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 Talk Dirty and Influence People by Lenny Bruce
(Playboy Publishing, 1965)
Perhaps the most important comedian of the twentieth century, Lenny Bruce introduced satire and social commentary to mainstream comedy. His career started as any other in the 1950s: telling jokes wherever he could—bars, strip clubs, fledgling nightclubs. His career started with a whimper as he told jokes typical of the time. But when he found his voice, he forever changed the face of comedy—and became a target for federal and local law enforcement and puritanical groups intent on preserving the bland discourse of totalitarian 50s America.
No topic was off the table or taboo for Bruce. He discussed sex and race relations, war, American imperialism, and the two-faced bigotry of the American Empire. In the age of McCarthyism and fanatical cultural authoritarianism, Lenny Bruce peppered his onstage banter with the unthinkable: mature content and swear words.
He quickly developed a reputation as a man willing to speak his mind, willing to engage in frank discourse on sex and politics, and to use words such as fuck, motherfucker, cocksucker freely. Freedom of speech wasn’t absolute in the 1950s and early 60s. The media acted as a mouthpiece for official government policy, the Red Scare ruined the careers of anyone suspected of communist sympathies, books were frequently banned, obscenity in any form was outlawed.
But Bruce didn’t care. He recognized the hypocrisy of the government, as well as the inherent meaninglessness of words. He was arrested numerous times for the content of his performances and became notorious as an outlaw and a threat to American decency. But his troubles with the law only strengthened his resolve. In the land of the free, he seemed to think, people have the right to freely discuss what they want, to use whichever words they choose to use. Suppressing words, he argued, is how they derived their power.
Well, I was just trying to make a point, and that is that it’s the suppression of the word that gives it the power, the violence, the viciousness.
As his legal troubles mounted, his mental illness deteriorated. He escaped the pressure applied by the government by shooting morphine, which ultimately killed him.
His performances were raw and honest, a slap in the face of Americans who insisted on phony decency. He was harassed, arrested, tormented. And his performances changed the face of American comedy and helped to shatter obscenity laws in this country.
He was a true transgressive, and his memoir encapsulates his spirit, his humor, and his foul mouth.
A Season in Hell by Arthur Rimbaud
(Originally self-published by Rimbaud in 1873)
The original enfant terrible of world literature, Arthur Rimbaud’s life is the stuff of legend. He revolutionized French literature while still a teenager, shattered the French insistence on traditional verse, introduced free verse to the nation, wrote revolutionary prose poems, and quit writing altogether—at the age of 21. He spent the remainder of his life running guns and seeking his fortune in Africa, forever turning his back on his youthful, revolutionary spirit.
Perhaps his greatest work, A Season in Hell (Une Saison en Enfer) reads as equal parts experimental fiction and poetic and symbolic autobiography. His love affair with the poet Paul Verlaine, often abusive, ended when Verlaine shot Rimbaud in the wrist and was eventually sent to prison for the “sin” of passive homosexuality.
A Season in Hell is Rimbaud’s attempt to make sense of the madness, the shooting, and his own life, poetry, predilections, and madness. Considered a masterpiece of world poetry, and perhaps the greatest prose poem ever written, A Season in Hell might be the product of an existential crisis triggered by his shooting.
Composed of nine parts, each examining a facet of his history, his life, his personality, his relationships, and his art, this prose poem is unlike anything produced before or since. Rimbaud was an idealist: he believed poetry could change him—and the world. After the shooting, when the starkness of life settled over him and shattered his idealism, his optimism waned. Shortly after composing A Season in Hell, he turned his back on literature.
Les Chants de Maldoror by Comte de Lautréamont (Isidore Ducasse)
(Originally published by Gustave Balitout, Questroy et Cie., 1868-69)
Few works in world history are as shocking and disturbing, hallucinogenic and phantasmagoric, disorienting and brilliant as Les Chants de Maldoror. Divided into six parts, or cantos, Maldoror is a prose poem of epic length, a work with no antecedents. It ostensibly follows an enigmatic man named Maldoror, a disturbed human who shuns all human morality and norms.
I am filthy. I am riddled with lice. Hogs, when they look at me, vomit. My skin is encrusted with the scabs and scales of leprosy, and covered with yellow pus.[…] A family of toads has taken up residence in my left armpit and, when one of them moves, it tickles. Mind one of them does not escape and come and scratch the inside of your ear with its mouth; for it would then be able to enter your brain. In my right armpit there is a chameleon which is perpetually chasing them, to avoid starving to death: everyone must live.[…] My anus has been penetrated by a crab; encouraged by my sluggishness, he guards the entrance with his pincers, and causes me a lot of pain.
Lautréamont predated the surrealists by a generation yet his works are filled with surreal imagery, scenes, creatures, and conversations. He eschews norms and traditions in ways later avant-garde groups would struggle to top. In fact, Lautréamont was critical to the development of surrealism. Andre Breton, the founder of the movement, cited a Lautréamont line as the impetus for his development of surrealism:
As beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table.
The surrealist writer Louis Aragon even modeled his “anti-novel” Paris Peasant on Les Chants de Maldoror.
If poets such as Baudelaire and Rimbaud fired mortars at convention, Comte de Lautréamont launched thermonuclear weapons. A century and a half later, Maldoror doesn’t fail to shock and disturb. It’s a masterpiece of madness, insanity, and, strangely, beauty.
Slaughterhouse-Five, or the Children’s Crusade by Kurt Vonnegut
Written during the height of the Vietnam War, Kurt Vonnegut’s polemic remains as important now as it did on its release. A biting satirist and cynic with science fiction sensibilities, Vonnegut possessed a sociologist’s eye and a talent for distilling the human condition to its profound absurdity.
