A Dialectic in Defense of Experimental Narratives through the Study of Slaughterhouse-Five and Paris Peasant
By Daulton Dickey
Without naming names, we’ll just suggest that several writers on occasion go on the record to dismiss experimental fiction as the product of writers who can’t tell a story. But in the world of fiction, experimentalism is a valid means of creating experiences—ultimately, the point of all fiction. Experimental fiction can present new ways of telling stories or it can shift its focus away from stories altogether. Story isn’t the emphasis of much experimental fiction. It’s often replaced by the desire to create experiences in new or unique ways.
Some writers adore narrative convention. They stick to the algorithm without deviation. Some deviate only slightly. Others incorporate radical deviation into conventional narrative algorithms. Then there are writers who eschew convention altogether, doing so to deconstruct or to dismantle narrative entirely. Each of these groups attempt to add their stamp to fiction or literature in one way or the other. And all have strong opinions on narrative. But which group, which tactic, is right?
The answer shouldn’t startle you: none. Declaring narrative can or should or must only follow one path is like demanding that all athletes stand during the national anthem. It’s a form of authoritarianism predicated on inculcating and reinforcing conformity. Narratives are fluid, organic, the products of human perception of time. Adhering to or breaking convention either reinforces or cast doubt on the concept of linear time as we perceive it. Such acts might violate a person’s bias to understand things in a linear way. Since we evolved to organize time linearly, some find this task too jolting to take seriously.
Other things beside fiction can alter or chronoception. We can alter it with drugs or alcohol, for example, or our sympathetic nervous systems can pervert it during times of crises or anxiety. We can even manipulate it by retrieving memories or meditating, thus distorting the moment—and our perception of it. In other words, the human perception of linear time is a product of our brains.
—What does this have to do with narratives?
Traditional narratives assume linear time. They have a beginning, a middle, and an end. In that order. Over the years, writers and editors, philosophers and theoreticians have tweaked and refined traditional narratives but at core they possess three linear components: beginning, middle, end.
(Structuring narratives according to linear time limits possibilities. And limiting possibilities corrupts the literary landscape, potentially transforming it into a wasteland.)
Humans are pattern-seeking creatures. We like to collect or arrange information in ways easy to analyze and interpret. It’s little surprise that we can find linearly structured stories dating back thousands of years. And it’s certainly not a surprise that these kinds of narratives continue to dominate modern storytelling. By modeling stories the way we model our experiences, we’re creating coherence in our perceptions—therefore, in our experiences—of “reality.” We are, in short, reinforcing our models of the world, our world-views.
Traditional narrative is comforting, easy to digest, and it reaffirms our perceptions, interpretations, and reinterpretations of “reality.” This isn’t a criticism or a denouncement, however. We as a society would be less rich without traditional narratives. Imagine a world without Odysseus or Don Quixote, Bilbo Baggins or Princess Leia.
However, this mode of storytelling is only one of many. To assume this is somehow the only way to tell stories, and to denounce those who attempt to stray from the norm or who express misgivings about traditional means of storytelling, betrays everything about the critic while saying nothing about the craft of storytelling itself.
—Rubbish. Someone who can’t develop a traditional narrative is not a good writer. They’re using “experimentalism” to disguise the fact that they suck. I don’t like writers who play with narrative and I think their books and stories are garbage.
So Ulysses, Slaughterhouse-Five, A Visit from the Goon Squad and countless other books are garbage produced by terrible writers? Bracketing that question for a minute, let’s consider one example of eschewing traditional narrative and the rationale behind such a decision. Let’s use Slaughterhouse-Five as an example.
In Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, the protagonist Billy Pilgrim becomes unstuck in time. He experiences time the way we experience three dimensions. As such, the novel’s structure is non-linear. The story bounces from point to point throughout Pilgrim’s life. But why? When approaching a novel with a non-traditional narrative, we must set aside our emotional attachment to narratives themselves—block out our visceral hatred even—and analyze the book as a whole. We should ask ourselves what the use of a non-traditional narrative is trying to convey.
Did Vonnegut choose an artfully constructed novel to show how clever he was or to play with those groovy aliens he created? At its core, Slaughterhouse-Five is an anti-war novel. It focuses on the senseless destruction of a city and tens of thousands of lives. So it goes. It also conveys the trauma and existential malaise associated with the bombing—and war in general—experienced by those who survived, what we’d now call PTSD.
In the novel, aliens, known as Tralfamadorians, abduct Billy and house him and a porn star in a zoo on their home planet. These aliens, ambivalent to life and the universe, see time as Billy sees it: in three-dimensions; they perceive past, present, and future simultaneously, the way we perceive the height, width, and depth of objects.
Billy has sleepwalked through life since the war. He witnessed violence and carnage on an unimaginable scale. As a result, he coasts through life devoid of emotions. Then the Tralfamadorians come along. They’re like Billy, too alike. They teach him to cope with his experiences by explaining life, the universe, and the essence of time.
Vonnegut leaves the existence of the Tralfamadorians ambiguous, but plenty of symbols imply they’re an invention of Pilgrim’s, a coping mechanism he non-consciously created to help make sense of the trauma of surviving the bombing of Dresden. In a sense, Slaughterhouse-Five is a novel about PTSD. Its non-linear story, its fragmented narrative, is possibly an attempt to convey what Billy—and perhaps even Vonnegut himself, who actually survived the Dresden bombing—experiences while living with PTSD. By crafting the structure as he did, Vonnegut showed—without telling—the psychological wounds of war and how they alter and warp the perception of those who survive.
