Jump aboard the narrative freak train, folks. Tickets are selling out fast, because the Pulitzer and the National Book Critics Circle awards have been awarded to Jennifer Egan for her really cool novel, A Visit From The Goon Squad.

As the New York Times review says: “Is there anything Egan can’t do in this mash-up of forms? Write successfully in the second person? Check. Parody celebrity journalism and David Foster Wallace at the same time? Check. Make a moving narrative out of a PowerPoint presentation? Check. Write about a cokehead music producer who demands oral sex from his teenage girlfriend during her friends’ band’s performance? Check. Narrate another chapter from the perspective of the above girlfriend’s best friend, standing at the same performance on the other side of said producer? Check. Compose a futuristic vision of New York? Check.”

Mind-altering fiction is hardly a recent phenomenon. Its heyday—if we’re not counting the emergence of the very first novels, or the modernist explosion of the early 20th Century that were revolutionary in their own right—was around the cultural insurgency of the 1960s, when Thomas Pynchon, John Barth and William Gaddis were getting readers strung out on intensely weird narrative trips. In an essay for the Atlantic, Barth defended his and his fellow outlaws’ approach to writing by maiming the tradition of literary realism, where the construct of the novel goes unquestioned. Realism was all “used up,” he said. Since then, we’ve had a steady supply of dealers willing to provide us with the goods to challenge our idea of what fiction can be, from the Americans Don Delillo and Paul Auster to the Brits B.S. Johnson and Alasdair Grey, and foreign pushers like W.G. Sebald, J.M. Coetzee and V.S. Naipaul.

Junkies for innovation now have more intoxicating works available for ingestion and the tabs have never been more potent. If you’re the kind of reader who likes to think of periods, eras and generations as being particularly precious metal-like, you may wish to consider the period of the last twelve months or so as golden. Here’s why.

The Sixties vanguard was always an orgy of clever ideas and “Look Ma, no hands” trickery. But the novels of Pynchon and Gaddis were often emotionally empty. So no author in the last twenty years has changed the way we view fiction quite as spectacularly as David Foster Wallace, the self-confessed post-modernist who writes about human feelings. His posthumous novel, The Pale King, was unleashed this year. This is the Wallace, of course, who wrote a novella about a man who shits fully formed pieces of sculpture; the author who, in 1996, dragged the novel into the computer generation with his thousand-page acid trip of footnotes, acronyms and three-hundred-word sentences—the wondrous and beguiling Infinite Jest.

 

 The very last thing this book is is some kind of clever metafictional titty-pincher,” he says, ironically, in a Foreword to The Pale King which, typically, appears in Chapter 9. Hilarious as it often is, the true revelation of Wallace’s nipple-twist prose is that it has reservoirs of emotional intensity inside its caverns of abstraction. Mental and emotional anguish are as prominent in his writing as his fierce intellect was in his life—a life he ended himself in 2008, leaving behind a garage full of paper-filled boxes that were set to become The Pale King. This meditation on boredom, set in a tax office in the Midwest, is noticeably unfinished, but it’s full of prose that will keep you awake at night cursing the mental illness that drove him to suicide.

Then we have Will Self, who has found a medium that he can simultaneously indulge and mess with in his finest effort in ages, Walking to Hollywood, recently released in paperback. This largely fictional ‘memoir’ deconstructs the implausibility of a genre that is often the vehicle of choice for celebrity landfill and nostalgic indulgence. He returns the novel, in many ways, to its beginnings in which events were constructed to appear as real life. By presenting his work as a memoir, Self is re-jigging the events of his life—familiar to readers of his PsychoGeography column in the Independent—and presenting them partially as fiction, sending us full-circle. Fiction presented as reality is now reality presented as fiction.

Similarly, the experience of writing is what the Guardian writer Leo Benedictus grabs onto for his debut novel, The Afterparty. The story of a journalist witnessing a death similar to Mark Blanco’s fall from a balcony at one of Pete Doherty’s parties sits alongside correspondence between the supposed author of the novel we’re reading—a character called William Mendez—and the publisher. It's another Russian-doll narrative which containins a character with the same name as the author, Mr Leo Benedictus, which has become a standard technique for even the most tentative of post-modernists. 

