Two events of about a week ago conspire, at a temporal distance, to produce this post; they are a conversation (or set of conversations) about fiction on a self-conscious quest for something new1, in the course of which I was reminded of an album by Tatsuya Nakatani, or rather its liner notes (also by Nakatani), and this post of Adam Kotsko's, in which he refers to David Foster Wallace as an author of experimental fiction.
Is he, though? Is Wittgenstein's Mistress, described by Wallace as "pretty much the high point of experimental fiction in this country", experimental fiction? (It's certainly a high point of something.) The relevance of Nakatani's liner notes is this: at one point in the text (I can't quote exactly since the CD (Primal Communication) is buried in a box somewhere), he raises the question of what kind of music it is that he plays. It isn't, he says, jazz, and that is surely true, though the kind of thing he does is ultimately derived genealogically from jazz. Nor, he says, is it "free improvisation", and there's truth to that as well; I bought the CD after hearing him perform a solo percussion performance, a single uninterrupted set of about 40-50 minutes), and the CD itself is a solo percussion performance, uninterrupted, about 50 minutes, and recognizably the same general program as the performance I had heard. (You can hear something cut from the same cloth yourself.) IIRC he doesn't directly address the "non-idiomatic improvisation" tag, but that's not really a useful classification anyway in various ways, and arguably it wouldn't fit either. He goes through some other candidates, and mentions along the way that he doesn't consider what he plays to be experimental music either, because he knows what he's doing.
Generally, of course, people call music "experimental" based on how it sounds, not based on the performer's attitude toward it, with the result that the same fate has befalled "experimental music" that tends to befall any stylistic classifier that has a preexisting descriptive content (e.g. "modern"; "noise"—I believe I've mentioned before on this very blog a complaint I encountered long ago, that the classics of noise, things like Metal Machine Music, don't sound noisy anymore, not like today's noise—nothing fails like success); it's the great virtue of tags like "rock" or "jazz" that they don't, or anyway, to the extent that they do, it's pretty tenuous. But I like Nakatani's take on it; anyway, if "experimental" were just a stylistic term, there would be no sense in Adam's (perhaps accurate) contention that experimental fiction is regarded as a resented duty. It might be a duty because important cultural work is being done there, it's the matrix whence new techniques, new concerns, new whatevers emerge; but if it just means (in the musical case) noisy, arrhythmic, aharmonic, amelodic, perhaps painful to hear, then why should anyone be concerned? No one need take an interest in the things that freak the squares, because they freak the squares. And that kind of thing could simply become old hat, after all, once it is no longer experimental in the sense of pushing forward. Similarly, natch, in the literary case; certainly, no one producing texts like "Welcome to the Funhouse" now could plausibly be said to be writing experimental literature. A resented duty because—let's face it—these are experiments that can fail, and certainly can fail to have lasting interest (something that I suspect is true of the Barth), whether failures or success.2And this idea that one's own sense of trying something out, trying to figure out how a technique does or can be made to work, as a component of the result's being experimental, chimes, I think, with something else I find sympathetic, namely, Josipovici's take on what renders something modernist—a sense that certain prior methods can't simply be used anymore, that there's a problem, in fact, about the enterprise as a whole: so that, again, merely stylistic criteria can get it wrong.
So we would require a certain amount of self-doubt or uncertainty regarding what one is up to, and this, given what we know about him, Wallace probably did have. Though really his writing seems too assured, in general, for me to give that much weight; anyway, I'm not really interested in diagnosing whether or not Infinite Jest is experimental. (For the most part I would say: no, it's just long.) Wittgenstein's Mistress, too, seems so much the product of someone who knows precisely what he's after that it's hard for me to look on it as experimental, though, again, it was the first book in that telegraphic style that Markson published. (Surely, though, he had it down by The Last Novel!) Contrariwise: Nufer's Never Again doubtless is an experiment, an experiment in trying to write a novel in which no word appears more than once, and, though he did do that, and there are lessons to be learned from it and the effects he's led to employ, I think it must be judged a failure, since it is nearly unreadable and mostly unengaging. (It is nevertheless exciting, though.) We would also require, as the remark about someone producing Barth-like stories these days indicates, that it actually be new; techniques formerly experimental have become part of the common vocabulary these days (free indirect discourse: once experimental, now ubiquitous). This is on the one hand a further objection to the purely stylistic (or … auditory?) construal of "experimental", since that construal, I think, can't account for this Barthian fact, whereas the reason that one couldn't experiment along Barthian lines anymore is that (though one personally may be fumbling with that kind of authorial intervention) we now know how it's done. Even if most people still find it off-putting. But the non-stylistic construal is perhaps uncomfortably teleological (not, to repeat myself, that I think that the person experimenting need have the telos of enriching the common stock of techniques). And it too could be seen to encourage something like philistinism: since it wishes to say that the experiments can also be failures, it thereby gives someone who doesn't care about experimental stuff a good excuse for ignoring it: why not wait until they've got their stuff sorted out, anyway?3 And really I think it's a good question why one would be interested in the new (music, literature, etc.), just as such—which is probably why "experimental" so often does slide into a description of a style: the style that was new at the time the person employing it liked it.
Having now run out of steam, I will unceremoniously conclude this post, without any real conclusion.
1. Prompted by the desire for a literary parallel to the sorts of compositions Cavell mentions in "Music Discomposed"; suggestions from others included Caucasian Chalk Circle, the nouveau roman, and the theatre of the absurd; from me myself, "Welcome to the Funhouse", Never Again, and Roussel.
2. Their successes would often result in part in their being taken up more broadly, though it is not necessarily the case that that's what the experiments would be for, as in fact has happened with music in many cases; jazz musicians mining avant-garde European compositions for krazy harmonies, or various kinds of actually pretty out-there pop/hip-hop production in the last decade being prominent examples. (If I knew more about the latter I could produce more, or any, examples offhand; I think, actually, the the Bomb Squad long ago had pretty advanced production techniques, whence Ken Vandermark's dedication of a tune to Hank Shocklee.) Dodecaphony is a staple of movie soundtracks! At one point in one of the conversations mentioned in the first paragraph of the post I thought it would be amusing to consider "Reading Barth after Duck Amuck", but it turns out that—in a reversal of the way these things usually go—Barth's stories really did come after Duck Amuck, by over a decade.
3. Though as long as I'm being irenic, it's not as if I think people should be interested in experimental stuff. I myself prefer things that I think are successes! Even if many of those things would fall under the "stylistically experimental" label.