So you pick up a New Yorker short story, hoping to find something fresh. Here’s one that seems to have gotten a lot of attention, “The Ghost Birds,” by Karen Russell. In no time you find yourself spellbound, swept up in a world where no one would want to live, a near-future biosphere so toxic it’s killed off all the birds. Gloomy stuff indeed, and yet you turn pages or swipe screens fascinated, compelled in large part by the sheer strangeness.
Russell will kick off a section with an arresting line like “To be a kid requires difficult detective work,” thereby opening an alternative point of view for which the only correlative might be the children’s barracks at Auschwitz. She’ll interrupt the narrative with lists of the bird species lost, or with flashbacks so compelling, they could be whole novels in thumbnail: “The fires spread to every continent. The air turned a peppery orange, making each unfiltered breath a harrowing event.” At the story’s climax, things turn supernatural, decidedly ambiguous, and to confirm the outcome, you need to reread a fleeting earlier reference or two.
A magnificent piece of work, “The Ghost Birds” depends—for its impact—on stretching, not to say manhandling, the fictional form. It bears little resemblance to what’s generally considered “a New Yorker story,” the strained domesticity of contributors from John O’Hara to Ann Beattie. At the same time, despite its future tech and apocalyptic apparatus, Russell’s piece doesn’t feel right for, say, Fantasy & Science Fiction. It achieves both emotional sting and political savvy (a harsh critique of capitalism) beyond what’s generally considered SF turf, the materials of Asimov and Bradbury.
But then again, who cares what’s “generally considered?” Don’t perceptions like that always wind up off-base, whether the subject’s the New Yorker or F&SF? These days, Hugo and Nebula winners claim the proud heritage of George Orwell and Mary Shelley, and many prefer to call their genre “spec-fic,” if not “cli-fi.” That last category, fiction about the climate crisis, seems the best fit for Russell’s splendid work⎯insofar as it needs a fit.
“Ghost Birds” succeeds by defying any such demands, disrupting the norms of dramaturgy, and so makes an excellent introduction to my larger point. I’d argue that nothing so animates contemporary American novels and short stories as the spirit of experiment. Experimental fiction is flourishing, as we near the century’s quarter-mark, in a way this country has rarely if ever seen.
The evidence lies scattered far and wide, so easy to spot that I’m baffled by how little critics have noticed. Granted, the term “experimental” still turns up, most often applied to esteemed elders like Don DeLillo. Yet the same energy crackles, unmistakably, in a good many talents now in mid-career, if not just hitting their stride.
Smart young writers aren’t oblivious to what their culture approves and forbids, and inevitably, the outcasts start to look intriguing.
The outstanding case in point would be Colson Whitehead; the novel that may rank as his most celebrated, The Underground Railroad, also presents his wildest Rube Goldberg contraption. And Whitehead hardly stands alone. Even setting aside the so-called Afrofuturists, like N.K. Jemisin and her alternative worlds, many of the recent knockout fictions from Black Americans display a glittering eccentric streak. You spot it even in texts very different from Whitehead’s, like Paul Beatty’s The Sellout (2015). Then there’s the prolific Percival Everett, lower profile but always in some way iconoclastic.
Naturally, the phenomenon is more common in the smaller independent houses, like Fiction Collective 2, Two Dollar Radio, or Dzanc. Among these, Lance Olsen would be the exemplar, now into his third decade of narrative chimera. But a number are with commercial houses, among them some of the country’s most exciting women authors. Alongside Russell, I’d put Amber Sparks and Laura van den Berg.
In short, there’s a lot of activity. Naturally, it hasn’t spread everywhere or changed everything. Telling your story strangely, in a literary culture of such variety, has by no means become the only way for an American to work. Still, an awful lot of writers are embracing the strange, impatient with established standards and practices. I daresay such titles dominate the New Fiction shelves these days, and certainly the work has won notice, including more than a few awards. Still, no one has stood up to raise a shout, a salute, and this leaves it up to me, I suppose⎯a toast to our Renaissance of the Weird.
More than celebration, to be sure, my essay intends illumination. I’ll start abroad, in Europe particularly, considering how it treats narrative rowdiness, and then I’ll draw out the contrast to the situation Stateside, our long-troubled relationship with such work. Once I’ve established that difference, that history, I’ll return to the contemporary, a range of unfettered homegrown talents. That range is remarkable, as I say⎯vineyards of every terroir have produced stunning varietals⎯and demands exploration of its roots, its reasons. That’s where I’ll end, with the question of Why now?
