldn't like every experimental novel you read. (even I don't, e.g. could not get into One, the “novel,” whose words were written by Blake Butler and Vanessa Place, and then stitched together by Christopher Higgs, as solid an experimental writing pedigree as you can have. It never seemed to find its footing and, in a way, Higgs did too good of a job combining the two other authors as I did not feel what I thought was going to be a very interesting tension.) If you do, then writers aren't experimenting hard enough. This is a long way of saying that not liking a particular experimental work or two (or even all of them you've encountered) doesn't mean there's something wrong with experimental work, it is just an inherent and vital outcome of trying something new.

The second: All mainstream was once cutting edge. This next sentence is going to be very difficult for me to write, but it's true. Jane Austen was cutting edge. So was Dickens. So was Twain. And, in an unprecedented and truly shocking way, so was Tolkien. Like everybody else, we suffer from a myopia of the present and so, to us, the novels we read feel like monuments of storytelling, reflections on some Platonic act of meaning, whereas they are actually just one point on a lineage of experimentation, failure, and success; a lineage that stretches back to the origins of written culture and extends as far into the future as we do. Tolkien is such a part of pop culture now, we forget how radical his book really was. If there are no experiments now, there will be no Jane Austens in the future.

Writers of literature write the books they need to, the books clamoring around in their skulls, keeping them up at night, nagging them in the shower, interrupting their conversations at parties. Some writers have committed themselves to finding new ways to write the books in their head, either because they value newness itself or because whatever is in their head doesn't fit in the available forms or, in the case of the best works of experimental fiction, like Ulysses and, at least from a commercial standpoint, the Lord of the Rings, because they value the new and their story will only fit in the new. Of course, this is all part of my ongoing campaign to reclaim the act of experimentation in literature and not just literature on the fringes, or literature read by other writers of literature, but literature in the popular consciousness, literature on the IndieBound Bestseller list, literature in the few remaining major book reviews. And things do seem to be changing. The Franzenphobia of a few years ago, where it seemed like every major book was another extension of Carver and Hemingway with a touch of Garcia Marquez seems to be fading, and you see A Visit from the Goon Squad win a Pulitzer and I Hotel as a finalist for the National Book Award and Mark Z. Danielewski gets major review coverage, along with the unique (if not quite experimental) storytelling voices of Justin Torres and Karen Russell and you see writers beginning to take risks and publishers bringing those risks to the public. In short, readers shouldn't denigrate or shy away from the experimental, because there is a chance that your favorite book was, at least for its time, an experimental novel.

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