Experimental Fiction – Wittgenstein’s Nephew

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There’s really only one thing that makes me put this book into the ‘experimental’ category. The entire book – every last bit – is written in one long paragraph. No chapters. No scenes. Just a never-ending block of justified text.

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I’ll be honest, I was a little worried about this. When reading, if I see a page-long paragraph, it’s not something I greet with enthusiasm. When working on my own writing, I am constantly looking for ways to split up long paragraphs, feeling sure that it’s easy to get lost without those lovely little indents to show the way.

If it hadn’t been for the book’s subject matter, I might not have attempted it at all. A little backstory: one of my favorite classes was a philosophy course in which I was one of two students. We spent the entire semester working our way through Wittgenstein’s Tractatus.

I certainly can’t claim any level of mastery over the topic, but I can tell you that I fell fiercely in love with Wittgenstein and his life’s story. He is (in my opinion) a blockbuster docudrama waiting to happen (starring Benedict Cumberbatch, please and thank you) and yet no one seems to know about him.

The book itself deals with the narrator’s relationship with a nephew of the great philosopher, who shares much of his uncle’s unconventional way of relating (or not) to the world. The story starts in a hospital where they are both patients, but spends most of its time in vivid flashbacks of their friendship.

It is a masterful ‘stream of consciousness’ style, which I feel is probably why the author chose the ‘one block’ style.

When examining experimental fiction, one of the things I always ask myself is, “if you took that element away, how would the story change?”

I tripped a little on that question. There were certainly movements in the plot that would have made cohesive chapters. Little scenes could have easily been sectioned off by a line break. And would that really change the story? Did it really take on a different quality by ignoring the standards of scenes and paragraphs?

My thought is, yes. While all of the ideas would have remained the same with or without allowing the reader to pause for breath, I think that the one block approach lent a kind of ‘laziness’ to the narrator. The book is set up as a person reflecting on his friendship with this unusual man, and ultimately deciding what he is taking away from this connection.

Chapters, scenes, paragraphs – all of it represents the human need for organizing thoughts. If most books of this type are a photo album, this one is a shoebox, where the photos are unceremoniously crammed inside, corners bent, dust flying. The narrator is thinking back on all this, but not in any constructive way. Not in a way that shows he appreciates the value of these memories.

He reaches a revelation at the end, but it seems to come almost in spite of all the thinking he’d done until that point. Like, by refusing to properly organize the thoughts as they came to him, he intended to ignore the meaning behind them. But it found him anyway.

I may be reaching, and I may be wrong. But as a reader, the one-block of text really drove that theme for me, and I can honestly say I wouldn’t have had the same experience with the story had it been properly divided.

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(As a side note, I was so very tempted to do this blog post as one block of text. It would have been so deliciously meta, and y’all know I love that. But I’m well aware that this style is a deal-breaker for most, and chances are no one would read far enough to understand the choice.)

 

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