10 Experimental Novels That Are Worth the Effort


Today marks the US publication of Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, a highly experimental, Joycean novel that, despite the fact that modern readers often eschew difficulty, has been heaped with awards. It is, in fact, a difficult book — but it’s totally worth it. And it’s not the only one. After the jump, ten experimental novels that are worth the effort it takes to parse them. Take a look, and since this is only a list of one reader’s favorites, add your own to the bizarre pile in the comments.

A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, Eimear McBride

McBride’s widely lauded novel is full of fragmented, floating sentences that sometimes feel like only gestures at sentences, like gestures at the things under thoughts, that real, pre-language stuff. It’s hard going at first, but once you let the language wash over you and form a rhythm, the book blossoms into a gorgeous, brutal stream of word and thought.

C, Tom McCarthy

McCarthy’s second novel is gorgeous and devastating, a search for patterns in the phenomenal world and a warning against the same; a book of just-missed connections, wireless communication and full-on joy. As Jennifer Egan wrote, “C is a rigorous inquiry into the meaning of meaning: our need to find it in the world around us and communicate it to one another; our methods for doing so; the hubs and networks and skeins of interaction that result. Gone is the minimalist restraint he employed in Remainder; here, he fuses a Pynchonesque revelry in signs and codes with the lush psychedelics of William Burroughs to create an intellectually provocative novel that unfurls like a brooding, phosphorescent dream.”

Hopscotch, Julio Cortázar

This is book that can be read in any order, with chapters that can be left out or left in, depending on the mood of the reader. It sounds easy to screw up this literary labyrinth, but you really can’t: every page hums with life and language, and however you make your way through, you’ll be glad you did. As Pablo Neruda famously wrote, “People who do not read Cortazar are doomed. Not to read him is a serious invisible disease.”

Notable American Women, Ben Marcus

Marcus’ sophomore novel is totally weird, but also pretty gorgeous. Like another, later novel of Marcus’, language is weaponry here, and the protagonist of this book (“Ben Marcus”) is a child whose mother belongs to a cult of Silentists, obsessive verging on abusive. This novel constantly asks its reader to re-evaluate the real, both the absolute real and the relative real, and the difference between the two. For instance, the two blurbs on the back of this book are these: “Ben Marcus is a genius, one of the most daring, funny, morally engaged and brilliant writers, someone whose work truly makes a difference in the world.” — George Saunders; “How can one word from Ben Marcus’s rotten, filthy heart be trusted?” — Michael Marcus, Ben’s father. Point and case.

The Mezzanine, Nicholson Baker

This entire novel takes place over the length of an escalator ride. No, no, it’s about 140 pages of minute details, imaginings, footnotes, and lists with columns like “Subject of Thought” and “Number of Times Thought Occurred per Year (in Descending Order).” There are times when the amount that Baker can focus on one tiny thing threatens to drive one mad, but in the end, the novel is a deeply moving meditation on change and life and, of course, language.

Speedboat, Renata Adler

Adler’s mostly plotless first novel is stunning, hilarious, vivid, vital. Let go of what you think a novel should be, and let this novel be what it is, and you’ll be rewarded by waves of pleasure on every page, both emotional and intellectual.

Wittgenstein’s Mistress, David Markson

This novel is organized as a long series of notes written continuously on a typewriter by the last woman on earth — a woman who is obsessed with art and philosophy and literature, but keeps forgetting, or confusing, or willfully misrepresenting things. Again, the book is sort of plotless and (especially for sticklers for facts) frustrating, but it’s also a beautiful and sometimes heartbreaking ode to loneliness and the world of the mind.

How to Be Both, Ali Smith

Smith’s newest novel, just recently shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, can be read two ways — depending on which version of it you happen to pick up. Some copies of the book begin with one of its interconnected stories, some with the other. In both structure and subject, Smith is investigating duality and the relationship of surface to substance. “It’s about fresco form,” Smith told The Guardian . “You have the very first version of the fresco underneath the skin, as it were, of the real fresco. There’s a fresco on the wall: there it is, you and I look at it, we see it right in front of us; underneath that there’s another version of the story and it may or may not be connected to the surface. And they’re both in front of our eyes, but you can only see one, or you see one first. So it’s about the understory. I have the feeling that all stories travel with an understory.”

JR, William Gaddis

This novel is long. This novel is almost entirely made up of untagged dialogue. This novel is brilliant and will suck you in and keep you forever.

The Emigrants, W.G. Sebald

Sebald’s writing is at the easy end of experimentalism — that is, there are no bizarre sentence structures, no choose-your-own-adventure-style tricks, no tomfoolery. But at its heart, his work is deeply experimental — after all, what is it? Novel, travelogue, essay? Some combination of these, complete with badly reproduced and sometimes doctored black and white photographs and the specter of Nabokov following us through all the complicated pages? Yes, yes, yes, yes.