EXPERIMENTAL FICTION HAS BEEN IN CRISIS EVER SINCE THE FIRST PORTMANTEAU OF FINNEGAN’S WAKE THREW ITS MUTANT HAT INTO THE RING. For those who thrill at the bold experiments of modernism, it can often feel like the heyday of experimentation is in the past. The idea of language itself breaking down, of form and function breaking their strained marriage, reached its dizzying peak with works like Finnegan’s Wake and other Joyce
books. Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and others continue to exhilarate readers because eighty years later, they’re still dazzlingly transgressive, defying all convention, even the conventions they seem to have established.
But almost immediately following such heady experiments in fiction, experimental fiction itself seemed endangered. Where could writers possibly go from here? What new frontiers were left to explore? The work of defying convention seemed exhausted. The duty of pushing literature forward was left to post-modernists, whose writing still seems disturbingly clinical and sterile to me, divorced from emotion. Consider Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, with its dark conspiracies, its twisted phantasmagoric cityscapes, and its utterly flat, two-dimensional characters. Pynchon’s world seems utterly worn out to me, without the joyous unraveling of language that experimental modernists offered.
The internet has given experimental fiction a second chance to thrill readers, or at least to introduce itself, to give a shake of the hand. Magazines like PANK are producing regularly surprising work that plays with reality, with conventions, with mythology. But I’m still looking for that utter breakdown in form, that breakdown that also stays wedded to emotion.
So it was with great excitement that I cracked open last year’s Bailey’s Women’s Fiction prize winner, formerly the Orange prize, and discovered Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. McBride writes with a spitting, percussive rhythm, tossing out hard, brutal fragments and half-sentences. The writing could be mistaken for a Hemingway story at first, except for the fact that nothing seems to make sense. Reading the novel feels early on like you are reading the mind of a person who has had a stroke; the words are words, but the sentences seem to have lost their syntax, their inner grammatical clockwork. The rules of this goes here and that goes there have been completely, deliriously, exhilaratingly, thrown out the window.
What makes this highly fragmented style work are two key features of the book. First, its characters include a sister and a brother, who has sustained severe brain damage due to a childhood brain tumor. In their close relationship, the sister often mirrors her brother or empathically embodies his thought process. They are attached at the hip even when they fight and push each other away. The pain and confusion he feels becomes a kind of food that the sister eats. The broken way he perceives the world becomes the only lens through which she can look.
Second, this painfully broken-down language seems to work because of its intense emotional connection to its characters. Our narrator is deeply bonded to her brother, but they also share woundedness and trauma. Each character’s view of the world has been stunted or corrupted in some way, and we can see that in the halting, frantic stream of disjointed language. In this case, language and voice is emotion is mood is feeling. The experiment has become the experience.
Although A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is a steep upward climb for readers, it’s also a thrilling roller-coaster ride. That’s the tradeoff we can get from the best experimental fiction: a little more effort for a tremendous emotional payoff.