Now, over on the Continent, this wouldn’t be news. Paris and Berlin reclaimed their place on the cutting edge following the last World War, and European fiction has sprouted all sorts of wild hairs, whether by Alain Robbe-Grillet in the 1950s or Jenny Erpenbeck this past decade. Other pertinent names would fill several pages in Oulipo format, with paste-ins and marginalia, and the emotional range would run from the sourpuss Thomas Bernhard to the upwardly striving Bernardine Evaristo.
Naturally, more straightforward narrative has seen its champions as well. The latest is Elena Ferrante, with her Marxist economics and family sorrows. If any Italian since Dante can match that woman’s stature, however, it’s Italo Calvino, so radical an imagination that his Invisible Cities (1972) invented a fresh form for the novel. Reframing narrative, as Cities did, may provide the best handle on the recent European contribution to the artform. Other primary shape-shifters would include Beckett and Sebald.
The effort to construct a nouveau roman also energizes a good deal of the fiction out of the former European colonies. Again, the list could go on and on, but consider that India gave us the protean Salman Rushdie, Central Africa Alain Mabanckou, with his shaggy supernatural tales, and Oman (formerly a British “protectorate”) the Booker-winner Jokha Alharthi. Her novels are garnished with original poetry and hopscotch across a century of women’s lives.
The displacement that haunts these young women feels very 21st-century. It’s the uneasiness of the refugee, really, a defining trauma for our time, and widespread in this country.
For an American, it would seem only natural to venture something similar: to risk, at least once in a while, getting lost in the funhouse. I’m citing John Barth, of course, his watershed innovation from 1967, and among more recent US novelists, at least one went out of his way to pay that story homage. David Foster Wallace, rather a turn-of-the-millennium rock star, made free use of Barth’s Funhouse, the book as well as its title piece, in his ’89 novella “Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way.” DFW’s story bogs down badly, it must be said, but the set in which it appears, Girl With Curious Hair, includes one or two of his most dazzling, and these reference previous experiments other than Barth’s. Throughout his too-brief career, this author honored his elders, the writers generally known as “the Postmoderns.”
Yet even as he brought off his own provocative spec-fic, Wallace took care to set it apart from the work of these same predecessors. In interviews he worried that novels and stories like Barth’s could be “enervating,” especially in their tendency to self-commentary, or meta-fiction. Misgivings like that come with the territory, part of any artist’s response to another, but what Wallace had to say was angrily amplified by his colleague Jonathan Franzen. The author of The Corrections has always subscribed to a more accessible model for fiction, and he defended it at length in a 2002 New Yorker essay, “Mr. Difficult”⎯otherwise an unforgiving takedown of William Gaddis, perhaps the greatest of the Postmoderns.
Franzen’s complaints were far from the first. Attacks on the freaks of US fiction go back to their freaky heyday, what you could call the Postmodern moment. This lasted about five years, roughly the first half of the 1970s, and the rock star of the group was Donald Barthelme. If New Yorker norms were sabotaged, Barthelme was the culprit, and he drew major media attention while sharing a girlfriend with Miles Davis (see the biography Hiding Man). During those same years, too, Barth, Pynchon, and Gaddis each took home a National Book Award. But as they enjoyed the limelight, others sat grumbling in the dark.
An early reprisal came from Gore Vidal, who in “American Plastic” (1976) wielded his usual viper’s tongue. As for an argument, that was largely absent, but then John Gardner’s On Moral Fiction (1980) had even less to say, while serving up more vitriol. This book got some traction⎯Gardner, like Vidal, could write powerfully⎯but it’s little more than an executioner’s roll call: the Righteous and the Damned. The latter included even Gardner’s friend William Gass, sent to the block for seeking fictional alternatives.
To be sure, Gass and the rest of the condemned had their defenders; these days, Barthelme’s in the Library of America. Nevertheless, the beat-down went on for decades; first Tom Wolfe grabbed a cudgel (“The Billion-Footed Beast,” ’89), then Franzen. The attacks came with such regularity, and sounded so similar, it’s hard not to think of Puritanism, its lingering chill. The ripple effect was withering; the lascivious biplay of Robert Coover’s “The Babysitter” (1968), for instance, would get bumped off the syllabus or out of the anthology, while there was always space for the bleak monosyllables of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk about Love” (‘81).
