June 29th, 2011 / 7:04 pm
Craft Notes

Great Moments in Literature

Perhaps as a neighbor for Christopher Higgs’s “What Is Experimental Literature” series, we should compile a list of neat, uh, experiments. I’m thinking: What are your favorite tricks in literature? Let’s make a list. Here, I’ll scratch the meta surface. The comment box is “there” as a repository for your additions and complaints, as usual.

  • Vonnegut writes himself into Breakfast of Champions in order to free Kilgore Trout. Later, Kilgore Trout books are published (though not by Vonnegut).
  • Tristram Shandy (perhaps this could be a subheading)
  • The narratives of David Markson, created from seemingly unconnected notes
  • Evan Lavender-Smith’s brilliant novel ideas in From Old Notebooks, some of which I actually wish were the book instead
  • Kierkegaard’s pseudonyms referring to each other, disagreeing with each other
  • Kierkegaard’s Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments sextupling the length of The Philosophical Fragments — like, “Oops, I forgot to say . . .”
  • How the page works in Mark Z. Danielewski’s Only Revolutions
  • The promotional run-up to the publication of The Complete Works of Marvin K. Mooney, combined with the book
  • Moby Dick (perhaps another subheading) and the re-appropriation of distinct genres within the novel
  • Melville’s The Confidence Man, specifically the chapter where the narrator breaks down the other chapters
  • The tiered question of authority in Shane Jones’s Light Boxes
  • The cover of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy says “Don’t Panic!” just like the book says it does
  • How the aunts and uncles comment on the action in TS Eliot’s The Family Reunion
  • In Rhinoceros by Eugene Ionesco, Jean and Berenger discuss Ionesco’s plays. Jean says, “There’s one playing right now. You should take advantage of it.”
  • The breakdown Robert endures in the Bear Parade version of Zachary German’s Eat When You Feel Sad
  • Pale Fire: unreliable narrator, form
  • Shakespeare making his characters make plays all the time
  • The mind-blowing first issue of Sidebrow, which links the different stories and poems to each other so they complete/play off each other
  • Jamie Iredell alphabetizing traditional book elements in The Book of Freaks (e.g. the Index comes in the middle of the book)
  • What happened to Ben Marcus’s dictionary in The Age of Wire and String?
  • The Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce
  • Ken Sparling’s book,
  • The dilapidation of Quentin’s narration in The Sound and the Fury until it breaks off at his suicide
  • Chronology in Catch-22
  • The beginning of Frankenstein
  • The interaction between the old traditional novelist and the young-buck experimental writer in James Michener’s indispensable novel, The Novel
  • Great Expectations in Kathy Acker’s Great Expectations
  • Borges, geez, in particular “Pierre Menard, author of Don Quixote”
  • Borges, geez, in particular “The Library of Babel”
  • Rachel Glaser’s repurposed text from Little Women in the story “The Magic Umbrella”
  • Lucky’s speech in Waiting for Godot
  • Clov turning the binoculars on the audience and saying, “I see a multitude, in transports of joy”
  • The part in Toby Olson’s otherwise conventional novel, Seaview, when the protagonist crawls inside his golf bag
  • The way Michael Kimball tells the way the family gets away in The Way the Family Got Away
  • (Spoiler) In I Am the Cheese, the kid was institutionalized the whole time.
  • The characters’ vernacular in Tortilla Flat
  • Blake Butler’s Copy Family
  • Douglas Rushkoff’s open-source novel, Exit Strategy, which includes footnotes written by readers online
  • The margins of Douglas Coupland’s novel, Generation X
  • Kerouac’s breakdown at the end of Big Sur
  • Master and Margarita, specifically the Grand Inquisitor part
  • Dorothea Lasky’s poem, “It’s a Lonely World,” which begins, “It’s a lonely world/Hi everybody/It’s Dorothea, Dorothea Lasky”
  • Lu Xun’s story “A Madman’s Diary” and its unbelievably believable ambiguity
  • Borges, geez, in particular “The Garden of Forking Paths”
  • In Jude the Obscure, their eldest son’s name is “Little Father Time.” WTF?”
  • The word “exalted” vs. “exulted” in Hemingway’s story “Indian Camp”
  • Donald Westlake’s story, “No Story,” which presents only the frame for how a story was discovered
  • “Do you see? Good is dead” on the (literal) side of the page in Chip Kidd’s The Cheese Monkeys
  • and that issue of McSweeney’s that has the David Foster Wallace story on the spine
  • The alphabetized stories and novel of Andy Devine
  • The Beauty of the Husband, by Anne Carson, being a poem while being an essay while telling the story of a marriage

Work tirelessly, at a feverish pace.

