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.
Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby, Jr.
(Grove Press, 1964)
Few writers excel at producing bleak material. Hubert Selby, Jr., is one of them. In his dirge to life on the fringes, Last Exit to Brooklyn is likely to leave an impression on everyone who reads it.
Populated by transvestites, the addicted, psychopaths, and the downtrodden, Selby’s classic examines life on the margins. While not a novel in the traditional sense, Last Exit is a collection of stories connected by themes and the city of Brooklyn.
This is a frank and honest portrayal of life on the margins. More importantly, it’s a depiction of the consequences of poverty in the richest nation on the planet. The material proved shocking to audiences in the early 60s. To people in the middle class, riding the high of the post-war, post-Eisenhower boom, such dregs of society serve no place in a civilized country.
But the characters Selby portrays—many of whom were based on people he knew—are not victims of their own excesses and poor choices. They’re victims of their social strata. Alcoholism and drug use, violent crime and depression and suicide are correlates of poverty. It’s easy to overlook the notion that these people developed in a social prison imposed on them by those with power or money. It’s much harder to recognize them as symptoms of a nihilistic nation obsessed with limiting the distribution of money and opportunity.
A brutal and unflinching book, Last Exit to Brooklyn is a must read, a harrowing tale of people left behind by a first world power.
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
What? you might ask. You’re seriously including this book on a list of transgressive books? There’s nothing transgressive or controversial about it. Hemingway the writer is about as milquetoast as they come.
After nearly a century in the Western Canon, and diluted by thousands of imitators and works derived from Hemingway’s first published novel, The Sun Also Rises has lost its edge. Our culture is now far more violent, intoxicated, and promiscuous than the characters and events depicted in this novel. When taken together, these two elements have softened this novel’s blow.
But if you view it through the lens of America in the 1920s, you might understand the shock and controversy The Sun Also Rises elicited on its publication.
Women had won the vote less than a decade earlier, the nation was segregated, it was dominated by strict patriarchal, Christian tenets. Sex was something you performed out of sight, without discussing it. The prohibition was still in effect, puritans having won an amendment outlawing alcohol. In a polite society, men and women didn’t drink, have loose and reckless sex, or cavort without consideration for the good of society. Although these points don’t describe the real America, they do describe the ideal America, and people always emphasize the ideal while ignoring or overlooking the real.
Featuring promiscuous men and women who drank and bounced from partner to partner, women who ‘swore and behaved unladylike, like men,’ The Sun Also Rises was like a grenade tossed into the tent of polite society. It was a book by and for young people. The older generations hated it. Even Hemingway’s mother denounced it. In a letter to her son, she wrote
It is a doubtful honor to produce one of the filthiest books of the year …. What is the matter? Have you ceased to be interested in nobility, honor and fineness in life? …. Surely you have other words in your vocabulary than “damn” and “bitch”—Every page fills me with a sick loathing.
It was a rallying cry for a generation uprooted and traumatized by the most violent war the world had ever seen. Written in concise prose, subtle, and, at times, beautiful, The Sun Also Rises is a masterpiece of transgressive fiction. The decades may have eroded its controversy, but it still deserves a place on this list.
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
(Random House, 1952)
One of the great masterpieces and works of literary art of the American Empire, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man portrays life as an African American in the first half of the twentieth century.
Indebted to Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground and Joyce’s Ulysses, Invisible Man is narrated by an unnamed African American who has escaped society to dwell in an underground room.
He tells of his life as an invisible man, a person neglected and dismissed, hated and scorned by a society dominated by white people who accept the fallacy of race and racial inferiority and superiority. This novel exposes hatred and bigotry and conveys it to audiences—some of whom are white—who can’t possibly encounter the kind of hatred and dismissal African-Americans experience on a minute-by-minute basis.
Told in a rich, beautiful voice—Ellison was one of the twentieth century’s great prose stylists—Invisible Man subjects its audience to brutal acts of violence, racism, and repression.
It’s a deeply humane novel published in the days of segregation and public lynchings. And it asks for one thing: that we acknowledge the existence of every human being, that we treat everyone, even those shunned or on the fringes, as we ourselves expect others to treat us.
Heliogabalus, or the Crowned Anarchist by Antonin Artaud
(Original Publisher unknown, written in 1933)
Antonin Artaud was a French actor and theoretician of theater. His influence on theater is still felt. In his time, and in the generations to follow, he developed a rallying cry for avant-garde theatre. As a result, he forever altered the course of even mainstream theater.
For a time, he was a member of the surrealists, but he had a falling out with several members, including Andre Breton, the founder and totalitarian of the group. Although his writings bear certain hallmarks of surrealism, his style and voice are uniquely his own. He was such a singular and original writer, in fact, that no analogue exists. You simply can’t compare him or his writings to any other writer, before or since.
Artaud suffered from mental illness. His writings largely constituted a transcript of his rapidly deteriorating mind. In them, you’ll find beauty and madness as he focuses on his mental struggles and unknowingly disconnects from the human world.
Heliogabalus, or the Crowned Anarchist is a work of unrelenting madness. Ostensibly a biography of an obscure Roman Emperor, Heliogabalus dwells on esoteric—probably fictionalized—religious rituals. It also makes outlandish claims and assertions for which no evidence exists. Historians routinely dismiss this book as ahistorical gibberish—and it is. But it’s beautiful and insane gibberish.
It’s a descent into madness and Artaud’s deteriorating brain is our guide.