Surely an argument can be made for both sorts of stories, but in the US this was largely lacking until 2008, when Zadie Smith published her splendid and clarifying essay, “Two Paths for the Novel.” Still, even now, the more crooked and crazy path may be marked CLOSED. In recent weeks, I’ve heard a talented and well-published writer claim that, in the offices of Manhattan publishing, “anything experimental” will get “combed out” of a manuscript. I’ve read the sensitive critic Ron Charles, in his review of Jennifer Egan’s The Candy House, disdainful about her playfulness: “A second-person narrator? You shouldn’t have.” Recently I’ve witnessed the recent Twitterstorm, the thunder rumbling on both sides of the issue, after journalist Ben Judah called for, well, moral fiction: for “the great society novels” of the past, “the Zolas, Balzacs, Austens, Tolstoys….”
Whether prompted by our grim-faced forefathers or the smirking Gore Vidal, the US critical establishment developed a discomfort with the label “Postmodern.” These days, a text like Gaddis’ JR (1975) might instead be called a “systems novel.” The systems in question are the larger controlling forces of our lives, and certainly JR makes a good example; it turns us all to hamsters on the wheel of Big Finance. Still, this handle too proves slippery. I first encountered the expression in Tom LeClair’s work on DeLillo (In the Loop, 1988), and in Libra (’88) or Underworld (’97), doesn’t “the system” carry guns? CIA, FBI, Mafia?
More recently, the NYTBR review of Whitehead’s Harlem Shuffle (2022) called it a systems novel, and in Whitehead’s imagination, it’s race that holds the reins. The Prime Mover, the source of our troubles, provides a central subject of any good drama, after all. That includes social realism like Ferrante’s. What’s more, to insist that a single purpose unifies all the new American efforts to bend and fold the fictional form⎯doesn’t that violate the very project?
DeLillo’s case tells us something, since he wears the dual descriptors of Postmodern and systems novelist. Critical consensus holds that the man’s peak came a while back, with the brilliant run from Libra to Underworld, while the 21st-Century work is regarded, by and large, as a letdown. Michiko Kakutani of the Times gave Falling Man (2007) her Imperial thumbs-down, declaring it “spindly” and “inadequate.” Even DeLillo himself, when he relents to an interview, will admit he’s no longer writing the way he used to. Beyond that, to be sure, the man remains cagey, and yet any objective comparison between his latest half-dozen and their honored predecessors at once reveals the salient difference.
In recent weeks, I’ve heard a talented and well-published writer claim that, in the offices of Manhattan publishing, “anything experimental” will get “combed out” of a manuscript.
The work since Body Artist (‘01) is more experimental. Their materials tend to the surreal; Zero K (’16) even tosses in a voice from the dead⎯or is it the undead? Their central action tends to totter off-center, and as for “systems,” most of the protagonists drift at a level of comfort that leaves the question moot. The author has left the ballpark, the sweat and grit so essential to Mao II (1991) and “Pafko at the Wall.” Instead, he’s going for shadow, suggestion, myth. Whether that makes for great fiction is another question, to be sure, but if you ask me, whichever muse inspired Cosmopolis, (‘03) she’s a magical seductress. I’d call that one a fable of renunciation: the Emperor strips off his own clothes.
Insofar as DeLillo belongs in any New Wave, though, he’s its gnomic Elder. Among the younger and more approachable are writers like Laura van den Berg and Amber Sparks. Again, these two are but a small sample; forerunners include Aimee Bender, who’s spent a quarter-century reinventing the fairy tale; newer on the scene would be Missouri Williams. Her debut The Doloriad (a title that recalls Barth) presents a post-apocalyptic society to make your hair stand on end⎯as do some of the imagined futures in Sparks and van den Berg. Find Me (2015), van den Berg’s first novel, takes place in a US devastated by a memory-destroying plague. “The Men and Women Like Him,” from Sparks’ 2016 collection The Unfinished World, depicts the unexpected agonies of a civilization that’s figured out time-travel.