Tags: ,


  1. bartleby_taco

      Borges in everything.
      Not really being sure if the novel you’ve been reading is the same novel that is being described in Period by Dennis Cooper.
      The ending of The Elementary Particles (Houellebecq).
      Sex with Hitler (Funeral Rites – Genet)
      WWII is really about smoking weed in a superhero costume, having a bad case of morning wood, pie-throwing, and octopus fighting (Gravity’s Rainbow)
      Mostly everything I have read by Enrique Vila-Matas and Cesar Aira
      Learning how to counterfeit money in The Recognitions
      The ending of The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea (Mishima)

      Dunno how many of these classify as “tricks” if any

  2. Clarence L'inspecteur

      What would become “The Book of Disquiet” by Pessoa, by Soares, by Caeiro, by Reis, by Campos, being discovered in a locked suitcase under the multiple authors’ bed in a hotel room in Lisbon, all written in shorthand on tiny scraps of paper to be painstackingly rearranged in some kind of order and some sort of narrative by some kind of one. 

  3. Adam Robinson

      They seem dead on to me, though yeah about tricks, I like that word but it doesn’t have to be the definitive descriptor. I have to read The Recognitions.

  4. Ryandw

      I want to say Ed Dorn’s Gunslinger meets the “trick” threshold.  as a narrative that seems born on very specific abstractions which themselves are often jauntily representational, but maybe representational in name only.  not to mention the strums.  not sure about Finnegans Wake.

  5. blm

      Cortazar’s “Hopscotch,” with its numbered chapters that can be read in multiple sequences; Nabokov’s “Speak, Memory,” with VN’s wife Vera the semi-hidden narratee; DFW actually making the “it was all a dream” ending work in “Oblivion”; the mother of all paragraph breaks on the last page of Bolano’s “By Night in Chile”…

  6. deadgod

      This comment

  7. deadgod

      This reply

  8. Samuel Sargent

      While it hasn’t quite made it to the top of my pile of to-read books yet, I’m quite fond of the Oulipian restraint used in “Ella Minnow Pea” by Mark Dunn. Not only is it a lipogram in which various letters are forbidden from use within the book, said lipogrammaticalization is actually part of the plot, rather than purely a gimmick.

      Another book that I haven’t read yet but will be shortly since it’s on the way via Inter Library Loan (I moved to a place with real libraries!) is Danielewski’s “The 50 Year Sword” in which who is speaking is designated by what color quotation marks surround the text.  (Also just received today via ILL and also experimental & not-yet-read-by-me is this book called “Parabola” that was written by some chick who writes for some website. The book is currently covered by Gnomio & Juliet w/ the spine facing away from me and I’m too lazy to reach for it, so hopefully someone else can fill in the blanks.)

      And while I’m loathe to break the trend and mention a book I’ve actually read, “When I Was Five I Killed Myself” by Howard Buten is ostensibly taken from the scrawlings on the wall of a rubber room by an eight year old. I’m not entirely positive that it counts as experimental but I’m morally obligated to mention the book any time it’s even remotely appropriate. And definitely experimental and also in my top ten favourite books of all time (along with WIWFIKM) is Mark Driver’s “Just Another Empire”, in which the author’s shitty life becomes interspersed with the chapters of his historical fiction.

  9. Sarahsoo


  10. Clarence L'inspecteur

      That reminds me of “La disparition” (the disappearance), that great book without a singe “E”, by the genius “oulipien” Georges Perec. I think it was translated into English by Harry Matthews but I’m not sure. Anyways, in the original French, it’s quite an accomplishment, since he doesn’t cheat (like changing the spelling here and there) at all and the “trick” is also part of the plot per se.

      And it’s not even its best, I think that “La vie mode d’emploi” is better. Got to love the fact that it’s subtitled in the plural form “Romans” (Novels). 

  11. Tanya

      Gilbert Sorrentino’s Mulligan’s Stew is worth mentioning for its structure, it’s meta-narratives, etc.

  12. EC

      Emily Bronte killing off Catherine Earnshaw haflway through Wuthering Heights.  Which also showed that Emily Bronte had the biggest balls of any nineteenth century English novelist.

