Experimenting with Form: Six Stories and Sand

I have to admit I still get excited about novels which experiment with narrative structure and confound expectations. There is far too little tolerance for that from publishers (and perhaps readers too, but not as much as publishers think) nowadays. However, if I say that both Six Stories by Matt Wesolowski and Sand by Wolfgang Herrndorf are postmodern novels, you will probably yawn and want to run away a hundred miles. However, they both are postmodern thrillers, and one of them worked well for me, while the other didn’t.

Wolfgang Herrndorf: Sand (transl. Tim Mohr)

This mash-up of spy thriller, action movie and film noir is intent on messing with our heads – and it fully succeeded as far as this reader was concerned. I was confused, struggled to keep the various names, narrators and events apart, although the story was roughly chronological. The main character is ‘Carl’, an amnesiac who is found wandering in the desert, and who some believe to be a spy. He tries to find out more about his identity and encounters all sorts of villains, desperate people and a blonde femme fatale along the way.

Here are some of the post-modernist techniques I observed: parody (of thriller genres), black humour, clever little intertextual references (Lawrence of Arabia comes to mind, but also Casablanca and others) and metafiction (multiple possible beginnings, deliberate misdirection, unreliable narrators all undermining the authority of the author).

I have to admit there are flashes of brilliance and farcical situations in the book which made me laugh and gasp out loud (perhaps also wipe away a tear). But they were few and far between, not enough to make me rush back for more. I struggled to finish the book, which I felt became a victim of its own ambition to say something about the overall state of the world. Yet it succeeded, in a way, even if at the expense of coherence. That is, if the bleak message the author intended was the futility of being honest and good in a world where incompetence and stupidity reign supreme.

Matt Wesolowski: Six Stories 

In contrast, Wesolowski did not set out to be ambitiously and deliberately post-modern. Instead, he uses the popular format of serial podcasts to structure his novel and in doing so creates a Rashomon-like controversy over whose interpretation of events do you believe. Patterns emerge, but so do the gaps –  what are all these storytellers deliberately avoiding? Memory is of course notoriously unreliable, and over twenty years the participants in those mysterious events have had time to repress unpleasant memories or to reinterpret them in a self-justifying light.

So we find plenty of misdirection here, as hidden fears emerge and it becomes clear that the youngsters from 20 years ago misunderstood certain events or were projecting different personalities than they came to inhabit later in life. There is also a strong pastiche of podcasts, selfie-culture and our apparently endless appetite for true crime (including the rather bizarre practice of hooded interviews). Aside from Rashomon, there are allusions to The Wasp Factory, A Clockwork Orange, the Hound of the Baskervilles, perhaps even Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow and other books about disaffected youth and trying to piece together the truth about a so-called accidental death. Finally, here too we have a sense of mourning about the casual cruelty of youth, recklessness, stupidity and the senseless tragedy that ensues.

This book is not pretentiously post-modern and pregnant with weighty themes, it simply wants to tell a good story. And that is exactly why it works. I could not put it down until I finished it. While Sand had the heavy atmosphere of wading to the top of a steep sand dune, Six Stories was an exhilarating gallop through woodland and moors. There was an addictive quality to the writing, tinged with just enough horror and unexplained phenomena to make you shudder and read on, peeking through your fingers.



25 thoughts on “Experimenting with Form: Six Stories and Sand”

  1. Will follow up on Six Stories as like sound of it – helped in no small part to the comparisons you draw to Wasp Factory and Miss Smilla, both of which I loved!

  2. It’s a fine line between being too tricksy by half and exploring narrative techniques which complement the story you’re trying to tell but is sounds as if Weslowksi’s got it right. Six Stories has been all over my neck of the Twitter woods so I’ve steered clear but you’ve made me want to read it.

    1. I know, I always try to avoid buzzy books as well, and was going to read this much later, when the noise had died down. But the style does complement the story very well, you are right.

  3. Six Stories is absolutely refreshing in the way the story is handled, I just couldn’t tear myself away from the book, and it might not have worked, but the author did such a good job that everything unfolds perfectly!

    1. Yes, I got a little bit nervous when they mentioned the Monster and folk tales, thought it was going to go all supernatural , but it was just the right amount.

  4. Haven’t read Six Stories, but I must stand up in defense of Sand! Admittedly, it starts off very confusing, but I found there was a point at which things fall into place plot-wise, and from there Herrndorf goes on to create a story that is, as you say, incredibly bleak about human capacities in the face of an incompetent and stupid universe, but which also does incredible things with the novel form. Consider how we’re taught to think of novels – as teleological, mostly, progressing from event to event with a certain level of fated-ness or right-ness – and then think of how Sand laughs in the face of this idea, how its postmodernity only reflects (with honesty that is fairly brutal) the way reality tends to work. And the fact that it is sort of a spy thriller, but no one knows what they’re doing or who the other players are, and that even the reader finds it impossible to separate good guys from bad guys – Carl’s identity is so unclear that we realise we might well be rooting for a terrorist – is a clever way of fitting disorienting content to disorienting form. There was definitely method in Herrndorf’s madness, at least for me.

    1. Yes, it is quite funny how inept and confused all of the players seem to be, it really turns the spy thriller trope on its head, where everyone seems too clever by half. But it felt like the author was over-extending himself, trying a little too hard, and I think he could have achieved as much with fewer pages.

  5. Although I enjoyed Six Stories I couldn’t rave about it as some reviewers did because of the podcast style. It just didn’t work for me. I wonder how much of this is due to my never listening to podcasts.

    I do like the challenge of more experimental prose from time to time – have just finished In the Absence of Absalom by Simon Okotie which is worth looking out for. I think these sorts of books have to raise the bar, to be clever but not for the sake of it (as you say, not pretentious), to work.

    1. I haven’t listened to a lot of true crime podcasts, but of course do a lot of online meetings and webinars and am always amused by how people try to come across on such occasions, how it changes their behaviour compared to real life. So that was one aspect that certainly intrigued me.

  6. Six Stories does sound tempting, Marina Sofia. And I like the fact that it’s not pretentious. The heart of all novels ought to be the telling of a good story. If that’s not there, nothing else will really make up for it.

    1. It’s that old adage: if you set out to educate your audience, you’ll probably bore them. If you set out to entertain them, you might educate them a little as well in the process.

    1. I have to be in the mood for the experimental stuff – and I certainly couldn’t read four of them in a row. But, when done well, they can be quite exhilarating. And it doesn’t always have to come at the expense of the story, I suppose.

  7. I really enjoyed Six Stories too. I thought it was such a great way of telling that story. It had me feeling really creeped out at times and wanting to cover my eyes but at the same time I just had to keep reading to find out what was going on.

    1. I suppose books like Paul Auster’s New York trilogy or The French Lieutenant’s Woman or Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night… have spoiled me. I expect good, thought-provoking postmodern stories, which enthrall me and only afterwards make me realise that I’ve been played.

  8. I’m a traditionalist so the very word post-modern brings me out in an allergic rash. However I’ve seen so many positive reviews of Six Stories that I’m very tempted – perhaps I shall take a double dose of anti-histamines and plunge in…

    1. Mind you, I think I’m the only one that called Six Stories post-modern – so maybe it’s just a case of too much English Literature study at university… It just struck me because I was reading it at nearly the same time as this other one, which is explicit about it.

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