Of the two, Sparks is the more ostensibly out there. Her three collections are full of specters, witches, and old gods reborn. She makes mischief with form and language, too; stories sprawl “like some strange, bloody, chaotic plant,” and several wouldn’t look out of place in an Escher exhibit. Yet if Sparks is playing tricks, the joke’s on us. Her fictions are animated by a prickly social consciousness, one you sense in the very title of her splendid latest, And I Do Not Forgive You (2020). One of that book’s best, “Everyone’s a Winner at Meadow Park,” may be a ghost story, but its howls are those of the downtrodden.
As for van den Berg, her materials are more down to earth, but nonetheless spooky. In her 2018 novel The Third Hotel, a recent widow winds up seducing her husband’s ghost⎯in Cuba, where she’s gone on dubious pretenses. In “Karolina,” from her 2020 collection I Hold a Wolf by the Ears, the ghost confronting another solo voyager is estranged family, half-crazy yet something of a Cassandra. Van den Berg sets all her women eerily adrift; even a dreary apartment complex can seem “a kind of purgatory where we docked until our souls were called elsewhere.”
And as in Sparks, these elements feel feminist: a demonstration of how quickly and callously women can be stripped of care and support. The resulting riddle of identity, van den Berg’s abiding conundrum, finds vital expression in wild verb coinages. A woman doesn’t just sigh over how close she and her friends used to be; “We wept secrets,” she mourns. “We eavesdropped nightmares.”
The displacement that haunts these young women feels very 21st-century. It’s the uneasiness of the refugee, really, a defining trauma for our time, and widespread in this country. On America’s margins, hardscrabble cultures express their turmoil in all sorts of novels and stories, and some of the best-known are the most unconventional. Viet Thanh Nguyen fled Vietnam as a child, and his violent, comedic refashioning of his bicultural experience, in The Sympathizer (2015), won the Pulitzer. The Cherokee writer Brandon Hobson has clearly studied Louise Erdrich’s crazy quilts of Lakota culture; his The Removed (2021) includes whole chapters of dissociative nightmare.
The dread has seeped into mainstream cultures as well. The fictions of Sparks or van den Berg look like cases in point, but a more striking one would be Lance Olsen, plainly of Northern European extraction and raised, as he puts it in his memoir [[there]] (2014), in a “bland foliaged suburb” of New Jersey. Nevertheless, his fiction (as well as his mélange of a memoir) has focused more and more on men, women, and the occasional monster who’ve lost their bearings. Some are bushwhacked by fate, flailing but most likely done for, while a few others rush headlong towards self-destruction. In every case, though, the text in which they turn up looks outrageous.
“Experimental writing,” as most people conceive the term, suits Olsen’s work better than that of all the writers I’m discussing. Percival Everett might object, but even he would admit Olsen has birthed some mooncalves, his typography all over the place and even the books themselves, in a case like the double-sided Theories of Forgetting (2014), oddly configured.
Those two authors also share a breathtaking prolixity. I’ll be getting to Everett, and Olsen’s latest, Skin Elegies (2021), brings his bibliography to thirty titles, mostly novels. Lately, these have asserted a fresh power. The author’s recent saturation in European culture, in particular his sojourns in Berlin, has deepened his sensitivity to human precariousness. Nothing so gnaws at his people, in these teeming later fictions, as the awareness “that every meeting is / the origin of a leaving.” The quote is from a Fukushima survivor, in Skin Elegies, texting about her harrowing escape. The entire novel teeters on the verge of death, in Fukushima, on the doomed shuttle Challenger, in a Swiss euthanasia clinic, and elsewhere. Each setting has its own layout and style, too, from lines of text to stream of consciousness.
Franzen’s complaints were far from the first. Attacks on the freaks of US fiction go back to their freaky heyday, what you could call the Postmodern moment.
Collage also provides the form in Olsen’s previous, My Red Heaven (2020), though the elements of this composition are very different, in keeping with a very different narrative surrogate. Red Heaven takes place over a single day in Berlin, 1927, and visits with everyone from Goebbels and Hitler to Kafka’s late-life wife Dora (a Jew who escaped the Holocaust, the novel reminds us) and the obscure and struggling Walter Benjamin (a Jew who didn’t get out; the novel flashes forward to his suicide). These and many others are all caught in the evanescence, the superlunary glow just before an eclipse; all suffer the giddiness Benjamin jots down in 1927, sounding as if it’s already 1940 and he’s taken his fatal dose of pills: “I’m falling in love with my lostness.”