  13. Leapsloth14

      Ignatius Jacques Reilly ‘sells’ all his hotdogs by eating them himself. Oh hell. I’m laughing out loud right now. Wine just blew out my nose. Another laptop gone, but worth it. Ignatius. Wow.

  14. Alexander J. Allison

      DFW – The Pale King

      A whole novel where nothing happens, but everything may as well have.

  15. stephen

      B.S. Johnson’s “The Unfortunates” – unbound chapters in a box with only the first and last chapter specified

      Someone already mentioned “Hopscotch”- I also like how some chapters consist solely of a quote from somebody else, and there’s a series of chapters at the end (if read straight through) that you’re told you don’t have to read.

      The form of “The Savage Detectives” – diary entries of one character and then a long series of accounts by eyewitnesses re the central characters, who we never see firsthand 

  16. Don

      DFW’s Mr. Squishy

      Judah haNasi’s redacting of the Mishnah in 200 CE

      Virginia Woolf’s one-paragraph description of WW1 in ‘To the Lighthouse’

      Benjamin’s Arcades Project

  17. Don

      Queneau’s interweaving sonnets… Hundred Thousand Billion Poems.

  18. John Minichillo

      Love you start w/ Vonnegut, that he gets his props, because many of us started w/ Vonnegut.

      I will come back to this list. Will come back to it as it’s sure to grow…(Geez Donald Barthelme).

      I was lucky to stumble on this tradition relatively young in a class that was called “gamesmanship and narrative,” and it is a tradition, parallel to and at least as old as realism. Encountering a playful intellect is what I love about these writers and about reading. And this opened my eyes about literature right at the time I was also starting to write.

      And I love you place some of today’s young writers, here where they belong, in relation to tradition much much older than the Internet.

  19. Guestagain

      Bukowski’s hot beer shit denouement.
      David Foster Wallace dropping the floor out of the narrative with heavy tax accounting theory that is painstakingly researched and absolutely correct (WTF?!)
      Arturo Bandini’s sine wave of nervous breakdowns.
      Paul Verlaine

  20. mimi

      Nabokov tells us in the Foreword to ‘Lolita’ that the book’s four main characters are dead.

  21. Don

      Feneon’s ‘novels in three lines’

  22. jon w.

      christina stead’s epic poem-style characterization in “the man who loved children”
      everything in “the log of the s.s. the mrs. unguentine” by stanley crawford
      everything in philip k. dick’s “valis”
      the complete deformation of the sentence in joseph mcelroy’s “women and men”

  23. deadgod

      screenplay of ‘sunset boulevard’

  24. deadgod

      In the King James Version of Psalm 46, the forty-sixth word from the first, inclusive, is “shake”, and the forty-sixth from the end, excluding “Selah”, is “spear”.

      That is some post meta next-level shit.

  25. postitbreakup

      The Mindwarp series, ghostwritten middle-grade fiction I was obsessed with in elementary school, which ends with the main character in a mental hospital being told that she’s hallucinated all the events of the book based on her reading “the Mindwarp series by Chris Archer,” and then she gets busted out of the hospital by the other characters, but the book switches to a “choose your own ending” thing that lets you decide if the series was “actually” a hallucination or not.  

      (This is after it being a straightforward series for the prior 9 books.)

  26. postitbreakup

      Jesus saying “I am the Word”

  27. Tim Horvath

      Translated by Gilbert Adair. I don’t know if I agree about the lack of cheating. Except that cheating is part of the fun.

  28. Tim Horvath

      Cloud Atlas‘s slingshotting from centuries past into the future and back. Joshua Cohen’s Schneidermann purporting to be an onstage cadenza performed in words. Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow doing the whole reverse-chronology thing with verve and purpose. Lance Olsen’s Head in Flames, a counterimmersive spinning tripwire of minds, times, and concerns.

  29. Brendan

      This isn’t a comment.

  30. deadgod

      Where does Jesus say this?

  31. deadgod

      This isn’t a reply.

  32. deadgod

      This hasn’t been done before.

  33. inBOIL

      that meme where Snoop endorsed Word

  34. Ghostrunnerassembly

      boy howdy oh wow golly gee.  astonished and ecstatic that this, my favorite piece of literature, has finally entered into the htmlgiant lexicon of comments.  thank you.