 

 To differentiate between the two narratives, The Afterparty has variations in font and presentation that are becoming a staple of contemporary novels, although not a patch on the debut from Reif Larsen, The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet. Larsen’s work is so visually delightful that if could conceivably be enjoyed by somebody unable to read words at all. It tells the tale of the eponymous character, an 11-year-old with a talent for drawing maps and diagrams, which appear alongside and within the body of the text.

As the above examples show, it’s now acceptable to cram different forms, narratives, viewpoints, styles and even fonts into novels like off-cuts of meat into a McDonald’s hamburger. With this in mind, it’s not surprising that the gateway to the holy grail of writing, ‘literary fiction’, is opening to the heretics who write from the confines of genre. Occasionally in the mainstream press, a distinguished voice lends its hushed support to Stephen King or Thomas Harris by regarding their pulpy gothics as high art—or at least a few notches higher than their brethren on the racks of paperbacks at the airport.

But the man doing the most from within his cage is China Miéville, whose skinhead and tattoos would make the Booker’s panel of judges piss themselves with terror at the thought of their circle of literary sock ironers being invaded by the genre punks. His latest novel, Embassytown, is a dystopian fantasy that features aliens whose language has no divide between the objects and the words used to describe them—or as linguists would say, the signifier and signified. It’s clever stuff, mixing aliens with social theory and critiques of power.

In the last year or so, there has been a potentially lethal dose of psychedelic wonder pumped into our reading supply. The come-down, as always, is likely to include a fair amount of soul-searching and paranoid philosophising on where we go with our lives and the words we use to document them. But reading devices like the Kindle and iPad allow authors to use web-based techniques like hyperlinks and moving images in their prose if they dare. Far from being the death of the publishing industry, the early 21st Century is more likely to be its renaissance. 

 


Share on Facebook
  • Music
  • Style
  • Life
  • Subcasts
  • Essay
BEHIND SYRIA
Syria: living under an iron curtain all of its own.
FACEBOOK FOIBLE #235
Are Facebook users as free as they think they are?
STUDENT STRIPPER
We interviewed Cara, a student dancing to get by. Victim or self-made woman?
CINEMA'S MUSHROOM CLOUD
The Cold War B-movies that could blow up all over again.
OBAMA'S NO ANGEL
After a not-so hectic election night, Barack Obama has the opportunity to right his many wrongs....
SUPERSTORM DISASTER DREAM
Why there's more than meets the eye to the Sandy story.
GENTRIFICATION IN ACTION
Brixton's buzzing. But will the predictable threat of gentrification destroy the community?
BARACK OBAMA'S JAZZ
The coolest President in the history of the USA gets some jazz treatment.
SALAMWORLD
In Novemeber a Muslim alternative to Facebook will launch: is global social media breaking up?
IS THIS MYSPACE?
The original paper tiger of social media is back. And it looks fucking cool.
THE RISE OF THE COFFEE SHOP INDIE
The Indie Scene is Going Mainstream. Substance reports.
CHUCK NORRIS BLESS AMERICA
VIDEO: Another Hollywood giant makes a right old Republican of himself.
COPYING THE COPY-CAT
Tom Rollins asks what encourages copy-cats to go postal: nasty films or gun laws?
SHOOT AN' CRY
NBC's Stars Earn Stripes earns its place in TV hell
MEDITATING ON THE RECESSION
Unemployed? Skint? Fearghus Roulston finds the new spiritual side of the recession in Manchester.
THE DARK KNIGHT RISES
Christopher Nolan's Batman remembers 9/11 better than most
OUR LABOUR IS THE NEW LABOUR
Sedgefield has always had a special place in the history of the Labour movement.
WE KNOW WHAT YOU'RE DOING
Let this be a warning.
THE RACIST GENIE
How Liverpool, Capello, Luis Suarez and John Terry let it out of the bottle.
SOUNDING OFF: The Love Police
Tackling one man's hipster hate on Brick Lane
KEEPING IT (UN)REAL.
X Factor and today's mass media: is reality TV changing the way we look at the world?
COMING AT YOU
The Future of 3D Technology
THEY OWN YOUR DOWNLOADS
The great IP swindle...
FIGHT THE POWER
Political Violence Defended
THE DEATH OF BRICK LANE
Pen-pushers trashing cultural zones...