The novel isn’t a fixed concept. From its earliest incarnations to the modern day, writers have been playing with the fundamentals of the form, pushing boundaries and changing rules as they go. Sometimes these efforts are subtle, but sometimes they’re drastic, resulting in final works I like to call “anti-novels.” Anti-novels rewrite the rules of the novel so aggressively, they become something new. Anti-novels can be intimidating, because they exist outside the lines of what we’re used to, yet over time, they often move into the novel category as literary norms expand to include their innovations, so the effort required to read them is worth it.
These 10 anti-novels will lead you into new worlds of reading.
theMystery.doc, by Matthew McIntosh
It took McIntosh nearly a decade to write theMystery.doc, and it’s clear why: the book abandons traditional structures to tell the story of a writer who wakes up with no memory and a single, mysterious file on his laptop (the titular text file). Told in a delirious collage of straightforward prose, text and chat transcripts, photos, illustrations, emails, and other elements, there isn’t a single straightforward narrative through line in the whole massive tome (it’s more than 1,600 pages long). If you stick with it, though, the story begins to cling to you like barnacles, forming layer by layer as you pick up details, notice hints, and make connections to things you glimpsed hundreds of pages earlier. The final effect is supremely satisfying.
Dodge Rose, by Jack Cox
The earlier sections of Cox’s book lull you into thinking it’s going to be a simple story about a young woman who travels to Sydney to claim the dilapidated house of her deceased aunt, only to discover that her aunt was actually impoverished and desperate. When the books switches to an extended flashback from Aunt Rose’s point of view, however, it veers firmly into anti-novel territory: Rose’s illiterate, unstructured, dream-like narrative of her life is as unreliable as it is impenetrable. Interspersed throughout both sections are lengthy factual recitations of inheritance law, tax rates, and price lists that only seem unnecessary until you give up and absorb them—and discover razor-sharp lines of prose that jump out and startle.
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The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, by Laurence Sterne
Often considered the original anti-novel, it’s not only always worth your while to read Tristram Shandy, it’s also an anti-novel that remains startling despite the passage of time and the normalizing of many of the literary tricks it innovated. Supposedly an autobiography of the title character, the most obvious subversion of the form is the fact that over the course of nine volumes, Shandy barely gets to his childhood. The rest of the book is taken up by increasingly divergent tangents as Shandy’s loquacious and unreliable narration follows whatever train of thought he likes—but there’s a shadowy structure to the ramble that becomes apparent with thought (and rereading).
Remainder, by Tom McCarthy
This is actually one of the easier anti-novels on this list to enter, the story of a man who suffers debilitating brain damage after an accident he doesn’t quite remember and is awarded a fortune in damages, money he uses to hire people to recreate moments from his life he only partially remembers. His obsession with these moments leads him to reenact increasingly violent events that may or may not have actually happened, as the whole thing spins into what might be the textbook example of the most unreliable narration of all time. The questions McCarthy raises about memory, and identity, and how we can rely on what we “know” make the effort well worth it.
This is Not a Novel, by David Markson
Markson spent his career aggressively deconstructing and interrogating the novel form. This late work is written from the point of view of an unnamed author who is facing his imminent death and trying to create a work of truth before his time is up. It’s a book-length collection of quotations, lines, and ephemera that look more or less random at first blush. As you read, however, you become aware of a structure: the lines are arranged purposefully, and start to form a greater whole as the character of Writer coalesces without resort to traditional literary techniques.
Dictionary of the Khazars, by Milorad Pavić
If you want to go full anti-novel, discard everything that makes a novel a novel—plot, character, and dialog. Instead, create a reference book for a civilization’s culture and language—one that even comes in two versions, male and female, with only a scattering of incredibly important differences. Jumping off from actual history, this book contains three separate reference works that cross-reference and often contradict each other. Despite the real events that provide the starting point, almost everything here is fictional; whether there’s a plot is up for debate, but it’s certainly a tough, fascinating read.
Translated Accounts, by James Kelman
By the time Kelman wrote this novel, he was well-known for the almost belligerent use of Scottish idiom in his prose; the Glasgow dialect he offers up is often profane and impenetrable to the non-native. In this book, however, he explores the boundaries of language in a wholly different way, with a simple premise—a handful of people offer accounts from an oppressed, authoritarian country where martial law has been imposed, the twist being that their accounts have been translated into English by a variety of translators of varying ability, purpose, and familiarity with the original language. To say this mechanism renders much of the action varyingly impossible to comprehend is an understatement—this is an anti-novel in every sense of the word, planting its feet and daring you to try to understand it. It’s also a book that is almost hypnotically rereadable, despite the commentary it offers on the mutability and unreliable nature of language in general.
Yo Yo Boing!, by Giannina Braschi
Braschi’s anti-novel is essentially a collection of discussions between unnamed, unidentified people, incorporating prose, poetry, lyrics, and straightforward dramatic dialogue. More importantly, it’s a bravado exercise in code-switching, as her Spanish-speaking characters move between that language and English constantly and fluidly, in the way bilingual people often do when speaking together. Reading it is like eavesdropping on a large group of people as they discuss just about everything, with the setting of the conversations (sussed out through context) moving all around New York City in the late 1980s.
The End of the Story, by Lydia Davis
A writer ends a love affair with a much younger man and reflects upon the relationship. Those reflections bleed into everything—from what she’s reading to what she’s writing (which is The End of the Story itself). As the memory of the relationship sifts through every aspect of her life, the man’s identity fades and disappears, and he and the events of their life together become grist for her fiction. There’s no dialog and no forward movement; the entire novel looks back as the events and memories become increasingly indistinct and fictionalized. What actually happened, and what it actually meant, is up for debate. This is a terribly sad book that anyone with regrets over a past relationship will find a powerful—if difficult—reading experience.
Ice, by Anna Kavan
Anna Kavan was born Helen Ferguson, and published under that name for decades. In 1940, she dyed her hair and changed her name, and her writing style changed drastically, too. Ice was the last novel published in her lifetime, and achieved her greatest renown; it’s a post-apocalyptic story of a world being strangled by advancing glaciers, and at first, she struggled to see it published. While there’s a premise, there’s almost nothing by way of plot; the prose is dreamy and often trades in disturbing imagery, and the book has been claimed as an early feminist work exploring the repression and brutalization of women in a lyrical, symbolic way. You don’t so much read this book as let the words flow through you, forming, if not a narrative, then an impression of one.