  35. postitbreakup

      jesus christ deadgod, god is dead because you killed him

      excuse me, it was “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”, OK?  sorry.  jesus didn’t say it, it was “John,” even though i was always taught in sunday school that that use of God was referring to Jesus, not that it matters.  OK?  do you feel better deadgod?  i mean i’m assuming we’re both atheists, but do you feel better, now?  now that it’s correct, for the record?  the all-important HTMLGiant record?

      if you wanna get all bart ehrman on me, then yes, jesus probably didn’t exist or at least not in any way as he was depicted in the bible, and probably didn’t say any of the contradictory things listed in the gospels, period.  OK?  jessssssuuuussss

  36. Brocodicile Bundy

      You don’t call that a comment?
      THIS isn’t a comment!

  37. Adam Robinson

      Uh, all that said, the first chapter of John is certainly an amazing and powerful meta doc.

  38. mimi

      Is THAT where he got the idea?

      MacBeth’s witches

  39. Guestagain

      no comment

  40. Clarence L'inspecteur

      Ah! A Void! Thanks for the information.

      Well, he sure uses a lot of unusual verb tenses, and atypical phrasings and syntax, but everything “works” (you know, in an official grammatical way). It’s sounds like the perfect French of a madman.
      But mostly, when I wrote about “not cheating”, I was thinking in terms of spelling, because there’s this other book by Perec, where he did the opposite, in a kind of response to “La Disparition”. The only vowel used is the E and he’s already “cheating” in the title: he called it “Les Revenentes”, which is spelled wrong (the last E is supposed to be an A in French). He does a lot of misspelling in that one, taking liberties with the language.    

  41. Clarence L'inspecteur

      De nada!

  42. mimi
  43. JeMeMoi, inc

      Ignatius’ apparently delusional « I’m a Savior » kind of rants becoming quite true at the end of A Confederacy of Dunces, jeez —

      Don Barthelme splitting « Snow White » in half with a survey

      The audience at the trial of « Brothers Karamazov » commenting the action during breaks like some cheap piece of entertainment

      The apparently omniscient narrator of « the days of awe » by Hugh Nissenson using the first-person « I » only once (or twice), suggesting therefore that the whole thing may be told by a supporting character, the black daughter of a maid, who is far from occupying center-stage in the whole business of the novel

      John Barth opening “Lost in the Funhouse” with a 10-word story to be put on a moebius strip (easy, I know)

      Don DeLillo telling the Cuba Missile Crisis through 100% invented Lenny Bruce monologues

      « The third and final woman comprising the garden in which Konrad Vost was the only growth was his daughter, she whose maturity he refused to acknowledge and wno, in his eyes alone, remained a child » : doom-laden narrative voice in John Hawke’s « The Passion Artist »..


  44. Frank Tas, the Raptor
  45. William Owen

      Grant Morrison writing himself into his run on Animal Man and meeting the character, then writing The Invisibles, making an avatar of himself in King Mob.

      Also, The Invisibles as hypersigil and/or nam-shub.

      Alan Moore’s Promethea. Many experiments. The god Thoth-Hermes breaking the 4th wall to directly address the reader; coitus as yogic catalyst; a tour of the heavens mapped to the tarot and the kabbalistic tree of life.

      P K Dick’s Ubix – heads you’re Glen Runciter.

  46. Brendan

      You’re reading this.

  47. Brendan

      start over

  48. Kevin Sampsell

      the comment card format of Letters To Wendy’s by Joe Wenderoth. The story “Car Bomb” by Mark Leyner. The Alphabet Man by Richard Grossman. Padgett Powell’s last novel where every sentence is a question. 

  49. deckfight

      – i need to read wenderoth’s book, many ppl have suggested it.
      – ditto the arcades project // hopscotch
      – italo calvino – ‘if on a winter’s night a traveler’
      – humument by tom phillips http://www.humument.com/intro.html

  50. Nick Francis

      Reverse pagination in D. Keith Mano’s Take Five
      And, before we ask where Ben Marcus’s dictionary went in The Age of Wire and String, where did Gertrude Stein’s go in Tender Buttons?
      J. A. Tyler’s ZZZZZZZZZZZZ project.
      The output of Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries

  51. davidpeak

      Got another one for the Brothers Karamazov: writing the entire novel in first person, from the viewpoint of a community.

      Also would like to add: Conrad using the term “Pass the bottle” in “Youth” to remind us that we’re listening to someone as tell a story.

  52. davidpeak

      sam pink

  53. deadgod

      The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

      get your kicks
      on route sixty-six

  54. deadgod

      I was while I was.

  55. deadgod


  56. Matthew Simmons

      The way Nicholson Baker uses footnotes in The Mezzanine to expand the novel’s space

  57. c2k

      This is the King James (version 1.611) bible too, yes?

