15 Experimental Books that Bend the Rules on Craft

Abstract image of swirling colors representing experimental books

Experimental books can mean all sorts of different things to different readers, but that’s exactly why they’re so special: their difference. Imagine how boring books would be if all authors wrote homogenously. Luckily, there are masters of the craft who are so good at what they do that they can bend, break, shatter, and hell, even reinvent the rules. Of course, you should know the rules before you break them. That’s a given, and that’s why we as aspiring authors take the time to attend writing courses and summer workshops and MFA programs. But when it’s done right? You get true works of genius; a masterful exploration of the form. Mwah. Chef’s kiss.

1. House of Leaves - Best immersive, mind-bending, form-shattering experience

2. Ella Minnow Pea: A Novel in Letters - Best experiment in language

3. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time - Best uplifting experimental book

4. Cloud Atlas - Best experiment in time travel

5. Ulysses - Best original, avant-garde masterpiece

On this reading list, you will find fifteen of our favorite experimental books that play with form, structure, length, genre, language, story, character, and more, inventing new rules around what a novel really should look like and how its readers should interact with its material. While some of these experimental books are definitely more challenging to read than others, all of them sparked literary conversation at the time of publishing and united a wave of obsessed readers. Open your mind, sit back, and enjoy.

1. American Psycho

By Bret Easton Ellis

American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

This is one of the few books I’ve read that had my jaw on the floor. Its mundane scenes set in the corporate landscape of 1980s New York are drastically (and literally) slashed against some pretty brutal, yet strangely sleek murder scenes performed by our anti-hero, Patrick Bateman, that unfold like an experimental stream of consciousness. Plus, it has one of the greatest final lines in modern American literature: “This is not an exit.”

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2. City on Fire

By Garth Risk Hallberg

City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg

Following a cast of characters in New York in the run-up to the infamous city-wide blackout of July 13th, 1977, this 900-page book explores everyday lives in unexpected ways. Some of its texts include epistolary handwritten letters, investigative reports, and a punk rock zine. Long, wild, but somehow easy enough to digest via its thoroughly human themes of love and loss.

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3. A Clockwork Orange

By Anthony Burgess

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

Disturbed youth Alex talks in catchy slang (“real horrorshow”) that elevates a seedy, criminal underworld to a place where language reinvents itself. A shocking, controversial experiment into the boundaries of language, violence, good, and evil. A must-read for lovers of experimental books.

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4. Cloud Atlas

By David Mitchell

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

A universal narrative that catapults through time and space, this novel progresses, then shift-reverses to its starting point. A true experiment in the space-time continuum, Cloud Atlas is a novel that turns the time travel trope on its head and delivers something unique and uplifting.

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5. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

By Mark Haddon

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

Told through the voice of autistic British teenager Christopher John Francis Boone, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time does a marvelous job of pairing complicated mathematical equations, London train station signage, long lists, a whodunnit filled with red herrings à la Agatha Christie, and a curious aversion to the color yellow. A contemporary classic, and a pretty wonderful stage play, too.

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6. Ella Minnow Pea: A Novel in Letters

By Mark Dunn

Ella Minnow Pea: A Novel in Letters by Mark Dunn

In the fictional town of Nollop, South Carolina, the alphabet is under theat. As letters fall from the pangram “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog,” the inscription on the town’s memorial statue,  its residents are banned from using said letters. Dunn skillfully removes the letters from the novel as the story progresses, resulting in an experiment in language that is unexpectedly moving and beautiful.

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7. Girl, Woman, Other

By Bernardine Evaristo

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

This Booker Prize-winning novel often reads like poetry: mellifluous, fast-paced, and multi-layered. Featuring the voice of twelve English women possessing multiple identities and lives, Girl, Woman, Other was praised for its original portrayal of London and modern British society.

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8. House of Leaves

By Mark Z. Danielewski

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

This immersive horror story is almost impossible to explain, but I’ll give it a go. A family moves into a small house that proves to hold vast sinister secrets within. The unconventional order, narrative jumps, and patchwork structure only makes it that much more terrifying.

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9. Invisible Monsters Remix

By Chuck Palahniuk

Invisible Monsters Remix by Chuck Palahniuk

From the author of Fight Club (one of our recommended plot twist books) comes a wildly playful, chapter-jumping journey into the  filled with fiction, fact, secrets, and misdirection. This is a forey into the world of fashion that you won’t forget in a while. Interestingly, this novel was pared back when it first came out. The “Remix” version restores it to its original subversive state.

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10. Long Way Down

By Jason Reynolds

Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds

With a gun in the waistband of his jeans as he rides an elevator, will the main character, a tormented teenager, ever pull the trigger? This is a masterpiece in crots, i.e. short, sharp, staccato narrative verse (and often single words or sentences) that unfolds on the way down an elevator shaft, revealing multiple narrative layers over multiple floors.

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11. Mrs Dalloway

By Virginia Woolf

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Considered one of the finest works in stream of consciousness and a searing, intelligently-crafted look at one person’s changeable mental state, Mrs Dalloway chronicles a single day on the life of wealthy Londoner, Clarissa Dalloway, as she prepares for a society party.

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12. Some of Us Are Very Hungry Now

By Andre Perry

Some of Us Are Very Hungry Now by Andre Perry

This essay collection comprises personal reflection on identity, racism, and belonging. But it’s how these essays are presented that make Some of Us Are Very Hungry Now truly unique: through multiple choice questions, screenplays, imagined talk-show conversations, all of which are interspersed with brutally honest and captivating prose.

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13. Special Topics in Calamity Physics

By Marisha Pessl

Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

This incredible debut novel is written as an English syllabus, with citations, footnotes, and references to (often fictional) sources, as the heroine tries to figure out a murder mystery at her school. It also includes illustrations and visual aids from the author. This entry is well deserving of our experimental books list.

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14. Ulysses

By James Joyce

Ulysses by James Joyce

Nothing truly upended the novel more than James Joyce’s modern masterpiece, which, along with T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, became the poster child for modernism in the early 1920s. Unfolding over a single day, Ulysses uses the structure of Homer’s Odyssey to reflect the lives of the Dublin working class. It is a struggle to read, but well worth it!

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15. Watchmen

By Alan Moore

Watchmen by Alan Moore

Not a conventional novel, yet not a comic book, either, Watchmen is perhaps the perfect graphic novel: an upending of the superhero trope, a visual representation of the human fall, and a truly postmodern work that has enthralled readers and popularized the graphic novel form with the masses.

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1 thought on “15 Experimental Books that Bend the Rules on Craft”

  1. A good collection (at least those that I’ve read and you’ve given me some good leads! ) I would suggest Nabokov’s Pale Fire, Bely’s St. Petersburg, and Cortazar’s Hopscotch if you wish to extend this list to 20. Three of the most dazzlingly structured novels of the 20th Century.

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