A Literary Odyssey to the Exotic Lands of Postmodern Fiction, Metafiction and Creative Nonfiction

Yesterday was a literary odyssey of sorts, as I cruised Russell Books in the writing and editing section and came away with M. H. Abrams’ almost comprehensive A Glossary of Literary Terms. Oddly enough, Abrams includes no entry at all for “Creative Nonfiction,” nor even for “Nonfiction” at all. The closest match in his terminology is the nonfiction novel, with its nonlinear structure. Examples are Truman Capote and Norman Mailer with their interview-based studies of famous multiple murders, or what John McPhee called “the literature of fact.” The “literary narrative,” though it may consist of invented events, may also be based on facts: the so-called fictional biography, historical novel, or aforementioned nonfiction novel. The realm of plain, unadorned nonfiction, then, must be considered a universe of information, its voice expository, neutral, objective.

Into this china shop bursts the postmodern bull of deconstructionism and linguistic poststructuralism (see below), negating the pretense of objective truth in any language elements and structures. Along with this irreverent (even mystical and esoteric, recalling the nondual philosophies of Hinduism and Buddhism: “The rain is not the rain, it is just what we call the rain”) breakdown of conventional belief in the supposed facts and truth of nonfiction, come the blurring of forms and neat categories between genres.

The clerk at the bookshop informed me that nonfiction titles were classified either by subject matter, or as biography, autobiography, memoir. Into the latter category, as into any of the other realms as a stylistic treatment (travel writing, for instance), would creep finally the “fictional” elements that distinguish the creative brand of nonfiction: a narrative voice, shaping events into scenes, focussing on and developing characters.

This whole trip down the rabbit hole of Abrams’ offbeat literary terms began with that charming term, cyberpunk. First it is linked to postmodernism, overturning even the “countertraditional” trends of modernism which in their turn had become the new convention. The result was to blend genres, cultural and stylistic levels, the serious and the playful, ever resisting classification. Thus cyberpunk is a marketing contradiction in terms: an extreme classification in the subgenre universe of Science Fiction and Fantasy, yet itself a mode committed to declassifying the social fabric, subjective experience, reality itself. Beckett (who makes a cameo appearance in PsyBot) led the postmodern charge “to subvert the foundations of our accepted modes of thought and experience so as to reveal the meaninglessness of our existence and the underlying ‘abyss,’ or ‘void,’ or ‘nothingness’ on which any supposed security is conceived to be precariously suspended” (Abrams, p. 203)

Allied with this negation of convenional belief is the even more directed attack on the trustworthiness of language itself, postructuralism: “to subvert the foundations of language in order to demonstrate that its seeming meaningfulness dissipates, for a rigorous inquirer, into a play of conflicting indeterminacies, or else undertake to show that all forms of cultural discourse are manifestations of the reigning ideology, or of the relations and constructions of power, in contemporary society” (Abrams, pp. 203–204).

Into this gap comes the antinovel or new novel (nouveau roman) which overturns all expectations of, or does away with, the conventional elements of the novel. My work-in-progress Red Rock Road attempts this very thing, while also partaking of the involuted novel, like Pale Fire, that discusses its own genesis and composition.

Two other branches that spring from the tree of postmodernism are magic realism and metafiction. The first blends realism with the fantastic, the dreamlike, elements of myths and fairy tales. With metafiction the realism goes to the background, and foreground is occupied by the writer as creator, the reader as receiver. This brings us again to the involuted novel, or the Romantic irony of Tristram Shandy or Don Juan—interestingly enough, seducers of women who also ply their charms openly and shamelessly on the reader.

Perhaps the culmination of these subversive trends against conventional narrative forms is fabulation (a term coined by Robert Scholes): “Fabulative novels violate, in various ways, standard novelistic expectations by drastic… experiments with subject matter, form, style, temporal sequence, and fusions of the everyday, the fantastic, the mythical, and the nightmarish, in renderings that blur traditional distinctions between what is serious or trivial, horrible or ludicrous, tragic or comic” (Abrams, p. 232).

A more specific tack against conventional narrative is the picaresque form (Don Quixote, Felix Krull) which not coincidentally features a rake or rogue who tests or takes advantage of social and cultural conventions. The episodic structure of these tales deflates the romantic or idealized fictional forms even as it punctures also canons of trust and belief. The rascal of a protagonist does not need to “develop” in the conventional sense, only to entertain by virtue of their stylistic charm, their artful adventures.

In summary, I sense that all my works fit into this subversive constellation of cross-genre, even anti-genre forms. In an age where genre is king of Kindle sales, this is not a strategy geared toward commercial success, which appears to be built on precisely the opposite premises: predictable, conventional, formulaic, repetitive works that reinforce the verities of realism, the codes of fantasy, the twin keystones of plot and character.

Red Rock Road (work-in-progress) morphs a realistic travel memoir into an involuted metafictional novel. The term “creative nonfiction” might be too bland and general to convey the radical overturning of reader expectations and conventional forms, in this nonfictional novel about a nonfictional novel.

Rendezvous breaks the mold of linear narrative and of nonfictional account, by splitting its ending into seven possible, coexisting threads radiating from a central device of fantasy, the dream-hallway of seven doors.

PsyBot tests the premise of objective reality through the intervention of a mind-control agent, a cybervirus. All scenes become open to question as virtual realities, with the protagonist moved to question the false promises society makes for achiving happiness and success.

Strange Love / Romance Not For Sale, on the surface, deals with the impossibilities of romantic love, dispelling illusions while also modelling aesthetic satisfaction in its place. Intimacy is achieved not between the characters so much as between narrator and reader, even as narrative frames are twisted into heart shapes.

My Country expands the containers of essay and story, adventure and lyric, naturalism and fantasy, to overlap and mingle in this collection unified in its spirit of place, aptly conceived as “Interior Rainforest.”

HyperLife is part memoir, part invented novel; part linear text, part hypertext; part self-contained work, part work without boundaries—just as one of its spinoffs is a series of “Prefaces and Introductions Without End” (including an earlier essay on this very topic, “Fiction and Nonfiction”).

The Hunter’s Daughter (published March 2015, from Five Rivers ) is probably the least edgy of all of these works, thus likely the most commercially viable, as a mystery. Yet there too its genre associations are multiple: historical, mystery, crime, police procedural, women’s fiction, aboriginal studies, literary. The narrative is split between two very different voices: the first-person detective, the third person Inuit girl. By implication the whole story can be considered to have been told by the detective as the overall narrator. Within the novel itself, the characters (and readers) are challenged to confront and question conventional notions of justice, loyalty, cultural identity, truth and falsehood, hypothesis and illusion. Can the truth ever be known, and more important, does it really matter, compared to what one discovers about one’s own core beliefs and destiny?

see also:

Review of Mark Winegardner’s The Godfather’s Revenge

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