      Unfamiliar I am with the Voice crieth-ing there in the wilderness, rather than in the desert (where the highway is to go – eventually), tho they can of course “be” the same things, metaphorically and literally, desert and wilderness, as LeBron shows us. Also, looks like 23 added, creatively, a throughfare from the US highway system, just for the he– of it. Nice.

  58. Matthew Simmons

      I had completely forgotten about this! Thank you for the reminder.

      This proves that Queen Elizabeth wrote the King James.

  59. c2k

      thoroughfare, to be fair

  60. Don

      Carlos Fuentes’ novel with Mexico City as the protagonist.

      The title of 2666.

  61. bartleby_taco

      The Recognitions is definitely a trek but it is well worth it. I have to read JR next.

  62. Jimmy Chen

      yes, i was going to mention the recognitions, how the main character wyatt completely disappears in the middle of the book and is never mentioned again

  63. Christian

      w/r/t kierkegaard’s concluding unscientific postscript — i always thought the part where he concludes that, after hegel, the only thing left to do is make life more difficult for people was one of the freshest tricks ever, especially in light of his saying that the whole idea came out of his natural laziness (indolence was his word, i guess).

  64. Leopoldbloom

      A reply to John Minichilo:  Not at least as old as realism, centuries older than realism.  Read “The Novel: An Alternate History” by Steven Moore.  The realist novel of the last 150 years is a minor drop in the 2,000 year river of innovative literature.

  65. MFBomb

      Good one!

      Also, how about her use of Nelly Dean and Lockwood as co-narrators?

      More Victorian Lit:

      -Dickens switching back-and-forth from a fly-on-the-wall 3rd to a conversational colloquial 1st (Esther) in “Bleak House.”

      -Thackeray’s dubious ending of “Vanity Fair”–did Becky kill Jos, or not?

      -Charlotte Bronte refusing to allow Jane to compromise her integrity by marrying Rochester (the first time) and St. John Rivers later in the novel was radical for its time, some might even say, revolutionary.

      -Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”–the whole damn book.  Where to begin?

  66. Links: This Is Just to Say | Mark Athitakis’ American Fiction Notes

      […] “What are your favorite tricks in literature?“ […]

  67. Agi

      The “missing” narrator in “La Jalousie” by Alain Robbes-Grillet

  68. Ken Baumann

      Thank you! Honored on the Mooney front. Here are some additions:

      Meursault’s final victory in The Stranger

      All of How It Is

      Churchill’s last moment, his villainy, on the train, in Human Smoke

      The narrator’s mystical realizations, post-cockroach-crush, in The Passion According to G.H.

      Ignatius masturbating in A Confederacy of Dunces

      The abandoned/haunted house sequence in Closer by Dennis Cooper, and the car crash 

      The last videogame trip in God Jr.

      The final page of The Marbled Swarm

      Live Eschaton mayhem in Infinite Jest, and the first two paragraphs of the book and how stunningly perfect they are in retrospect

      All of The Myth of Sisyphus by Camus

      The rhythms embedded in Finnegans Wake

  69. JeMeMoi, inc

      Two nice backcover (and one frontcover), two young, one old not-to-be missed blurbs here (in full quotes):

      « Incidental intelligence :

      “Mr Brautigan submitted a book to us in 1962 called TROUT FISHING IN AMERICA. I gather from the reports that it was not about trout fishing.” (—The Viking Press) » (Dell Publishing (Delta), 1967.)

      “Great” Ta-Neshi Coates, Atlantic Monthly
      “Great” James Baldwin, Village Voice
      “Great” Sam Tanenhaus, NPR » (Ishmael Reed, Juice!)

      not to mention the very blurb-oriented, Kakutani-style (neh?) « Heartbeaking Work of Staggering Genius », on the front-page this time.

  70. JeMeMoi, inc

      *front cover? scuse my french.

  71. Anonymous


  72. Blake Butler

      Mary Robison writing Why Did I Ever with the intent of the pieces going in any order and then supposedly deciding there was an order

      David Markson’s very small amount of non-historical information related in the Novelist Cycle

      the mattress buying sections in Donald Antrim’s The Afterlife

      the scene in La Medusa set at the mexican restaurant getting drunk, and the rapping sections

      Gordon Lish’s Epigraph

      Ann Quin

  73. Hortenzia64

      John Barth, “Lost in the Funhouse”

  74. Trey

      the poems in Russell Edson’s The Clam Theater being arranged alphabetically