This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2007, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
The Raw Shark Texts, the dizzyingly inventive debut novel by a 32-year-old Englishman named Steven Hall, is about a young man who wakes up one day with no idea who or where he is. Soon he's being sent letters by his pre-amnesiac self, who warns him he's being hunted by a conceptual shark that's devouring his memory.
Hall's book, published this spring, is equally innovative with the text on its pages. Diagrams show up amid the paragraphs, snatches of text appear as illustrations, and one 45-page chunk, which can be scanned like a flip book, shows a shark advancing menacingly toward the reader.
Such experimentation in content and form is showing up increasingly in recent fiction by authors in their 20s and 30s. This new breed of writers, looking for fresh ways to construct narratives, think nothing of breaking up prose with graphics, maps and comic strips. They vary their font sizes, add extensive footnotes, format their text into strange shapes on the page. Sometimes they even run the text upside down.
"This is something that hasn't really been done before," says Kelly Wells of The King's English Bookshop in Salt Lake City, who discusses such writers in a book group she's founded called, "20s On the Edge." "Young authors today are trying to challenge the reader and make them see the text in a whole new way. It's calling attention to the way that we read a story."
Booksellers say the roots of this trend, if that's what it is, go back a decade or so to such pioneering books as David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, a sprawling 1996 novel with almost 100 pages of footnotes and other addenda, and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers' wittily self-conscious 2000 memoir that opens with a section called "Rules and Suggest-
ions for Enjoyment of This Book."
More recent examples of this emerging, hard-to-define genre, sometimes labeled post-postmodern fiction, include the novels of Mark Z. Danielewski, Jonathan Safran Foer, Mark Haddon, Evan Kuhlman and David Mitchell. Danielewski's 2006 novel, Only Revolutions, is about Sam and Hailey, two 16-year-olds on a road trip. Open the book at one end and the story is narrated by Sam; flip it over and open at the other end, and it's told by Hailey. Danielewski's publisher suggests alternating between the two, eight pages at a time.
"It's crazy, but it worked for me. I didn't mind flipping the book around," says Keltin Barney, 25, a staffer at Sam Weller's bookstore in Salt Lake City. "It's not just a gimmick. It's actually really good writing."
Today's experimental young writers seem less concerned with edgy content - after Kathryn Harrison's memoir about her incestuous affair with her father (to cite just one example), is anything shocking anymore? - than with new narrative forms. Wells, 25, believes the current wave of young writers, in their own way, are doing what modernist novelists such as William Faulkner, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf did in the early 1900s with stream-of-consciousness, voice and other groundbreaking narrative devices.
Like those 20th-century authors, today's edgier young writers are reinventing the way that we read. Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a mystery told by a 15-year-old British boy with autism. Its earnest, deceptively simple narration, augmented with maps and charts and chapters headed by only prime numbers, reflects the boy's inquisitive nature and love of math while illuminating the unusual workings of his brain.
Most of these recent books are set in contemporary times and feature youngish protagonists who narrate their stories in offbeat ways, often while undergoing a crisis of self. Their style is usually fragmented, fast-paced, self-reflexive and cinematic, reflecting the influence of video games, the Internet and such pretzel-logic movies as "Memento" and "Being John Malkovich."
"People my age are used to keeping busy and living at a fast pace. So modern novels have to move faster to keep us reading," says Jennifer Nielsen, 28, a Sam Weller's bookseller who stocks many of these books in the store's new pop-culture section located, naturally, next to the coffee bar. Nielsen also believes young authors must be bold and original to stand out in today's media glut of print and electronic content.
For reasons that are hard to quantify, the vast majority of these edgy young authors are male. Wells of The King's English thinks that's because it's historically been harder for women to get published than men, making female authors less likely to take risks. Others believe it's because many of today's envelope-pushing authors come from the fanboy world of sci-fi, comic books and graphic novels, whose devotees tend to be male.
That might explain the origins of Kuhlman's Wolf Boy, a 2006 novel about a 13-year-old who deals with the death of his older brother by crafting an alternate reality in which a comic-book hero named Wolf Boy battles the forces of evil. The book intersperses text with comic-book panels that illustrate Wolf Boy's adventures while voicing the teenage narrator's hopes and fears.
Some of these new books operate almost like unconventional mysteries, filled with propulsive plotting, clues and clever wordplay. In this way, like authors such as Thomas Pynchon before them, today's young writers turn their novels into narrative puzzles that must be decoded by the reader.
"These books are challenging. You can't predict the story. And you can't digest them in 30 minutes," says Ryan Carty, 36, a librarian with the Day-Riverside branch of the Salt Lake City Library. "You read them even though you don't always know what's going on. You read them because they're not predictable."
For these reasons and others, such new fiction remains largely a cultish genre, spread mostly by word of mouth and Internet sites such as MySpace. These books aren't on best-seller lists, they're not on Oprah and they're definitely not on your parents' nightstand. And that's the way many young readers like it.
"I'm afraid if these novels become really popular, then every book will have a page that runs backwards or upside down," Carty says. "It'll become gimmicky, or it'll be co-opted by the mainstream, and then it won't be interesting anymore."