The fall 2013 issue of Glimmer Train includes an interview with short story writer and novelist Peter LaSalle, based at the U of Texas, Austin.   LaSalle talks about his new book, Mariposa’s Song—the story of a 20-year-old Honduran immigrant girl working in a rough Austin nightclub. The story itself unwinds like a song, one very long song, in one very very long sentence.

Experimental fiction has always had its devotees and its detractors. One reader’s bold innovation is another’s annoying gimmick. The ultimate test, of course, is, does it work? Ten, twenty years on, when the glare of newness no longer blinds us, do people still read it? You’ll think of examples of successful experiments immediately (and will have forgotten the others, perhaps):

  • Benjy’s stream-of-consciousness story in Faulkner’s The Sound and The Fury
  • The discovery of magical realism in Gabriel García Márquez’s 100 Years of Solitude
  • David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which starts six stories across time in forward chronology, one through six, then finishes them, six through one, ending up where they began
  • A Visit from the Good Squad, by Jennifer Egan, creative in so many ways,  including a chapter written as a PowerPoint presentation.

The staying-power of the last two is as yet unproved Cloud Atlas was much-praised upon publication, won several awards, was short-listed for the Booker Prize and made into a difficult movie; A Visit from the Goon Squad won a Pulitzer and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and is being turned into a tv series. [!]

Succesfu experiments–and even some of the marginally successful ones present readers with new tools for discovery, new ways to understand the author’s fictional world and the characters in it.

A 17-year-old boy recommended Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves (2000) to me. You could see in his eyes the delight of the new and, he hoped, iconoclastic. The book is presented variously in typewriter script across the page, in regular type in columns up, down, around and diagonally across the page, as poems, photos, letters, straight text, and it contains a 42-page index containing a great many entries for “more” and not so many for “less.” When Danielewski wants the reader to speed up the pace, there is a single word on the page. A lot of impenetrable analysis has been done on this book; I’m inclined to think the author was having fun. He just has a complicated brain. And he succeeded in something Faulkner was unable to do. He convinced his publisher to publish some words and sections in color.

Similarly, Night Film by Marisha Pessl is currently receiving much publicity. It’s a suspense novel that includes scraps of movie script, newspaper clippings, photos, website screenshots, police reports. Most intriguing, it’s available as an audio book, for which, though I love audio, this book seems particularly ill-suited.

Books in their digitized forms open up new possibilities for integrating bits of film, photos, audio, alternative paths, puzzles. They have the potential to burst open like a piñata. Authors already are creating vines and mini-movies as promotion for their books; integrating them is the obvious next step that some already are taking. I’m reading the New York Times’s non-fiction The Jockey on line. Audio, video, straight text. I would say “can’t put it down,” but I’m not holding it, I’m watching it unfold before me.

I don’t know about Mariposa’s Song, though. One long sentence. Other new forms, jangled and multimedia as they may be, are perhaps a better fit with our modern attention span.