Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Experiments in Fiction: The Oulipo

I came across a collection of links on the Oulipo the other day. For those of you unfamiliar with them, they were a group of experimental writers more influenced by constrictions of form than anything else. An example would be a book by French author Georges Perec written without the use of the letter e.

I find Calvino to be a refreshing voice among the list. He approaches narrative with a playfulness not often seen by many authors. In The Baron in the Trees, a tale unfolds in which the young baron Cosimo refuses his sister's cooking (a dinner of snails) in favor of a life among the limbs of trees. He never returns to land, pursuing a robust life without ever feeling earth under his feet again. I think it is Calvino's daring for experimentation that allows him to create interesting scenarios like in The Baron in the Trees.

Invisible Cities
and If on a Winter's Night a Traveler both break from traditional linear narratives in favor of a mosaic approach. Invisible Cities details Marco Polo's account to Kubla Kahn of all the places in the empire Marco Polo has seen in his travels. As you read one fantastic tale after another, you begin to wonder at the reality of the tale, and of how the narrative consists of one man telling another of fantastical cities.

Stefanie Sobelle continues to describe Calvino's innovation about If on a Winter's Night a Traveler:
This novel seems like a collection of first chapters, each written in a different style, which are cut off before the narrative can fully reveal itself. “You,” the novel’s protagonist, are reading a book called If on a winter’s night a traveler and soon realize Your book is flawed. You go to the shop and replace it, only to find that the next copy is also flawed (albeit differently). The third time You return it, it happens again, and so on. Meanwhile, You meet a woman with whom You become embroiled in a series of literary escapades, until the end of the book when, to Your surprise, You’ve completed reading a novel after all.
In each of Calvino's novels, you can see how a story can be told effectively without the continuity of time. Even character is in play with Calvino's fiction.

The Oulipo can be an inspiring place to start thinking about innovation in fiction. Do you really need the letter a in your story? Maybe the sequence of your novel can be rearranged with each reading, as in Julio Cortazar's Hopscotch. While you are pushing the boundaries of your writing with experiments in form, wherever the experiments may take you, consider this quote from Raymond Carver:
I get a little nervous if I find myself within earshot of somber discussions about "formal innovation" in fiction writing. Too often "experimental writing" is a license to be careless, silly, or imitative in the writing. Even worse, a license to try to brutalize or alienate the reader. Too often such writing gives us no news of the world, or else describes a desert landscape and that's all - a few dunes and lizards here and there, but no people; a place uninhabited by anything recognizably human, a place of interest only to a few scientific specialists.
In this quote, Carver argues not to forget the humanistic element when experimenting with form. If a narrative is so abstract that a reader cannot connect with it, then what purpose does it ultimately serve? Someone has to read a story and find something with which to empathize. Without this element, writing would have no audience; for why do we read if not to understand our own experience? There can certainly be an amount of escapism in reading, but ultimately, if there is nothing with which you can connect, where can you fit within the narrative? Carver's words should be a reminder for those of us who like to experiment with fiction. Ask yourself when you write, "Where is the reader in this?"

No comments:

Post a Comment