"Treehouse Living" and Experimental Fiction

Once in a while I decide to be daring and pick up a work of experimental fiction. You’ll know experimental fiction when you see it—it may use multiple fonts, eschew ordinary chapter structure, or perhaps take the form of something unusual for fiction, such as a dictionary. I’ve enjoyed experimental fiction by Italo Calvino, particularly If on a winter’s night a traveler and Invisible Cities. I’ve considered reading but have not yet summoned the courage to read Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, but only because of its structure and length, not because it’s a work of horror.

Many years ago I read the “male” version of Dictionary of the Khazars, by Milorad Pavic. The fact that there are both “male” and “female” versions of this book is a dead giveaway that it is a work of experimental fiction—along with the fact that it is structured like a dictionary. The two versions of the book differ in only sixteen or seventeen different lines. I can no longer remember whether those lines are highlighted or the reader is expected to buy both versions of the book and compare them line-by-line to find what’s different. I see on Amazon there is also an “androgynous” edition of this book, but it’s not clear how it differs from the “gendered” versions.

Like Pavic’s Khazars, Elliot Reed’s A Key to Treehouse Living is arranged as a dictionary. The entries are written by the narrator, an orphaned boy who struggles to make sense of the world. This boy’s tidbits of “wisdom” give us insight into his life. The question with any book like this, of course, is, what is the plot? How do pieces that are not chronologically arranged function when structured in an interconnected alphabetical arrangement? The Kindle version makes it easy to follow hyperlinked cross-references, but the text is not nearly as hyperlinked as it could be.

I found A Key to Treehouse Living mildly interesting but frustrating to follow. One can’t help but finish reading a book like this and wonder what you have missed. Did the author explain everything needing explanation? Why did he cover this topic before this one? Which entries are important and which are whimsical digressions by the narrator? While the narrator’s nuggets of wisdom are arranged alphabetically by their defining concepts, early on the narrator explains to the reader that he couldn’t always adhere to strict alphabetical order.

Experimental fiction can be very hard to understand. We are used to following the course of a story in a linear, time-based fashion. But if the story is nonlinear, jumping between past and future and present, is it still a story? What was the author intending to do by making the reader encounter a story in this way? How does one follow a “character arc” when there is no chronological order? I would suggest experimental fiction to anyone wanting to experience something unique in their reading, but it is not likely to appeal to everyone.