Reading Recommendations: On Writing that Makes It Up

Okay, I know any writing, even the autobiographical, is a form of making it up. But on the heels of recommending Wonderbook, with all the good advice contained therein, I want to offer a few suggestions for books that actually make no sense, that bend all rules, even the rules of warped internal logic that govern experimental novels or abstract poetry. Here are a few books that you read and think, wait a minute, you can do that? Or, also: how on earth are they doing that? How are they making that work?

Of course, don’t try this at home. Not yet. There’s merit to figuring out some rules before rejecting them. I remember in my own degree a favourite professor telling the class in exasperation that Virginia Woolf was in a fruitful tension with “classic” writers, not rejecting them. That we needed to be mindful of our own defensive postures, as another kind of limitation. That said:

Mr. Fox, by Helen Oyeyemi

Oyeyemi is one of my favourite writers. Born in Nigeria, raised in England, and currently living in Prague, she published her first novel while she was still in her teens (just so the rest of us can feel inadequate). Mr. Fox is a riff on the English folktale of the same name, which is a version of Bluebeard, and terrifying. The book opens with a male novelist who can’t stop killing off his female characters. Then one of them comes to life and comes after him. The book is essentially a series of increasingly bizarre vignettes in which she pursues him through time and place, both of them assuming different names and identities. The book is pattern and game, not plot. There is no plot, just the central problem of the writer and the muse, violence and story, over and over, refracted through both British and Nigerian folklore, realistic fiction, speculative fiction, letters, diaries, scraps of unexplained text. We are hurled through space, caught in a hall of mirrors that keeps breaking to reveal more mirrors. It’s frustrating, beautiful. And done without explanation or apology. She doesn’t need the story to make sense and trusts the reader doesn’t either, that they are just along for the ride, and sometimes the ride is language itself, the pleasure of how words create or destroy. You finish it and don’t know what has happened to you, the way you might feel about a dream.

Reservoir 13, by Jon McGregor

In a small village, a family rents a converted barn for a vacation over the holidays. Mother, father, a girl. The girl takes a walk by herself and doesn’t return. Police are called. The entire community searches and there is no sign of the girl, just accounts of sightings. Dragging the river, calling in dogs, nothing. You read the premise and think: yes, this is familiar. Then you keep reading.

The girl is never found. We never discover what happened to her. Instead, we follow, in chapters, the next thirteen years (her age) of life in the village, which is briefly defined by the tragedy and then, of course, time goes on. Other children are born, other people die, the seasons alter, farmers worry about money, the minister sees the congregation dwindle, young people make plans to leave, their parents have affairs, marriages end. Sometimes someone thinks of the missing girl, but only in passing. The thing that makes this novel unlike anything I’ve ever read is that point of view shifts constantly. Shifting point of view is a form in itself, and one I love, but I don’t mean a section in one voice, giving way to another in the following section. We leap between characters without pause, shifting within a single paragraph and sometimes within a single sentence. Even the foxes and birds and dogs are characters, and we drop into their heads too, fleetingly, before drifting away again. But by the end of the novel, all the stories, we realize, have come to a new place. Each voice is complete. It’s an astonishing achievement and it breaks all the rules. We shouldn’t be able to follow, and it shouldn’t cohere. Yet we do, and it does.