Category Archives: books

Playing with fiction

Lately I’ve become really interested in the way fiction authors play with the form of narrative in their work. There are essentially two ways of doing this: one, to write within a set of self-imposed constraints to transcend the traditional relationship of a reader to a book (on the more experiential side of the spectrum), or two, to create something which via its form relinquishes or bestows narrative control (on the more interactive side of the spectrum).

I wrote hypertext fiction for a creative writing class in high school, but my first formal exposure to this type of literature was during a college class on Latin American literature, when a teacher described “Hopscotch” by Juilo Cortazar. It’s a stream-of-consciousness novel with 99 chapters of “expendable” content, which can be read with an alternate table of contents provided by the author to supplement the main story. The final two chapters loop together, allowing the reader to choose which ending to the story they prefer.

This type of fiction inhabits an interesting narrative space, one in which the reader is both creating the work of fiction for themselves, but also participating as one single element in a work that’s larger than and which incorporates them. The author is both completely in control of the world, and also relinquishes control of the reader’s experience.

It’s easiest to think of this duality in the context of a video game; a game maker creates the world, sets up the story and characters and so on, and can either force the player down a particular path of play, or leave the world open to exploring and molding to their own preferred method of gameplay. But this can also apply to books (or at least written, printed works of fiction that may be loosely defined as books), and that’s what I’m specifically interested in today.

My reading list is as follows:

(The Unfortunates, via)

  • House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski – a novel with multiple layered stories told in footnotes by an unrelated, unreliable narrator on an academic study of a nonexistent documentary film about a transdimensional house. The layout, colors and presence of the type itself is also related to the narrative experience.
  • Hopscotch (Rayuela) by Julio Cortazar – described above, this book can be read in order as presented or in a pattern provided by the author, with the reader choosing their own ending.
  • Dictionary of the Khazars: A Lexicon Novel in 100,000 Words – presented as an alphabetically-arranged dictionary, this book is the fictional historical record of an Indo-European tribe who vanished in the 10th century. It can be browsed and read in any order, there are lots of cross-references between sections, and there are two versions, “male” and “female”, with minute differences.
  • The Mixquiahuala Letters by Ana Castillo – an homage to Hopscotch, this book has three ways to read the letters in this episolary novel about two female artists: “one for the conformist, one for the cynic, and one for the quixotic.”
  • 253 by Geoff Ryman – a hypernext novel presented online, describing the seven carriages on a Bakerloo Line train, each with 36 seats filled with passengers, as it travels from Embankment to Elephant and Castle. I’ll be starting with the driver.
  • The Castle of Crossed Destinies by Italo Calvino – two groups of travelers have lost their voices and must tell their stories using tarot cards; “A narrator at each place interprets the cards for the reader, but since the tarot cards are subject to multiple interpretations, the stories the narrators offer are not necessarily the stories intended by the mute storytellers.”
  • Heart Suit (McSweeney’s Issue 16) by Robert Coover – a story told on thirteen interchangeable playing cards (shown below)

  • Life: A User’s Manual by Georges Perec – this book uses a 10×10 grid (and is meant to be similar to a chess board) to dissect and reassemble the inhabitants and contents of a Parisian apartment building, playing with collage-style art, word games and acrostics to create a “completed jigsaw puzzle”
  • The Unfortunates by B.S. Johnson – published in 1969, this is a box that contains a collection of loose and gathered books of printed pages, making 27 chapters total; the first and last chapters are marked as such, and the order of the others is left to the reader. As one Amazon review says, “It’s a story told as chapters that appear as flashbacks, or real events depending on where they fall in your random sequence.” (shown at the top of this post)
  • McSweeney’s Issue 22 – this issue is “a three-part exercise in inspired restriction — of author, of content, and of form.” My specific interest is in the Oulipo writing in the third section. Oulipo is a French movement from the 60s which “seeks to create works using constrained writing techniques”; the repertoire includes both The Castle of Crossed Destinies and Life: A User’s Manual, listed above. It’s also responsible for “A Void”, Perec’s novel written entirely without the letter “e”.
  • The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne – written in the 18th century and described today as “the first hypertext novel” due to its meandering plotlines, branching stories and stylistic flourishes. It’s also supposed to be very funny to boot.
  • Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges – a dense collection of puzzle box stories, essays, book reviews for books that haven’t been written, obituaries for people that never lived. Frequently described as “dense”, “intensely cerebral” and “influential”, which I generally take to mean it’s often assigned in literature classes to give context to later, easier works.
  • Webcomics by Scott McCloud – McCloud has long been at the forefront of explaining the how and why of comic making and reading, and he’s also done a lot of playing around with comic form using the internet, making the argument that online, comics aren’t limited to the prescribed dimensions of the printed paper pages; works include an infinite canvas comic and a “zooming” comic (clicked to reveal the next panel from within the current one).
  • Meanwhile: Pick Any Path. 3,856 Story Possibilities. by Jason Shiga – like choose-your-own-adventure/chutes and ladders (or snakes and ladders, if you’re in the UK) in graphic novel form.
  • Interactive Audio Novel on Spotify by Hurts and Joe Stretch – a choose-your-own adventure that takes advantage of the Spotify file system

Some cut-up/fold-in/assemblage/collage art books:

And some ephemera-based storytelling:

  • Dennis Wheatley – via Wikipedia: “During the 1930s, Wheatley conceived a series of mysteries, presented as case files, with testimonies, letters, and pieces of evidence such as hairs or pills. The reader had to inspect this evidence to solve the mystery before unsealing the last pages of the file, which gave the answer. Four of these ‘Crime Dossiers’ were published: Murder Off Miami, Who Killed Robert Prentice?, The Malinsay Massacre, and Herewith The Clues!.”
  • S (Ship of Theseus) – Conceived of by J.J. Abrams and written by Doug Dorst, this is a novel with papers tucked into the pages, and several stories playing out via notes written in the margins.
  • Cathy’s Book: If Found Call (650) 266-8233 – An ARG-inspired book, Cathy’s Book is a young adult novel with alternative reality game elements by Sean Stewart and Jordan Weisman, illustrated by Cathy Brigg
  • The Jolly Postman – “A Jolly Postman delivers letters to several famous fairy-tale characters such as the Big Bad Wolf, Cinderella, and the Three Bears. Twelve of the pages have been made into six envelopes and contain eight letters and cards. Each letter may be removed from its envelope page and read separately.”
  • Griffin and Sabine – A back and forth correspondence told through postcards and letters, some of which are inserted into the pages

And of course, the more I research the more books I find to add to the list. This is the core, though, and it’s inspired me to try and create one work of hypertext/interactive/experimental fiction each month or so, so I’m sticking to it for now.