In his best known, and probably greatest novel, Vonnegut wrote perhaps the definitive anti-war novel when he set Slaughterhouse-Five to paper. Experimental at its core, the novel only loosely follows traditional structure while telling a non-linear story. It follows the life of Billy Pilgrim, a young soldier in World War II who survived the deadly bombing of Dresden. When he’s abducted by aliens, he becomes unstuck in time and experiences his life—past, present, and future—almost simultaneously. Time for Billy has become non-linear: he experiences his marriage, his time in the war, and even his death over and over again.
Vonnegut was a moralist who abhorred the horrors of war and expressed cynicism and skepticism with regards to capitalism and nationalism—both root causes of war. Having himself survived the destruction of Dresden, which killed over 100,000 civilians, Vonnegut spent the rest of his life traumatized by that event.
Slaughterhouse-Five is an unequivocal condemnation of war. It’s also an expression of the human costs of violent conflict. Although until recently the trauma of war wasn’t treated as a mental illness. Now we know it for what it is: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In telling his story nonlinearly, it’s possible that Vonnegut set out to convey the experience of PTSD to those fortunate enough to have never experienced it. The non-linear way the story is told might reflect the confusion of time and experience those suffering from PTSD experience on a daily basis.
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
(William Heinemann, 1962)
Later in life, writer Anthony Burgess didn’t think fondly of this novel. He dreaded the thought of being remembered for A Clockwork Orange over his other novels. To a degree, Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation spoiled the novel for Burgess. The film also filled him with terror. By omitting the final chapter that appeared in the British edition of the novel, Kubrick’s film ended on a darker note, muddling the themes and intention of the novel. This was a book and film, Burgess feared, that could inspire violence.
Although violence is inextricably linked to the novel and the film, it’s not the central theme of the book. A Clockwork Orange is a condemnation of totalitarianism and the authoritarian tendency to enforce conformity at all costs, even if it means rewiring a citizen’s brain. This is an anti-authoritarian novel, a criticism of the government’s role in dictating the behavior of its citizens, especially the youth. In focusing on the behavior of unruly, even violent children, the state could establish precedents that, when normalized, could expand to all citizens.
A Clockwork Orange is a masterpiece. If you excluded the original final chapter, it’s nearly perfectly structured and paced. The prose is breathtaking and the youthful slang Burgess invented for his young characters—the so-called Nadsat—introduces us to a world both familiar and alien.
(As an aside, it’s interesting to note that Nadsat is rooted in the Russian Language. Since this novel was written and released during the early decades of the Cold War, I’ve long wondered if Nadsat itself is an allusion to the conflict between the Soviet Union and the West. Since the Soviet language has successfully penetrated the youth cultures in this novel, I’ve long wondered if it’s an expression of doubt that the West can win. All wars bleed into cultures. Successfully penetrating a culture could give the opposing side an edge. Since the Soviets in this world successfully penetrated British culture, perhaps the government’s insistence on re-programming its citizens is an attempt to crush Soviet influence. You should note that this is my interpretation, so take it lightly.)
Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs
(Olympia Press, Grove Press, 1959)
One of the most notorious books of the twentieth century, Naked Lunch is a world unto itself. Cobbled together from notes, stories, and gags Burroughs wrote over the years, often while under the influence of heroin, Naked Lunch is a novel in name only. It doesn’t follow a story, it’s not guided by plot, characters appear and disappear, sometimes they emerge but they never follow the hero’s journey or experience an arc.
This is less of a book and more of an experience. It’s a shocking, appalling, surreal trip into the mindset of drug psychosis. Filled with murder and explicit homosexual acts, obscene language and situations, pointed criticisms of America, the West, and capitalism, the book was an assault on everything the Western world held as decent and sacred.
Burroughs, a homosexual junky who accidentally killed his wife years earlier, did nothing to conceal his past or predilections. In condemning the novel, most people were also quick to condemn the author himself.
The book was so shocking that it was frequently banned. The ban was finally lifted as the result of a landmark trial, one that established absolute freedom of speech and of the press. As transgressive as this book remains, it’s important for another reason: it helped to break the United States’ habit of determining which material was or was not acceptable for public consumption.
Juliette by Marquis de Sade
No list of transgressive books could overlook or ignore Marquis de Sade. Two centuries later, his books still shock and offend. They’re even still banned in some countries. To even the most jaded modern readers, Sade’s works contain scenes or ideas so brutal that they’ll appall you, make you flinch, and haunt you.
Although not his most notorious novel—that distinction belongs to 120 Days of Sodom—Juliette is the distillation of every major theme, philosophical argument, and grotesquery Sade conceived in his life and letters. This nearly 1,300 page tome—the paperback edition is roughly the size of a small cinderblock—possess the power to interest and intrigue, provoke thought and induce repulsion.
It follows the story of a poor woman, Juliette, who climbs the social ladder by participating in and orchestrating appalling acts of sex and violence solely to entertain bored, depraved aristocrats and clergymen.
Well formulated and convincing philosophical dialogues complement the sickness and depravity. On one hand, this book—like all of Sade’s works—is a philosophical dialectic; on the other hand, it’s an exploration, even a celebration, of human beings most basest instincts and desires.
It’s a stunning, difficult, disgusting, mind-opening, and occasionally beautiful and empathetic book. It’s a masterpiece of world literature and the keystone to the most singular oeuvre in the history of the written word. This book, and Marquis de Sade, will forever remain transgression personified.
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.