Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

I’ve been thinking about experimental narratives lately, for a number of reasons, but mainly because I was working on a review of an extremely unique book called Giraffes in Hiding: The Mythical Memoirs of Carol Novack. I read this book all the way back in January, and then re-read it and then jumped around inside it for awhile, re-reading certain pieces and basically just trying to figure out how to write about it. I almost didn’t write about it because I didn’t feel like I was up to the task.

I wrote the review eventually (and happily, and honestly) because it bothered me too much that I couldn’t seem to find a way to write about it. Not knowing what else to do, I forced myself to come up with a metaphor that helped me envision the text as a whole. (Hopefully that metaphor will help potential new readers, too, but that isn’t for me to decide). Envisioning the text as a whole is, I think, where some people, maybe even many people, get stumped when they’re confronted with experimental writing. This mass and tumble of words and ideas just sort of spills off the page toward you, attacks you maybe, or just slides on by indifferently; either way, you’re not sure what to do with it, because:

  • it doesn’t look like anything you’ve ever read before
  • it’s maybe a little confusing, even purposefully confusing
  • you worry that you’re not smart enough or not well-read enough (in this tradition of non-traditional literature) to understand what’s going on
  • you’re not sure you like it, or, maybe you love it – but in either case you can’t say why exactly
  • you can’t “see” it the way you can “see” the shape and structure and filler of other narratives—it’s all globby or too spikey or too empty

Something that helped me find the courage to write this review is the series of articles and interviews “What is experimental lit?” by Christopher Higgs at HTML giant. His third essay is about reading strategies. He suggests:

For the former, what may prove to be invaluable might be a close attention to patterns of repetition, rhythm, connectivity and gaps between words and phrases, the moments of caesura, the sites of tension, the magnitudes of intensities, or the ways in which the text unsettles the limitations of genre and convention, subverts familiarity, articulates emotional states for which there are no nouns, or enacts the reader’s sublime.

So, okay, details. And I think most readers who are even open to considering experimental literature do this almost instinctively, because it is the first and only access into the text. Since the whole is denied upfront (not indefinitely, but often at first) the parts become really important. The sound of the words, the play of the language and how that engages with the ideas behind the work.

This was definitely the case for my reading of Giraffes in Hiding. I had to throw out my deep-seated and learned notions of how to experience a text and get as intimate as I could with the details. The details finally led me toward a conception of the whole. I found the experience interesting. I won’t say pleasant, because I am far too emotionally connected to my usual reading experience, and by that I mean I love being submersed into a continuous and coherent narrative. I am unapologetically Aristotelian.

But I’m open to experimental literature because I like the questions that it asks. I like being nudged to find new ways inside a piece of fiction, even if it proves difficult or frustrating. I may never gravitate toward this type of fiction instinctively, but I’m very glad there are other readers and writers who do—they enrich my reading world.

Here are links (series overview, Q&A overview) to the rest of Higgs’ series, for anyone interested.

7 Responses to “a little afraid of experimental lit: Giraffes in Hiding by Carol Novack”

  1. cbjames

    I’ve been reading experimental lit more frequently of late. I’ve found a French author Alain Robbe-Grillet who writes books unlike anything I’ve read before. Like you I often find it difficult figuring out what to make of them let alone coming up with a way to review them. Other than say “I love it!”

    But in a time when so many people seem to spent so much time reading below their grade level, as I’ve heard it called elsewhere, it’s nice to read something that really is hard. I appreciate being forced to think, to concentrate, to re-read, to really work to figure the text out.

  2. Amateur Reader

    In some sense, I treat everything I read like an experimental novel. The text itself will teach me how to read the text.

  3. litlove

    I used to have a big thing for experimental literature – after all, both Colette and Duras have strong experimental elements (just we don’t see them so clearly now, after years of familiarisation). But now I’ll only be really interested in it if it’s working to create a more profound sense of the real, rather than trying to look clever. I have a soft spot still for the nouveaux romanciers – like Robbe-Grillet (sometimes) and Nathalie Sarraute. Sarraute in particular I still admire for her unusual approach to psychic reality. I found Claude Simon fascinating, too, although I can’t read much of him at a time (although given that one of his sentences stretched over 11 pages, I often end up reading a fair bit before finding a place to stop!).

  4. Lilian Nattel

    That’s an interesting approach. I think my attitude is much like yours. I’m open to it, but I also love story and no apologies for it.

  5. Christopher Higgs

    Hi, Michelle!

    This post made my day. I’m so pleased to hear that my series on experimental literature has had a positive impact on you. Thanks so much for sharing links and spreading the word. I really appreciate it.


  6. Dorothy W.

    It’s interesting that you wouldn’t call your experience of reading Giraffes pleasant; I often feel that way about experimental literature too — I don’t necessary love it or even enjoy it that much, but it provides an interesting experience that leaves me with a lot to think about. The thing that keeps me from reading more of it is a fear of feeling overwhelmed and bored — that experimental works are interesting in concept but dull in the actual reading. I’m happy thinking about it afterward, but sometimes while in the middle of reading, I wish it were over. Experimental works that are a delight to read are my favorites!

  7. Stefanie

    I “enjoy” experimental literature now and then. I find I have be in a really open frame of mind when I read it otherwise we just don’t get along. I enjoyed your review of Giraffes and thought your tourist/island metaphor worked nicely.

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