Generally, novels are very similar in terms of page layout, the amount of words on a page, and the the splitting of chapters. Words form sentences, sentences join together to make paragraphs, and paragraphs build to create a chapter. Rinse and repeat a few dozen times, and that is the consistent format of most novels. Readers and most writers do not pay much concern to the way the writing looks on the page, but there are daring authors that provide meaning to their work through the use of unique and innovative formatting. Sometimes, these books can be recognized purely by looking at the formatting without reading any words, a feat that the standardly designed novel cannot claim. Here are a few novels that reimagined what a novel should look like within its physical binding:
Joshua Cohen's Book of Numbers
Starting with the recently released novel from the thirty-four year old that is so prolific that he has multiple collections of his heavily researched short stories at bay waiting for publication, a draft of a followup to the book that came out just over a month ago, and still finds the time to write incredibly detailed reviews of new books for venues such as Harper's. His prose is dense, intricate, full of words that require a dictionary, and researched to an almost obsessive degree. He makes the average literary writer look lazy in comparison when he consistently releases big works of writing that obviously took a large amount of time and dedication. Cohen's dedication to his craft has reached a whole new level with his latest novel, Book of Numbers. At first glance, the novel seems to be formatted like any other novel, but Cohen implemented a mind-boggling level of detail for readers that study novels as if they are complicated puzzles. Following the complex math and technological themes of the story, Cohen as the writer decided to set certain rules to its structure. Each section of the book has an even number of paragraphs and each paragraph has an even number of sentences. Diving further in, "every sentence has a number of syllables metered to work out to fulfill certain metric principle," says Cohen. He adds that even though most sentences add up to an even number of syllables, the ones that he wanted to rhythmically stick out have an odd number, but the number of odd syllable sentences add up to an even number in their respective paragraphs. Joshua Cohen has taken formatting to a level that is unparalleled, and his writing is staggeringly intelligent and beautiful, showing that he is a novelist that strives to make readers think and read closely.
The Fiction of Mark Danielewski
Mark Danielewski is best known for perhaps one of the only truly frightening novels of all time, the modern cult classic, House of Leaves. Any type of unique formatting that you can think of is present within House of Leaves. The way words are arranged on the page is never the same as the previous page, font size and style varies throughout, and the disjointed experience is jarring, adding to the suspense and mystery surrounding House of Leaves. There are many ways to interpret the story, in large part because each reader will consume the novel in a different way because of the formatting. Masters of style tend to be highly ambitious, and Danielewski has embarked on what will become the longest novel of all time in terms of page count with The Familiar. Volume one, an almost 900 page tome with the the unique Danielewski style apparent on its pages, and volume two will be released later this year. The story has a long way to go as it is a projected twenty-seven volumes, making Danielewski as prolific and dedicated as any writer around, along with being one of the most daring.
The Fiction of Jonathan Safran Foer
Jonathan Safran Foer's most well known novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, might sound familiar to those who saw what is commonly called the worst movie to ever be nominated for an Oscar, but the novel that it was adapted from is astounding. Foer is one of the best young writers working in America, and his style of writing is one of a kind. Combined with his unique prose, Foer added an innovative style to his writing as well. Novelists abandoning quotation marks is nothing new, take a look at the work of one of the greatest living writers, Cormac McCarthy, but Foer's implementation of it makes the look of the novel change. He uses short, snappy dialogue that a lot of the time, abandons tags, allowing it to come to life. Some pages have just a few words, others contain pictures, but the narrative flows seamlessly together to form one of the most impressive novels of the century, with the most precocious narrator in many years. His 2010 work, Tree of Codes, was a passion project as it revolved around his favorite book, The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz. The novel is not written by Foer, instead, he cut words from the pages to carve a new story. It had a limited release due to each copy having to be hand cut, but the ending result was a work of visual art that could be read in numerous fashions. Foer has shown that he can innovate with his own prose as well as reimagine the work of others through artistic pursuits and a clever imagination.
S. by Doug Dorst and J.J. Abrams
The J.J. Abrams conceived idea turned fictional experiment written by Doug Dorst was one of the most interesting book releases of 2013. S. was released in a slip case that needed to be cut open in order to pull out the novel that stated it was actually Ship of Theseus by V.M. Straka. The book stands as one of the most inventive meta-fiction, story inside a story, novels in recent memory. It follows two college students that are trying to figure out the identity of the mysterious author. Throughout the novel, there are handwritten notes in the margins of the work of fiction inside of another work of fiction by a fictitious author that Dorst and Abrams are writing about. If that was confusing, try jumping down the rabbit hole that Dorst and Abrams created. There are random postcards, pictures, and notes inside the pages of the book that are used as clues, and they are not images, they can physically be removed from the book as they are loosely wedged in at various points in the narrative. The novel was as much a literary experiment as it was a work of art. It was designed for people who love and cherish books and shows fervent passion towards its subject with the help of the vastly unique and revolutionary format. It really is a treasure of a book for those who love physical books, all the way from the way it appears on the outside as a library book with dewey decimal system labeling on its spine, to the immersive and personal touch of handwriting in the margins, and the complexity of its formatting. S. demands to be read more than once, and the experience that it delivers is due to its brilliant form.
There are other novels that have stretched the standard constraints of formatting, but the works of Cohen, Danielewski, Foer, Dorst and Abrams are some of the most innovative examples released in recent years.