Olsen may have more powerful novels⎯Calendar of Regrets (2010), possibly. Nevertheless, My Red Heaven and Skin Elegies stand like twin peaks worthy of the David Lynch reference: story-substitutes no one else could’ve brought off, and yet in their shock, life-giving.
Colson Whitehead has delivered plenty of shocks as well, though his apparatus doesn’t look so abnormal. Regardless of how he ranks as a rulebreaker, though, Whitehead’s into a stretch as stunning as DeLillo’s in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Nickel Boys (2019) may have picked up more awards than Underground Railroad, I can’t keep track, and Harlem Shuffle has so far done splendidly. More pertinent for this essay is how the most recent novels tame the author’s wild streak.
Both books present the America we know all too well, where anyone born the wrong color contends with Sisyphean economics and due process, and both keep their chronology straightforward. Granted, the three linked sequences of Shuffle conceal a trompe l’œil or two, and Nickel Boys has a metafictional aspect, with its constant notetaking and rumor-sharing. Even shackles tell a story: “The iron is still there. Rusty. Deep…. Testifying.” Still, when I call Whitehead a champion of the New Eccentrics, I’m thinking primarily of the work that began with his debut The Intuitionist (’99)⎯no doubt the world’s only novel of mystic elevator repair⎯and culminated in The Underground Railroad.
The narrative of Whitehead’s masterpiece depends on an imaginative leap now known to any Goodreads user, but previously unseen outside of steampunk: an actual refugee railway deep in the earth. Whitehead’s invention does largely without nuts and bolts, too, it’s dreamy around the edges, so that the lone correlative I think of comes in Song of Solomon, with its climactic discovery that “the people could fly.”
Certainly, Toni Morrison presides like fertile Demeter over the contemporary efflorescence of Black literature, but Whitehead takes risks all his own. He’ll apply a refined rhetorical balance to inhuman abuse: “the travesties so routine and familiar that they were like weather, and the ones so imaginative in their monstrousness that the mind refused to accommodate them.” He’ll adopt perspectives as antiphonal as an escaped slave and a “slave catcher,” also putting each viewpoint though acute reversals. Stories so far apart yet so entwined come to embody a core insight: “truth was a changing display in a shop window, manipulated… when you weren’t looking.” If there’s anything that can resist that manipulation, it’s the supernatural journey underground: “the miracle beneath. The miracle you made with your own sweat and blood.”
MFA workshops have grown notorious for how they rein in the high-kickers, insisting grimly on ”show don’t tell” and “less is more.” Even Lan Samantha Chang, director at Iowa, has complained about the constraints.
I could go on pulling citations, but Whitehead’s accomplishment is best appreciated not in its parts but as a whole⎯a novel. This one had forerunners (one thinks also of Ellison’s Invisible Man), but Underground Railroad offers such a ride, bruising and mind-blowing, it creates a fresh model for imagining the tormented history of race.
Among the texts that share the model, a signal case would be Sing, Unburied, Sing (2017). Jessamyn Ward’s unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, to be sure, and her story’s set largely in the present. I doubt any of the novel’s rave reviews termed it “experimental.” Nevertheless, in this case too, the Deep South is a place of ghosts, with many a wrinkle in time.
Yet while the same shadows fall across a number of recent texts, Whitehead’s historical revisionism is by no means the rule, in Black fiction these days. No neighborhood in America is monolithic, anymore, and this applies on the aesthetic fringes as well. Both Paul Beatty’s The Sellout (2015) and Rivers Solomon’s Sorrowland (2021) rival Underground Railroad for praise, but they upend expectation in very different ways. Both honor a different ancestor, the acerbic Ishmael Reed, whipping up horror and satire very much of the moment. When Beatty imagines a Black man calling for the reinstatement of slavery, or Solomon a bisexual teen mother who defends herself by turning into a monster, these wild developments bristle with insight. And for still greater diversity within this writing community, check out the lengthening shelf of titles from Percival Everett.
