a little afraid of experimental lit:
Giraffes in Hiding by Carol Novack
Reviewed by Michelle Bailat-Jones
I’ve been thinking about experimental narratives lately, for a number of reasons, but mainly because I was working on a review of an extremely unique book called Giraffes in Hiding: The Mythical Memoirs of Carol Novack. I read this book all the way back in January, and then re-read it and then jumped around inside it for awhile, re-reading certain pieces and basically just trying to figure out how to write about it. I almost didn’t write about it because I didn’t feel like I was up to the task.
I wrote the review eventually (and happily, and honestly) because it bothered me too much that I couldn’t seem to find a way to write about it. Not knowing what else to do, I forced myself to come up with a metaphor that helped me envision the text as a whole. (Hopefully that metaphor will help potential new readers, too, but that isn’t for me to decide). Envisioning the text as a whole is, I think, where some people, maybe even many people, get stumped when they’re confronted with experimental writing. This mass and tumble of words and ideas just sort of spills off the page toward you, attacks you maybe, or just slides on by indifferently; either way, you’re not sure what to do with it, because:
- it doesn’t look like anything you’ve ever read before
- it’s maybe a little confusing, even purposefully confusing
- you worry that you’re not smart enough or not well-read enough (in this tradition of non-traditional literature) to understand what’s going on
- you’re not sure you like it, or, maybe you love it – but in either case you can’t say why exactly
- you can’t “see” it the way you can “see” the shape and structure and filler of other narratives—it’s all globby or too spikey or too empty
Something that helped me find the courage to write this review is the series of articles and interviews “What is experimental lit?” by Christopher Higgs at HTML giant. His third essay is about reading strategies. He suggests:
For the former, what may prove to be invaluable might be a close attention to patterns of repetition, rhythm, connectivity and gaps between words and phrases, the moments of caesura, the sites of tension, the magnitudes of intensities, or the ways in which the text unsettles the limitations of genre and convention, subverts familiarity, articulates emotional states for which there are no nouns, or enacts the reader’s sublime.
So, okay, details. And I think most readers who are even open to considering experimental literature do this almost instinctively, because it is the first and only access into the text. Since the whole is denied upfront (not indefinitely, but often at first) the parts become really important. The sound of the words, the play of the language and how that engages with the ideas behind the work.
This was definitely the case for my reading of Giraffes in Hiding. I had to throw out my deep-seated and learned notions of how to experience a text and get as intimate as I could with the details. The details finally led me toward a conception of the whole. I found the experience interesting. I won’t say pleasant, because I am far too emotionally connected to my usual reading experience, and by that I mean I love being submersed into a continuous and coherent narrative. I am unapologetically Aristotelian.
But I’m open to experimental literature because I like the questions that it asks. I like being nudged to find new ways inside a piece of fiction, even if it proves difficult or frustrating. I may never gravitate toward this type of fiction instinctively, but I’m very glad there are other readers and writers who do—they enrich my reading world.