Nietzsche argued that philosophy books conveyed information about, and biases held by, the people writing them. Instead of exploring objective truth, Nietzsche claimed, a work of philosophy did little more than to reveal the personality of the philosopher. I accept his argument, and it’s no clearer and easy to infer than by reading Heliogabalus, or the Crowned Anarchist. This isn’t a book about a spoiled Emperor. It’s about a brilliant writer unknowingly producing a transcript of his decaying mind.
Finnegans Wake by James Joyce
(Faber and Faber, 1939)
Written over a 17 year period while Joyce battled problems with his eyesight, Finnegans Wake is unlike any book ever written. It’s big, dense, and written in an idioglossia composed of as many as 70 actual languages,
Finnegans Wake is at times an impenetrable novel. Experts have analyzed it and interpreted it for decades. Although they seem to broadly agree on some characters and the overarching ‘plot,’ if that word even applies here, much of this book remains enigmatic.
While Ulysses occurred in a single day, Joyce intended his followup to occur in a single night. With language both spellbinding and infuriating, it’s a difficult novel to approach. Contrary to some claims, however, it isn’t unreadable, but it does take effort. Such effort can yield breathtaking and poetic passages, such as this
Sniffer of carrion, premature gravedigger, seeker of the nest of evil in the bosom of a good word, you, who sleep at our vigil and fast for our feast, you with your dislocated reason, have cutely foretold, a jophet in your own absence, by blind poring upon your many scalds and burns and blisters, impetiginous sore and pustules, by the auspices of that raven cloud, your shade, and by the auguries of rooks in parlament, death with every disaster, the dynamatisation of colleagues, the reducing of records to ashes, the levelling of all customs by blazes, the return of a lot of sweetempered gunpowdered didst unto dudst but it never stphruck your mudhead’s obtundity (O hell, here comes our funeral! O pest, I’ll miss the post!) that the more carrots you chop, the more turnips you slit, the more murphies you peel, the more onions you cry over, the more bullbeef you butch, the more mutton you crackerhack, the more potherbs you pound, the fiercer the fire and the longer your spoon and the harder you gruel with more grease to your elbow the merrier fumes your new Irish stew.
I’ve read the book twice and I don’t pretend to understand it. From my personal experience, however, I find it hilarious. In fact, when people ask me for the title of the funniest book I’ve ever read, I always cite Finnegans Wake.
The cobbled language produces portmanteaux and puns that strike you as funny on a visceral level. You might not be able to articulate why a phrase or passage is funny, but many passages throughout this book will have you laughing out loud.
So why’s this, of all books, on the list? Isn’t Ulysses more explicitly transgressive? In its content, it probably is; however, with Finnegans Wake Joyce transgressed living natural human language and the appearances and mechanics of storytelling. Under those conditions, this book remains so transgressive that, eight decades later, no one fully understands it.
Faggots by Larry Kramer
(Random House, 1978)
Fred Lemish is a gay man looking for love in a subculture shunned and condemned by society. In a time when gay men still lived on the fringes, forced to hide their sexuality for fear of persecution—or worse—many men chose to forego relationships for anonymous sex with fleeting partners.
Published in 1978, before the AIDS epidemic ravaged many gay communities, Faggots is a stark and brutally honest portrayal of the underbelly of the gay community in New York. It’s filled with hedonism, drug use and abuse, violence, and graphic sex scenes.
Some scenes in this book might repulse those who are in uninitiated in the variety of sexual fetishes and desires. It’s a no-holds-barred look at sex and drug use on the fringe of an already fringe group.
At its core, however, Faggots is a moving and human book about love—wanting to be in love and wanting to feel that love reciprocated. It’s also an indictment of a society that prides itself on inclusiveness, morality, and empathy while condemning anyone who deviates from the norm.
Faggots is brutal in its unflinching depiction of life on the edges of a so-called free society. It’s also a landmark book, perhaps more responsible for ushering in the era of gay literature than any other book. It’s as important a cultural artifact as Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. In a sense, both books depict human beings rendered invisible by a society claiming to accept everyone.
A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick
People who are aware of Philip K. Dick seem to fall into two camps: those who know him only as a science fiction writer whose works have been adapted to films and television and those who know him as a drug-eating philosophical mystic who experienced either a numinous moment or a psychotic break.
For those in the first camp, A Scanner Darkly‘s depiction of the dark side of drug use might subvert, or even pervert, their understanding of who Dick was.
This is a deceptively complex novel. It deals with notions of personality, the impermanent nature of subjective reality, and the toll drugs take on the human psyche.
PKD was active in the facet of the 60s subculture that freely used drugs and “expanded consciousness.” Toward the end of his life, he discussed drugs with openness and honesty. He touched on his use in frank terms and lamented the many young people he knew who went insane or died as a result of their drug use.
“Everything in A Scanner Darkly I actually saw,” Dick once said. It’s a stark and dark appraisal of the idealism of the 60s that fueled the drug culture. The paranoia, the psychosis, the breaks from conventional society, and suicide depicted in this book are often the consequences lighter fare, such as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or Cheech and Chong comedies dismiss or overlook.
On writing this, he referred to it as his “anti-dope” book. A Scanner Darkly emphasizes the terror and self-loathing concomitant to excessive drug use. It’s the flip side of stoner comedies. Although it contains science fiction elements and is a sort of alternate history, at its core it’s a book about the effects drugs had on an entire generation.
Arguably one of Dick’s best novels, A Scanner Darkly is an interesting entry into the subset of transgressive fiction. It’s a novel that illustrates the consequences of dealing with social norms imposed on you by escaping into your head with the help of powerful, and sometimes fatal, narcotics.
Stayed tuned for part three, 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.