Top 10 genre-twisting novels | Alan Trotter

From Cervantes’ warping of chivalric romance to Flann O’Brien’s narrative games, novelist Alan Trotter picks his favourite convention-smashing tales

Genre focuses our attention in such a way as to make some stories seem possible, even inevitable, while crowding out others. It creates (and then solidifies through repetition) certain characters, settings, techniques, themes, until it seems they could almost self-replicate if authors would just get out of the way. Inevitably, this makes resisting and undermining genre seem extremely attractive and fun.

I started writing my novel without knowing quite what it would be. I had nothing but the voice of a narrator, and maybe a page about a man without a name being thrown from a car. But almost immediately it opened a dark mouth with an insatiable appetite. To get the book to work it had to be about hardboiled tales of crime and detectives, so for the decade that I spent learning to write Muscle, that was what I fed it, reading Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillane, James M Cain, Ross Macdonald and on and on. Somewhere in the process a second mouth opened – my narrator started reading pulp fiction of his own, science fiction stories, so I read those too, so that I could make my own counterfeits for my own purposes.

The 10 books in this list all make their own play with genre in some way. They’re not intended to be ranked, and it would be ridiculous to claim that anything grander than my own fondness earned them their place.

1. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
It is because of books that Don Quixote of La Mancha sets forth: his head is consumed with tales of chivalric romance that he believes he is sallying into that genre’s world of courageous knights, beautiful princesses and fearsome giants. Cervantes’ own book was a huge success, and by the second volume, one of the brave knights whose adventures are known across the land is Quixote himself, and he is greeted on his travels by nobles who have read them – and toy with his delusions for their own amusement.

2. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Lord Byron suggested to his companions a game to help pass a dreich summer in Switzerland. Each of them would invent a ghost story. In response, Mary Shelley created not just a masterpiece of horror, but a new kind of monster: science fiction. For the next 200 years, as it has lumbered around the world, it has never travelled too far from tropes invented in this novel. Mad scientists, god-high from hideous experiments conducted in their labs, continue to be destroyed by their own hubris.

3. The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter
In which Carter takes fairytales and folk tales and remakes them – carrying across into her tellings their uncanny intensity, but otherwise subverting them as she sees fit. In the first line of The Tiger Queen, Beauty is lost to the Beast in a game of cards; the story ends with the transformation not of the Beast but of Beauty, as the Beast’s harsh tongue licks her skin from her, layer after layer, until – beautifully furred – she is finally revealed. The whole collection is inspiring and exciting in the way it claims, with uncompromising strength, the freedom to occupy in return the stories that have occupied us.

An android of Philip K Dick on show at NextFest in Chicago in 2005.
The distinction between SF and autobiography collapsed … an android of Philip K Dick on show at NextFest in Chicago in 2005. Photograph: John Gress/Reuters

4. VALIS by Philip K Dick

Imitators of Dick often share this problem: that behind their carefully fracturing, multiplying realities is the sense of a rational, maybe even clever author in command of it all. In the best of Dick’s novels, you feel the author’s own grip on reality might just be as tentative as that of his suffering characters. In VALIS (probably his masterpiece) the distinction between science-fiction fabulism and autobiography collapses completely, as a character that is explicitly Dick experiences a great revelation on the nature of existence by way of a pink laser beam.

5. Gun, With Occasional Music by Jonathan Lethem
Among Raymond Chandler’s many quotable lines is this from his last novel, Playback: “The subject was as easy to spot as a kangaroo in a dinner jacket.” Lethem takes this line and runs strange, somersaulting laps with it, merging a Chandleresque detective novel with a freakish sci-fi future in which humans live alongside genetically modified, sentient animals (including a kangaroo in a dinner jacket). It succeeds simultaneously as a detective yarn and as the kind of bustling science fiction that’s so rich with ideas that they scatter freely as it moves.

6. Nightmare Abbey by Thomas Love Peacock
Like the bad hardboiled detective story, bad gothic writing strikes poses so extreme and solemn that they invite pastiche. First published in 1818 –the same year as Frankenstein – Nightmare Abbey is a short and very funny gothic satire. It is set in a dilapidated mansion of crumbling towers and secret passages, where the owner (the melancholic Mr Glowry) chooses his servants for their miserable appearance or morbid names.

7. At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien
Like a woman giving birth to a man older than herself (something that happens in this novel), At Swim Two-Birds gleefully dismantles the primacy of an author over their creations – and also the distinctions between genres, as characters from different stories, including Irish legend and fairytale, leap their narrative bounds to interact. A great well of delight and a comic masterpiece.

8. If on a winter’s night a traveller … by Italo Calvino
Like At Swim-Two-Birds, this is a book of multiple beginnings. It will start a story with new characters in a new setting completely unrelated to what has come before, and then, just as you have become gripped, frustrate it, cutting it dead mid-scene. And then do the same again. The linking thread is a story (told in between these partial tales) of the reader (addressed as “you”) going on an ever more ornate and genre-imbued adventure in search of the book they initially intended to read.

9. Bluets by Maggie Nelson
It’s particularly hard to say what sort of book Bluets is: it’s written in a series of numbered propositions as if it means to be a philosophical treatise, but these little bursts of thought are all profoundly poetic. It presses essayistically around the artistic, historical and personal connotations of the colour blue, and novelistically at the details of a relationship and a heartbreak. Whatever it is, it’s wonderful.

10. Blind Man with a Pistol and Plan B by Chester Himes
The earlier Harlem Detective books featuring Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson are raucous, macabre fun – try All Shot Up or Cotton Comes to Harlem. But in these final two books (one unfinished) something breaks. Finally, even a chaotic version of the detective novel can’t deal with injustices as large as those Himes heaps on his two policemen – confronted with the bone-deep racism of a whole society, struggling with their own position as black men defending the white status quo. Nothing is resolved, no cases are cracked, the violence is not just brutal but shocking. It’s a fascinating, sad, disorienting conclusion.

Muscle by Alan Trotter is published by Faber & Faber, priced £10. To order a copy, go to Free UK p&p on orders over £15.

Alan Trotter

The GuardianTramp

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