Transgressive fiction is a genre of literature which focuses on characters who feel confined by the norms and expectations of society and who break free of those confines in unusual or illicit ways
Without spending too much time elaborating on theories w/r/t transgressive fiction, the above quote is from Wikipedia. Succinct, it offers a broad enough outline to convey the gist of this often ill-defined subset of fiction.
This isn’t a definitive list. It’s also not intended as authoritative. Instead, it’s a list of some transgressive books that have inspired me as a writer—and a person—over the years. Although I should clarify that I don’t love every book on this list. In fact, I find some of them repugnant, their authors appalling, but they’ve still affected me in one way or the other.
If you haven’t read much transgressive fiction, you should do yourself a favor a take a detour into world funny and strange, terrifying, awe-inspiring, and disturbing.
Although this list deals primarily with fiction, I’ve decided to include a few important works of non-fiction and poetry.
How to Thrive on Rejection: A Manual for Survival by Alan Abel (Barricade Books, 1984)
The least likely book on this list, Alan Abel’s out-of-print gem garners a spot for it sheer outlandishness. This is a record of the exploits of a cunning satirist masquerading as a prankster.
In one stunt, Abel enlisted several people to populate the audience of talk show host Phil Donahue’s popular daytime program. During the taping, several of Abel’s plants pretended to pass out, causing enough concern that cameras stopped rolling and everyone was removed from the set. While Donahue and crew chalked it up to nervousness at being on a television set and a hot studio, Abel later announced that he had orchestrated the entire thing to draw attention to the vacuousness of television.
In another notorious stunt, Abel managed to get his obituary in The New York Times and enlisted family and friends to play along, persuading people that Abel had, in fact, passed away. Since he was a known prankster, not everyone believed him, so it was no surprise when he emerged to own up to his ruse. One of his admirers and fans, the singular performer Andy Kaufman, admired the stunt and even discussed the logistics of pulling it off with Abel after the truth was revealed.
This is a quick read, at times funny, engaging, and inspiring. Much of the humor, however, feels dated, so don’t expect gut-busting laughter throughout. But at its core, it’s a book about a moralist dissatisfied with the norms permeating an increasingly corporate and media obsessed culture.
While the book itself isn’t controversial or transgressive, it’s included here because it records the exploits of a man who rejected many social norms. His satire contained pointed commentary—and rebellion. Although known as a prankster in his life, we’d now call him a performance artist. He used humor to criticize and attack the conformity of a rule-based society obsessed with media and capitalistic pursuits. The man himself was transgressive.
Great Expectations: a novel by Kathy Acker (Grove Press, 1994)
While this may not rank as Acker’s most transgressive work of fiction, it embodies the motifs recurring through most of her books.
Kathy Acker was a singular writer, equal parts William S. Burroughs, Johnathan Swift, Johnny Rotten, but, most importantly, she exemplified none other than her unique personality and voice.
Reviewing, or even summarizing, a book by Kathy Acker is like trying to review the barrage of tv shows, movies, and commercials as you constantly flip through television channels without pausing to slow down or settle on a single show.
She employed several techniques as a writer—from Burroughs’s cut-up technique to appropriating text from famous writers, to incomplete sections or notes. Combined, these styles produced a hypnotic, hypnagogic effect in the reader while Acker presented characters repulsive and endearing, elusive and narcissistic, prudish and perverse, brooding and full of life.
By eschewing narrative, she created snapshots of people and events. Her books and characters often seemed cold and disjointed. When taken as a whole, however, they conveyed a rare thing in experimental and transgressive fiction: a complex yet beautiful portrayal of the human condition.
A Crack Up at the Race Riots by Harmony Korine (Mainstreet Books, 1998)
This book is nearly impossible to categorize. Neither fiction nor nonfiction, it somehow exists in a state far removed from categorization. (You should note, however, that the title is nonsensical. The book doesn’t have anything to do with race or race riots.)
Produced by les enfant terrible Harmony Korine, writer of the controversial film Kids, writer and director of Gummo and julien-donkey boy. His films were equally as unorthodox as this book. When taken together, however, they convey an aesthetic uniquely Korine’s.
In it’s design and layout, it resembles an avant-garde art book, reminding you of something the Dadaists might have produced. It’s filled with photographs, one-liners, puns, and carries an anarchic vaudevillian spirit throughout.
You can read it in under twenty minutes and dismiss it as quickly. But you’d make a mistake by doing so. As with his films, in A Crack Up at the Race Riots Korine is attempting to introduce us to facets of life we overlook by focusing on the outcast and the downtrodden. For that reason, as obscure as it may be, it’s also a deeply human book.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream by Hunter S Thompson (Random House, 1972)
This book is touted as nonfiction/journalism, but let’s be real: it’s a work of fiction. Sure, it’s based to some degree on real events, but it was formulated, structured, and contrived like any other work of fiction.
Notorious journalist Hunter S. Thompson and fiery civil rights lawyer Oscar Zeta Acosta took a trip to Las Vegas to escape a tense investigation into the murder of famed Chicano Newsman and activist Rueben Salazar.
Their initial trip to Vegas was short. The first part of the book covered the entirety of that trip. But when Thompson set it to paper, he knew he had the beginnings of a great book. Intent on finishing it, he contrived another trip to Vegas with Acosta some weeks later to generate more material so he could finish his masterpiece.
