Way before it was hip to write metafiction, there was Tristram Shandy. It's not so much a novel as the story of a writer's attempt at writing a novel, or rather, a writer's attempt at autobiography as his main character. Confusing? Very much so, but so hilarious that few who've embarked on the journey have ever regretted it.
Laurence Sterne (1713-1768) was an Irish-turned-English Anglican minister who spent his spare time doing pretty much everything. Among other endeavors, he did politics and argued for the abolition of the slave trade. Some of his hobbies were not what you'd expect from a pastor, and shouldn't really have been his hobbies. But he also wrote a lot, and that's what he was best at.
Tristram Shandy himself isn't even born until Volume III of the novel. Sterne/Shandy discusses everything from Uncle Toby's old war wound to the nature of birthing forceps as he wanders through his own life like a very perceptive but somewhat lost bird looking for a place to alight. The narrative structure of the novel, or lack thereof, is both unsettling and engaging.
What's Sterne getting at with all this? On the surface, he's having fun with words and wordplay, throwing out tidbits from his vast knowledge of (seemingly) every topic, telling jokes, mocking politicians, clergy, doctors, and everyone else, and generally causing as much literary mayhem as Cervantes and Rabelais (and perhaps more, given Sterne's superior wit).
On a deeper level, he's exploring the nature of knowledge and creation. How do humans make connections? Are facts just loose stones in the bag of the human mind, or can they be stacked into something recognizable? Sterne asks these questions by experimenting, by throwing his own bag of stones into the air and making do with the random patterns they make.
Or are they random? Shandy isn't exactly a reliable narrator, jumping from topic to topic and leaping into long philosophical rambles at the drop of a quill pen, but he's not clueless, either. The pictures that emerge from his hilarious and vigorous pen show us what it's like to bring disparate elements together to create a whole.
Not that Tristram Shandy always, or even often, resembles anything like what we expect from a whole novel. If you like basic "start here—end here" plots, this isn't for you. Or maybe it is, since you probably need to branch out a little. Sterne's masterpiece will help even the most hardened novel readers understand the process of writing a little better. Maybe.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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