Why I love experimental fiction

Metafiction and experimental narrative forms allow us to pull back the curtain on the author and see the nuts and bolts of the story laid bare. They force us to ask the question, “Is this actually a story? What is a story, anyway?”

That’s my favorite kind of fiction to read, and my favorite kind to write, because sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, but often fiction is truer than truth.

The traditional idea of successful fiction is a story that absorbs readers and makes them forget about their own lives and problems for awhile. Many of those stories are excellent and convey important truths. But there are times—especially when the goal is social critique—that seeing how the fiction works makes it truer.

Two of my absolute favorite novels do this: Ursula K. Le Guin’s Always Coming Home and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.

Always Coming Home isn’t a novel in the traditional senses. Le Guin creates a fictional society and has an anthropologist character “study” the society by collecting stories, poems, plays, and rituals.

The narrator periodically comments on her process of gathering up all this information, revealing the book’s nature as a carefully constructed and arranged fiction. Rather than ruin the “dream,” the narrator’s comments reveal a different possibility: We can construct the world we want by making different choices and changing our habits.

Always Coming Home is one giant call to action, one giant examination and critique of consumerism and greed and environmental destruction. In revealing our society’s flaws, Le Guin shows us one possible way to fix them, and gets us thinking about other possibilities.

The Things They Carried does something similar in its examination of the Vietnam War and the experiences of the soldiers drafted to fight it. Tim O’Brien inserts himself into the story as a character, and continually reminds the reader that none of these events happened, but they are all true.  He creates tension between Author-O’Brien, who wrote a book as a Vietnam War Vet, and Character-O’Brien, who is trying to write a book about being a Vietnam War Vet.

Seeing Character-O’Brien struggle to tell a coherent story—seeing how the story is put together and taken apart—forces us to see events from several different perspectives and to think about the difference between truth, reality, and fiction.  It asks us to decide which is more important: truth or reality? Who determines what’s true?

Margaret Atwood, another author I look to for experimental and metafictional inspiration, explores the process of creating a story—or put another way, creating reality—in her short story “Happy Endings.” The narrator creates different versions of what happens to two characters named Mary and John.  The structure draws attention to the way writers craft stories and the way readers read them. It begins with scenario A, then moves on to scenario B, then C, etc. After exploring these alternate realities for Mary and John, Atwood draws our attention to the process of reaching an ending, and suggests that the process is far more important than the ending itself:

So much for endings. Beginnings are always more fun. True connoisseurs, however, are known to favor the stretch in between, since it’s the hardest to do anything with.

That’s about all that can be said for plots, which anyway are just one thing after another, a what and a what and a what.

Now try How and Why.

This story cuts away the flesh and reveals the bones of structure, plot, and motivation.  We have several plots in front of us, but they aren’t interesting.  So we learn—we literally see in front of us—that without the “how” and “why” the story is meaningless.

Atwood, I believe, is asking us to ask ourselves why we read.

So why do we read?

We read to be entertained, to learn more about the world around us, to relax.  But more than that, we read to learn more about ourselves—even if we don’t realize that is what we are doing.  And when we read fiction that knows it’s fiction, we not only are forced to think more deeply about the text itself, but about ourselves as readers and how our decisions and interactions affect our perceptions and those around us.

A version of this post appeared first on my now-defunct blog about metafiction, The Narrative in the Blog.

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