At its core, this book is a lamentation, a dirge to a generation bereft of its former idealism. It follows two men destroying themselves physically and mentally with the help of drug-induced psychosis, as they topple the norms of a society struggling to devolve to the totalitarianism of the 40s and 50s while simultaneously trying to break from that era once and for all. It’s also a transgressive attempt to shatter conventions long codified by establishment journalists. And it’s frequently funny as hell.
Mooch by Dan Fante (Harper Perennial, 2009)
The son of novelist John Fante, Dan is a world unto himself. He’s more akin to Charles Bukowski and Hubert Selby, Jr. than to his father.
You won’t find romanticism in Fante’s works. Instead, you’ll find alcoholism, drug abuse, and madness—themes drawn from Fante’s decedent and depraved life.
Mooch follows Fante’s fictional avatar, Bruno Dante, as he attempts to leave a halfway home, carve out a respectable working-class life while fighting to contain his addictive and violent tendencies.
It’s a book about poverty and people on the margins, people who shun cultural norms and conventions while paradoxically dreaming of achieving the kinds of lives they claim to despise.
This book pulls no punches: it’s mean-spirited, misogynistic, homophobic (even thought the narrator occasionally partakes in homosexual liaisons), bleak, and cynical.
It works primarily as an unrelenting reminder that people like Dante exist.
Although it’s well written and filled with dark humor, it’s populated by unlikeable characters—and a repugnant narrator. But Bruno Dante is an interesting character. He knows his flaws, recognizes his bigotry, and fights to control his addictions as he struggles to become a better person. In the end, he fails, but Dante’s adventures in four other books by Fante occasionally offers hope that he can change.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (McClelland and Stewart, 1985)
As prescient now as it was when it was written during the Reagan revolution and the rise of people like Jerry Falwell and his so-called silent majority, Atwood’s harrowing dystopian novel imagines a world where Christian Theocracy has altered society, forcing women into subservient roles as second-class citizens who exist primarily to push out babies.
Whether you’re a man or a woman, a Christian or a Jew, a Muslim or a Buddhist or an atheist, The Handmaid’s Tale will disturb you. It will implant a creeping sense that the world Atwood imagines isn’t far-fetched. It can—and probably will—happen here.
By pulling the threads of norms and conventions already established in our world, Atwood warns of the logical conclusion of religion and nationalism when controlled by monsters on the extreme fringes of society.
Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller (Obelisk Press, 1934)
It’s easy to hate this book: Miller is a cynical pervert who hates many kinds of people. It’s told in a stream of consciousness style with little attempt to forge a plot—or even tell a story. Writing in the first person present tense it at times reads as if it were cobbled from pages of a diary.
Miller meanders from story to fantasy to reminisce. He’s obsessed with sex and often thinks about fucking and imagines the cunts—a favorite word of his—of women he encounters. He’s a miserable bastard who criticizes Jews, homosexuals, Christians, and treats women as objects. It’s easy to dismiss Miller as a bigot, and this book as the product of a privileged white male running amok in an era when only privileged white males ran amok.
But to dismiss it as such would betray a superficial reading. Miller’s narrator is far more complex than his appearance leads you to believe. He absolutely makes appalling remarks about Jews and homosexuals and women—but he also makes appalling remarks about himself and all humans. He’s not bigotry personified. He’s misanthropy personified.
Mistaking his misanthropy for bigotry, however, might allow you to miss the bigger themes of Tropic of Cancer. The narrator loves the world. He’s obsessed with its natural beauty, it’s poetry, and everything wonderful and awe-inspiring in it. But the economic and the political strife of the first half of the twentieth century—the First World War, which consumed millions of lives and the depression that crippled the entire western world, eventually laying the foundation for European Fascism—scarred the psyches of everyone who lived in that period. It thrust the entire world into a state of PTSD, allowing the worst aspect of humans to emerge.
Rapid technological growth in conjunction with depression, war, and radical—and dark—political change plunged generations into despair, the same kind of despair Celine conveys in Journey to the End of the Night.
This is a psychological diagnosis at its core, one Nietzsche anticipated a generation earlier: when the old social order and morality gave way to the new, nihilism took hold. What’s the point of attributing value to humans if they’re just animals? This is the undercurrent of Miller’s deeply complex narrator. Although he is misanthropic and cynical, his observations and tastes betray a subtle, subconscious desire for a bright beautiful world where there’s little reason to distrust fellow humans.
Tropic of Cancer is a deeply complex novel. It requires close reading and learning to unpack the obscure stream of consciousness passages. Miller was a brilliant prose stylist who produced some of the most breathtaking prose in the first half of the twentieth century. He was also a brave writer: he was willing to alienate everyone, readers included, to illustrate a world devoid of morality, love of fellow humans, and order. And, to be honest, he was also an asshole.
The narrator is repugnant and offensive, which was part of the reason this novel was banned in America for years. Transgressive books are, their cores, offensive. This book certainly meets that condition. But it’s worth reading for the prose, to gain insight into the thinking of misanthropic pieces of shit, and to base this insight on experience instead of presuppositions—and, oh, the prose.
Click here for part two, where we’ll explore seven more transgressive books and writers.
Do you agree with the books on this list? Disagree? Feel free to comment. Let me know which transgressive books you’ve felt drawn to over the years.
Daulton Dickey is a novelist, poet, and content creator currently living in Indiana. He’s the author of A Peculiar Arrangement of Atoms: Stories, Still Life with Chattering Teeth and People-Shaped Things, and other stories, Elegiac Machinations: an experimental novella, and Bastard Virtues, a novel. Rooster Republic Press will publish his latest novel, Flesh Made World, later this year. Contact him at daultondickey[at]yahoo[dot]com.