As a serious student of literature I changed my concentration while in graduate school from being a Medievalist to a study of the dramas of the Restoration period in England. What interested me then, and what continues to interest me, were the artificial conventions used on the stage to develop the narrative, link together the action, keep the audience aware of the interweaving plots, etc. Specifically I was smitten by the convention of the aside.
Follow the thought: a character in a play steps to the front of the stage and lets the audience in on a secret that quite possibly the rest of the characters on the stage are unaware of or makes a comment about the play as if the actor isn’t in the play themselves. Is it such a leap to Federman’s characters stepping out for drinks when the author isn’t around? How about At Swim-Two-Birds: if memory serves, there are at least three layers of artificiality in Flann O’Brien’s fiction. The unities of fiction were deflated long before the advent of the postmodern writers.
Start with Laurence Sterne. If you haven’t read Tristram Shandy at least once, turn off the computer and go directly to the bookstore for a sturdy copy which will withstand numerous re-readings. Sterne sets out to write the history of Tristram Shandy, much like Fielding wrote the history of Tom Jones, but Sterne discovered that a life doesn’t follow a regularly ordered sequence of events but rather is just one of the many events in a multiplicity of events going on all around the focus of the history. So, Sterne starts with the birth of Tristram but almost immediately branches out and doesn’t get back to the life of Tristram Shandy for well over half of the book. The artifiicial convention Sterne used freely in his writing was the digression. He was so enamored with the digression that he often digressed within his digression … and didn’t even stop there.
A more modern writer that uses the digression in his fiction is Jacques Roubaud (a lot of Roubaud looks like non-fiction, but remember, It’s All Fiction). His novel The Great Fire of London includes the subtitle: A Story with Interpolations and Bifurcations. Simply stated, Roubaud sees fiction as an infinitely branching artifice recreating the author’s view of life and the world around him. The Great Fire of London is carefully constructed in interweaving sections; the reader is following the main narrative but something the author writes demands a more detailed examination so the reader is sent off into a digression or interpolation to develop further insight before being returned to the main narrative.
Unlike some authors, this technique of controlled digressions never seems to confuse the reader, but I would recommend using at least three different bookmarks while reading this novel.
The premise behind the novel is that Roubaud has just lost his wife and is devastated. But don’t look for a romance novel here. Roubaud has followed up on The Great Fire of London with another novel, The Loop. I haven’t read it yet but I suspect Roubaud further develops his theory of branching narratives and drives yet another nail in the tired old straightforward narrative that haunts too many books today and serves to soften the brains of too many readers. After The Loop, Roubaud published the third volume of his “Project,” Mathematics (Roubaud is a mathematician). It is said that the Project is intended to empty the author’s memory, destroying it by writing it down.
Roubaud is a member of OULIPO and you can find elements of the Oulipean reading in his texts. Some are a lot of fun so you might want to try a few. This is the bibliography (to date) from Wikipedia:
- Our Beautiful Heroine. Trans. David Kornacker. Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press, 1987.
- Hortense is Abducted. Trans. Dominic Di Bernardi. Elmwood Park, IL : Dalkey Archive Press, 1989.
- Some Thing Black. Trans. Rosmarie Waldrop. Photographs by Alix Cleo Roubaud. Elmwood Park, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1990.
- The Great Fire of London: A Story with Interpolations and Bifurcations. Trans. Dominic Di Bernardi. Elmwood Park, IL, USA: Dalkey Archive Press, 1991.
- Hortense in Exile. Trans. Dominic Di Bernardi. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1992.
- The Princess Hoppy, or The Tale of Labrador. Trans. Bernard Hœpffner. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1993.
- The Plurality of Worlds of Lewis. Trans. Rosmarie Waldrop. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1995.
- The Form of a City Changes Faster, Alas, than the Human Heart: 150 Poems, 1991-1998. Trans. Rosmarie Waldrop and Keith Waldrop. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 2006.
- Poetry, etcetera: Cleaning House. Trans. Guy Bennett. Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2006.
- The Loop. Trans. Jeff Fort. Champaign, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 2009.
- Exchanges on Light. Trans. Eleni Sikélianòs. Iowa City: La Presse, 2009.
- Mathematics. Trans. Ian Monk. Champaign, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 2012.