“When it comes to novels,” he writes, “I’ve always been as excited by form as by story. Narrators within narrators, footnotes, colored ink, unique page layout, frame narratives, genre-bending, blank pages, photographs; these all pique my interest. However, I’ve had to learn that when I discuss my own novel The Twenty-Year Death, I need to lead with story rather than form or my interlocutor loses interest. Perhaps that’s because playing with form can be so hard to do right. If story is sacrificed for form, a novel’s no fun to read. If unique form seems unnecessary for the telling of the story, then these tricks feel only like tricks, unearned. It is only when a novel can be told in no other way, and remains entertaining and enlightening, that a book with unusual form works.”
“This list includes books that use all of the above techniques, and challenge the reader by telling stories in new ways,” Winter continues. “I limited myself to novels written in English (with one exception) and arranged the list chronologically. So if you want to read something a little different, these books are a good place to start.” Click through to read Winter’s picks, and then if you feel so moved, feel free to add to his list in the comments!
The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-1767) by Laurence Sterne
This is the one that started it all. In the mid-18th century, the question “what is a novel” was still hotly contested. Pamela, an epistolary novel by Samuel Richardson that is considered the first novel written in English, was published in 1740, marked by realism and psychological insight. Enter Sterne in 1759 with Tristram Shandy. It claims to be the memoirs of a country gentleman, but instead of his memoirs, we get digression after digression, and along the way there are black pages, marbled pages, drawings, sermons, and essays. It’s all farce with no sign of realism, controversial at the time, and still hilarious today.
Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818) by Mary Shelley
Frankenstein begins as a series of letters from Captain Robert Walton to his sister, as he embarks on a voyage to the North Pole. Shortly after his ship becomes ice locked, Walton rescues a half-frozen sledge rider: Victor Frankenstein. Frankenstein tells the story of his attempt and success to reanimate the dead (which is written down by Walton and sent to his sister). In Frankenstein’s story, Frankenstein’s monster tells Frankenstein his story (which Frankenstein tells Walton who writes to his sister). This makes Frankenstein a Matryoshka doll of a novel, narratives within narratives within narratives.
Albert Angelo (1964) by B. S. Johnson
Let’s get it said up front: Albert Angelo has holes cut in its pages. It also has text in two columns, the left as dialog, the right as the interior thoughts of the eponymous protagonist. It also has reproductions of an advertisement, and sections in the form of a play, and multiple narrative viewpoints. The story is of a young struggling architect working as a substitute teacher in a bad neighborhood while brooding about his ex-girlfriend. But it’s really about novels and writing, and it is alternately funny and very serious.
Full list at Flavorpill