A Reflection on Experimenting with Experimental Literature
Taking a course on experimental literature, I expected to encounter books with unfamiliar formatting, interesting graphic components, and quirky content (like footnotes and appendices). What I did not expect were experimental assignments. I am comfortable with traditional essays, so completing projects with components that were unfamiliar to me was pretty intimidating. And while some projects just didn’t force me to think about the books I read in a new way (like tweeting class discussions for In The Lake of the Woods, or creating a timeline for Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close), other projects really challenged me to consider the books in more rewarding ways than a conventional paper would have done. Trying to decide which features an app pertaining to House of Leaves would have was fun and overwhelming (just because of the number of directions our group could have gone with that project), and even though A Visit From the Good Squad didn’t contain a lot of dialogue, reading and discussing a portion of that novel in a small group really helped me to think about the book’s message about the importance of communication and interaction.
The app was a really appropriate project to do for House of Leaves. There is so much information in that book that our group really had to limit the number of functions we wanted our app to have. One function that I worked on was a section about Derrida and his theories about language. The nature of House of Leaves (the never-ending chain of footnotes, the infinite expansion of the house within an unchanging set of exterior walls) really lent itself to Derrida, so we thought that providing information about him would be useful to anyone reading the book. For that particular function, I wanted to provide a greatly condensed summary of his language theories rather than just providing a link to a Wikipedia page, because I imagined that someone using the app would probably be overwhelmed by all the information that would provide, and probably just decide to skip over that function. So my imposing task was to read one of those overwhelming web pages and concentrate the main ideas from Derrida’s theories of language down into an easily understandable paragraph. That was excruciating. But while I was reading about Derrida’s theories, I realized that I was doing exactly what Derrida wanted me to do – I was stripping words and phrases down to their most basic meanings in an attempt to create understanding. Although completing that function for the app yielded only a sentence and a couple of bullet points, it took a lot of effort to understand and concentrate Derrida’s theories about language, and through that effort I learned a lot that helped me to understand not just House of Leaves, but a lot of other literature as well.
In addition to understanding Derrida’s impact on language and literature, I learned how to use a program that is new to me through creating our app. Prezi seemed like the perfect way to present an app for House of Leaves because following the presentation deeper and deeper into the app paralleled the way I followed the chain of footnotes, or the way Navidson followed where the house led him.
When my group had to do the podcast for A Visit From the Good Squad, we decided to read and discuss a portion of the chapter that was presented as a Power Point because it was [visually] the most blatantly experimental chapter in the book. We hadn’t decided who would read what before we got together as a group, and when we did get together we decided that we should not do a read-through before recording it. We thought that by reading it out loud for the first time when we recorded it, it would force us to read the Power Point slides in the order we would do it instinctively, not in an order that we had planned out to make the most sense. What I learned from doing the podcast that way is that even if I didn’t read a slide in the most logical order, the slide as a whole still made sense and its message and feeling were clear. The non-linear course of the slides made me think about the format and chronology of the novel as a whole. While each independent section contained some thread that connected it to one other section, or multiple other sections, the sections were not presented in chronological order. While it may have been easier to follow in a more linear order, the novel would not have then given me the sense that there can be unity even if parts of the whole are scattered or unorganized. Reading the Power Point slides out loud also made me think about the way in which we present ourselves to others. When I meet someone, I do not introduce myself by telling them my life story from the beginning, I tell them little bits and pieces about myself, and as we get to know each other, I tell them more about different parts of my life, and the more I tell about myself (even though it’s not presented in any kind of chronological order), the more I probably make sense to them. I feel like that is the way in which Jennifer Eagan presents her characters to the reader. She creates a book that is more realistic to the reader through its non-linear experimentation than a book that would tell the story of its characters beginning at the first chronological point and ending at the last.
Overall, the projects that were ultimately the most rewarding for me were probably the ones that frustrated and confused me the most – the ones I had to think the most about. Even though they were unfamiliar and intimidating, I think that doing experimental projects for experimental literature was probably the most logical way to consider each book, even if some of the projects didn’t coordinate too well with their respective book. These projects allowed me to think about the books I was reading in a way that I probably would not have considered if I was trying to create an outline for a more conventional assignment.
What I really enjoyed not just about the projects we did, but about this class in general, is how much it made me think about language. Between this class and Dr. Vescio’s class on Melville, language was something I thought a lot about this semester. Melville imprinted upon me the importance of language (even if he thought that it’s insufficient to lead us to any kind of universal Truth), but the novels and projects for this class made me think about how many different ways we can use language to express ourselves, and how different uses of language affect the way we learn and think about things. Although I’ve been happy to write traditional papers in the past because they have been familiar and comfortable for me, I’ve realized that the format and purpose of those papers have really limited the type of language I’m able to use, and by limiting my language I have been limiting the ways in which I can react to what I read. I appreciate that the various projects allowed me to explore the ways in which I am able to use language for different purposes, and to recognize the ways different authors’ language affects how I read and interpret their books.