It’s hard to imagine the novel impacting the reader the same if Vonnegut had chosen to tell his story with a conventional, straightforward narrative. In Slaughterhouse-Five, the non-traditional narrative itself conveys information about the psychological makeup of Billy Pilgrim, and possibly of Vonnegut, too.
—But this is a classic. Making your case using one of the great novels of the twentieth century is to play an uneven field. What about the hundreds or even thousands of writers who play with narrative without producing masterpieces?
Of course, there are far too many writers and books to offer even a cursory survey. The point of this article is to address writers and critics who denounce unconventional narratives in toto. Citing Slaughterhouse-Five as an example is to illustrate one way in which non-traditional narratives can yield great novels.
My contention is with those who assert with certainty the uselessness of non-traditional narratives or the skill—or lack thereof—of those who choose to write these kinds of stories or novels. Such assertions are easy to refute: they’re fallacious. You cannot derive all from some. To say some writers produce crappy books when they experiment with narrative; therefore, all writers produce crappy books when they experiment with narrative is to articulate an argument that isn’t logically valid.
Setting aside its validity, you can refute this claim another way by citing a single writer who produced a good, even great novel with a non-traditional narrative. Granted, we’re sliding into subjective territory here. But if you can convince the person who argues against non-traditional narratives—who makes broad statements as paraphrased above—to name one novel in which a writer successfully produced a great novel with a non-traditional narrative, then you’ve persuaded him or her or they to unwittingly dismantle the foundation of their entire argument. If someone makes a claim predicated on all, then one contradictory example undercuts their entire way of thinking. Whether they’ll admit that, however, is a different story altogether.
—But what about those who aim to destroy narrative? They’re clearly idiots.
If their aim is to somehow reinvent the wheel or to play their lyre while they watch Rome burn, then they’re misguided. But even their misguided attempts might have merit. Intentionality is key here. The kind of narrative a writer chooses should serve a purpose. The rules writers choose to break—the lines of the algorithms they choose to delete or subvert—should serve a purpose. In writing, every decision should serve a purpose.
Playing with narrative—or vowing to “destroy” it—for the sole purpose of expressing individuality or originality or rebelliousness is little more than masturbation. And the only people who want to watch someone else masturbate are those who are trying to arouse themselves. Soon, you have a circle jerk with rabid beasts amping up their heart rates until their efforts lie in puddles, drying on the floor.
Having said that, we can point to writers who consciously broke the rules for the sake of doing so, and succeeded in producing great—even brilliant—art. Comte de Lautréamont and Louis Aragon come to mind. While Lautréamont is a beast who deserves his own essay, we’ll largely focus on Aragon here.
A surrealist, Aragon was fascinated by Lautréamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror, a book with no narrative, no story arc, some scenes that fit a larger picture and some isolated scenes. The character of Maldoror himself loosely tied these vignettes together. Maldoror was so vile, so violent and appalling and told in such an unorthodox manner—with no coherent narrative or structure—that it shook avant-garde circles a generation after its author’s death. And, you could argue, it continues to do so today, albeit indirectly.
Aragon was one such author. He obsessed over Lautréamont and he consciously modeled his novel, Paris Peasant, after Maldoror. But this wasn’t imitation: he modeled it more on a spiritual level, embracing the spirit of Lautréamont’s aims, than on any specific style or technique. With Paris Peasant, Aragon set out to write a singular novel. To do so, he set aside all previous literary and narrative conventions and consciously fashioned and designed a book unlike any novel written or published.
But Paris Peasant wasn’t the result of literary masturbation. Aragon’s stated aim was to write a novel so different, so unique, so singular that it’d force readers and critics alike to set aside everything they knew. He wanted readers to bracket all knowledge and preconceptions about literature and approach his novel on its own merits. James Joyce did something similar with his oeuvre. Although unlike Aragon, Joyce never articulated an intention in those terms.
Forcing readers to bracket everything they know—re: literature—has two consequences: 1) it compels them to approach reading anew, as if they’d never before read, or even touched, a book; and, 2) it elevates those novels beyond good or bad. Now that’s a bold statement, so let’s unpack it. Novels with no antecedents—Finnegans Wake springs to mind—removes all points of reference. Readers must take these books on terms laid out by the authors. If you can’t compare a book to any other work, if you can’t analyze its parts in relation to any other work, then by what criteria can you judge it as good or bad? Objectively, you can’t draw on anything. Your assessment can only rely on your subjective experience.
In the end, it comes down to intentionality. What were the writer’s intentions when choosing to approach a novel with a non-traditional narrative? Does that approach serve a purpose within the context of the “story”—used loosely here—or the characters? It also comes down to the reader’s subjective experience while reading the novel, which, to be fair, we could say about all works of fiction. But to derive all from some or to assume your subjective experience somehow corresponds to something independent of you is to predicate your entire argument on erroneous and deceptive thinking. It seems to reinforce your unstated, even non-conscious belief that your interpretation of “reality” is the correct interpretation. In this day and age, it’s about time we examine and challenge our presuppositions before propagating them as “truth” or “fact.” That goes for art and art criticism, religion and politics—and every facet of the human condition and experience.
Dismissing experimental fiction or unorthodox narratives out of hand, or using them as evidence of a deficiency, exhibits at best a lack of understanding. At worst, it shows a critic’s unwillingness to imagine possibilities. And if that critic is a writer, they should focus more on their dearth of imagination and restricted possibilities. And one way to do this is to embrace experimental fiction.
Daulton Dickey is a pataphysical surrealist currently living in Indiana. He’s the author of Flesh Made World, Still Life with Chattering Teeth, and other books he failed to publicize.