There exist a handful of books which seem to spill into our lives bearing hidden meaning. Whether said meaning was intentional, we cannot know, and the authors—across the board—give us little to work with.
Obvious examples, most likely to be known by dedicated readers, are James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and Ulysses. Difficult texts that demand attention, they ultimately reward readers with images akin to film—but you’ve got to work for those. Today’s casual reader most likely would lack the patience and—frankly—awareness of post-modern technique. Stream-of-consciousness, where a character’s inner thoughts are given verbatim without much regard to structure. The dark room the stinking sweat I’m afraid and I step slow into humming vast rage-burning echo of terror blood-spatted and candle-lit.
My own example, as I cannot quote Joyce—but you get the idea. The stream-of-consciousness was employed to give readers direct experience of life, shorn of commas and literary structure.
But Joyce’s books are fairly comprehensible compared to 20-Century works like Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren, a science-fictional (Joyce-influenced) night journey through what might be a post-apocalypse urban sprawl. Perhaps sparked by then-recent cinematic shorthand, Delany fascinated and enraged readers by taking science fiction into a place (in 1975) unimaginable to fans of Isaac Asimov (I, Robot) and Arthur C. Clarke (2001: A Space Odyssey)—so-called “nuts and bolts” SF. Delany’s nearly 900-page novel used every post-modern riff available, and invented a few more. There are pages written in split-screen, with Delany’s comments on what he was doing while writing, including scatalogical details some readers felt ought to have been left out. I disagree. After all, hadn’t visionary “monk” Francois Rabelais (in his 16th-Century Pantagruel and Gargantua) written honestly about drinking and shitting and sex? Of course.
But the accumulative effect of Delany—and Joyce and Rabelais—is indeed mysterious. You can smell the wine, hear the curses, and imagine without too much effort their various worlds, stripped of all things false and polite. Delany combined rarefied intellectual vision with “bawdy” and pungent detail, with no concern whatsoever for readers tagging along.
Just as potent, but quieter, was British author Brian W. Aldiss, whose Report on Probability “A” (1967) and Barefoot in the Head (1969) took French anti-structure and anti-novelism to striking results. Here was an Oxford-educated writer plucking science fiction from its rest, and injecting it with “Acid Head Wars,” and a profoundly strange slow-motion prose with the effect on readers of hyper-vivid reality. For my money, Report on Probability “A” is a classic work on the possibilities of language pushed to its limit. Unlike the books above-mentioned, Aldiss used Hemingway-simple nouns and verbs in a way that seems impossible—a magic mirror at times hard to bear. It takes a while in this short novel even to realize what’s happening: An isolated, rainy property subjected to enigmatic surveillance by former employees, as well as by other-dimensional beings. The multiple perspective lets us taste and see and smell and hear everything. Rain-drops patting grass…a beautiful woman (seen only when she happens to pass before a window) whose every action is charged with unknowable meaning. The watchers themselves are watched by others in some timeless sunny field, and obsessed with a painting by William Holman Hunt. The combined effect is truly overwhelming, and Aldiss had a hard time finding a publisher.
What is the value of such books? At the very least, the chance to enter worlds brushed upon only in dreams—or nightmares. And to experience the genuine magic of words, when written by those whose unique vision allows them to transform the mundane into the pure terror/wonder/beauty of existence.