Novels make up the majority of his work, and altogether, they display a carnivalesque flexibility. Even when Everett observes Aristotelian unities, he knocks them out of whack. A few titles, however, rival the Postmoderns at their most radical, and one of those ranks among his most celebrated: Percival Everett by Virgil Russell (2013).
The novel’s all stories within stories, with new hybrids sprouting just as you’d got the hang of the last. Most are sprinkled with nonsense rhymes or literary allusions, and these yield, in turn, yet more stories. The sheer imagination compels the reading, that and the way each whirling prose dervish puts a fresh spin on our mortality. The dedication is to the author’s late father, and the novel opens on a father in assisted living, in halting conversation with his son. Even the more surreal images convey a chill: “We can fall asleep in a room full of the snoring dead.”
Near the end, a mathematical formula appears, and while I’ve no idea what it means, I do see that it features the infinity symbol, and that it brackets, at beginning and end, a brief, berserk chapter. This begins: “The real question was whether there was some real value to which all of this, all of our naming, thinking, speaking, breathing, wanting, loving, lusting….” The three pages that follow (and close with the math widget) are nothing but present participles: the linguistic formula which signifies life.
An alternative fiction without parallel, if you ask me, Percival Everett also prompted the actual Everett to yet another surprise. His followup, So Much Blue (2017), works with rhetoric and sequencing you might call commonplace. The recollections of an aging painter, its identities remain stable and its prose solid Strunk & White. While interactions can get extreme, they’re never impossible; people even speak between quotation marks. Yet the text juggles its narratives oddly, keeping secrets that any ordinary drama would have to let out of the bag, and the resolution has an unsettling ambivalence. Besides that, So Much Blue shares with its predecessor something crucial about the protagonists. The men are Black (the father too, in the earlier novel), but this doesn’t much matter. The character’s color is never germane to any of the plotlines.
Now, this author has by no means ignored the subject, over his career. In 2009, I Am Not Sidney Poitier had a nasty laugh at what white folks expect from Black literature, and his latest, The Trees, exacts bloody new revenge for the murder of Emmett Till. Overall, though, Everett’s fiction isn’t yoked to the torments of racism. Rather, his project keeps raising further questions, wanting, loving, lusting… experimenting.
Which leaves him in excellent company, nowadays. Busy company, at that: with each succeeding book season, Americans of all backgrounds and orientations are finding new ways to warp Freytag’s Triangle. Naturally, their gathering momentum by no means steamrolls over the sturdy old structures of character and catharsis, rising action and climax. Nor is the structures’ toolkit, with items like scrupulous observation and psychological acuity, in danger of rusting. So long as novels matter, there will always be a place for Edward P. Jones or Mary Gaitskill. By the same token, if the alternatives are enjoying a Renaissance, sooner or later it’ll confront its Savonarola, building bonfires of the vanities. Some of the writers I’ve praised might even take as bad a pasting as the Postmoderns.
That earlier backlash, from which the dust still hasn’t settled, does seem one of the prompts for the current eruption. Smart young writers aren’t oblivious to what their culture approves and forbids, and inevitably, the outcasts start to look intriguing. Then too, MFA workshops have grown notorious for how they rein in the high-kickers, insisting grimly on ”show don’t tell” and “less is more.”
Even Lan Samantha Chang, director at Iowa, has complained about the constraints. She’s mounted her own small rebellion, too, this year in The Family Chao. But all that’s mere literature, how it’s taught, read, and critiqued. Art remains a response to the whole world, not just its texts, and for any Stateside talent born since the Baby Boom, our world suffers a terrible need for new perceptions and configurations. A hundred years after “The Waste Land,” hasn’t the devastation grown worse? Isn’t the air full of ghost birds? Aren’t streets crowded with the displaced? Then why not⎯to cite other milestones from the same earlier ‘22⎯ dream up a new Ulysses, or “The Hunger Artist,” or À la recherche du temps perdu?
To think in such terms, to set whole centuries in balance, takes you to the issue of ultimate value. You wonder where, on the scales of human storytelling, the needle might land for an Amber Sparks, a Paul Beatty. But that’s another question, though a perfectly good one. I mean, it’s still America. But this is still American fiction⎯that’s my point. This is our own witching hour, full of strange cries and peculiar apparitions, and that seems to me worth a drink. It’s not nothing to once more show the world that this artform just can’t be contained.