I recently finished two books that one could consider “experimental fiction” even though these two books differ greatly. What is even considered experimental fiction anymore? Is that different from a “novel of ideas”? The terms get thrown around so often. Is it a book that simply plays around with the parameters of the novel? Some people seem to confuse cult fiction with experimental fiction, though cult fiction can be experimental in nature, just because a novel plays with form doesn’t make it cult fiction.
The first book I’ll mention is Scarlett Thomas’s The End of Mr. Y. Others have raved about this book—I really liked it myself. Graduate student Ariel Manto gets a hold of the cursed Victorian novel The End of Mr Y written by Thomas Lumas. She uses the instructions in the book to enter the “Troposphere”, an alternate dimension where human thoughts connect and where visitors can jump from one person’s thoughts to another. It sounds complicated and it is, but Thomas explains it all with ease and it makes sense. I loved Ariel Manto’s brilliance. It’s nice to read a book featuring a strong female lead that doesn’t apologize for her intelligence. Manto is somewhat of a renegade scholar. She jumps from subject to subject rather like the old Renaissance scholars, absorbing science, literature and philiosophy. Despite a few flaws in the book, I think this is a really strong effort for Thomas and I’m looking forward to her future work.
The second book I’ll mention that I finished last week was Matthew Sharpe’sÂ inventive novel Jamestown. Set sometime in the future, this book chronicles a group of settlers from Manhattan traveling South in a large bus/tank to establish an outpost in southern Virginia. The book features historical figures like John Smith, Pocahantas and others. Each chapter tells the story from a different character’s perspective. The settlers are led by John Ratliff, whose mother’s boyfriend is the CEO of the Manhattan Company, who are enemies of the Brooklyn Company. The Indians, who speak English (which they try to conceal to the visitors), aren’t technically Indians. They just try to live like them and are “red” because they’re not using strong enough sunscreen. Powhatan leads them with the help of his advisor Sidney Feingold. Pocahantas falls in love with greasy haired communications officer Johnny Rolfe and saves the life of Jack Smith. I’m not going to adequately convey how great I think this book is—-it’s hard to explain without sounding like nut. It’s a wonderfully imaginative and Sharpe uses language to play with the future and the past that made me giggle and fall in love with the book.
These two books are so different from one another, yet I would call them both “experimental”. Thomas’s book plays with ideas and Sharpe’s book plays with, well, everything.
In my MFA program I fear “experimental” is meant to marginalize; unsurprisingly, “genre” is used to marginalize, too. But you know what? I like all these books they derogatorily call “experimental” and “genre.” The Return of Mr. Y was great, and now I’m looking forward to getting my hands on Jamestown. More experiments! More fun!
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