What does it mean to be experimental or different? As a reader, convention bores you after a point and you look for a fresh voice that stands apart from the sea of voices in fiction. As a writer, isn’t it thrilling to think out of the box and try something you haven’t before? How do you know if something can be written a certain way if you don’t do it yourself?
I have learnt to go with my instincts and write the way I want to because if it’s fun for me I know it will be fun for the reader too. Over the years, writers have experimented with their prose in many ways. I love books that bend genres and play with language and form to tell a story in a way it hasn’t been told before.
Here are some writers I have come across who have astonished the literary world with their unique works of fiction. The narrators of their books will make you think about ‘voice’ in a completely different way.
Mohsin Hamid is a British Pakistani writer. He has written four novels, Moth Smoke (2000), The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007), How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013), and Exit West (2017). Hamid is known for trying out various ways to tell a story using the ‘second-person narration’ well. Most novels are written in either third-person or first-person voice. The second person narration or the use of ‘You’ is rare in fiction but Hamid uses it with confidence. In ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’, the ‘You’ is an American and the Pakistani narrator speaks to this ‘You’ throughout the book. The American character never talks back. If you want to see how Hamid has pulled this off very well, read the book and see if it works for you because the second-person narration is not everyone’s cup of tea. If you’re a writer, see if it makes you want to try out the second person narration too! I’m especially partial to the second person use in fiction and here’s a story of my own in Out Of Print Magazine.
Are you a fan of retellings? Yuknavitch wrote a modern feminist retelling of Freud’s case study ‘Dora’ and it will blow your mind! Dora is not an ordinary girl. Her voice will stay with you for long. She could be considered an unreliable narrator for the way she rebels against everything. Her voice is raw and bold. Readers get invested and hooked to the narrative. You want to know what happens next and be there for Dora till the end. Yuknavitch is a prolific writer and each of her books surprise the literary world for its exploration of bold and difficult themes with artistic finesse. If you want to know about her, do watch her TED talk ‘The Beauty Of Being A Misfit’.
“Mother is cleaning the spoons again. From where I sit in the kitchen, I can see the reflection of her trippy-looking head: bulbous skull, stretched down mouth, eyes that scoop away at the rest of her face. A droop-faced woman. Jeeeez. Just look at her. She’s rubbing the holy crap out of those spoons. Poor, silvery utensils. That’s what it felt like to be her kid, too.”
-Dora: A Headcase by Lidia Yuknavitch
Burgess wrote many novels in his lifetime and one book that stood out from the rest was ‘A Clockwork Orange’. In an introduction to his book, it is said that Burgess was even upset with the reception that the book received because he felt he had written books that deserved more attention. As a writer, it made me wonder, do we really have control over the reception of our work? ‘A Clockwork Orange’ became popular after Stanley Kubrick’s controversial adaptation. The novel is very experimental with its language. Burgess invented a language for it called ‘Nadsat’ which is influenced by the Russian language. The narrator ‘Alex’ is one of the most entertaining narrators I’ve come across and the language makes the read very challenging. The plot makes you think about free will, dystopia, conditioning, authority, upbringing, society and much more. Burgess’ book will haunt you long after you’re done with it. It is also a very disturbing read so do exercise caution when you pick this book.
‘House Of Leaves’ by Mark Z. Danielewski is often categorized under ‘Horror Fiction’ but readers have also called it a love story. It is one of those books that defies genre, language, form and narrative. The text layout in the book is so experimental that the reader ends up feeling disoriented and makes you wonder about the ‘courage’ of the writer to push the boundaries of fiction in such a way. It is commendable that despite the difficulty in reading, it’s one of those books that readers swear by. Do check it out if you’re looking for a challenging read and a story that you won’t forget.
McBride’s book ‘A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing’ was turned down by many publishers for being too experimental before it was picked up by a small press. We are so glad it was published! The literary world found a voice it had never heard before. McBride’s narrator narrates the story of her life, of living with a sibling who has a brain tumour and their family dynamics. The language is difficult to grasp at first but gets easier on re-reading. The narrator’s voice is raw, bold and surprising. It is nothing like you’ve heard before. As you keep reading, you empathise with the narrator’s thoughts and feelings. Her trauma spills out of the page through the language. This book will push you to think about fiction in a different way.
” I know. The thing wrong. It’s a. It is called. Nosebleeds, head aches. Where you can’t hold. Fall mugs and dinner plates she says clear up. Ah young he says give the child a break. Fall off swings. Can’t or. Grip well. Slipping in the muck. Bang your. Poor head wrapped up white and the blood come through. She feel the sick of that. Little boy head. Shush.”
-A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride
If you want to learn how to write fiction that surprises readers, then check out Michelle D’costa’s Experimental Fiction Writing Workshop here
Michelle D’costa is a Mangalorean from Mumbai. She was born and raised in Bahrain. Her poetry and prose has been published in over 50 literary journals like Eclectica, Litro UK, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Coldnoon and more. She loves to interview writers. Her debut full-length short story and poetry collections are complete. She edits Kaani, an ezine for fiction. She talks about books on YouTube and blogs on WordPress.