Two post-World War II novels that seem to me to belong to a tradition of "experimental fiction"--fiction that deliberately and self-consciously manipulates what are taken to be the established conventions of the form and thus provide a fresh perspective on the possibilities of the form--and that together perform a similar kind of experiment with traditional, linear narrative, are Nabokov's Pale Fire and Julio Cortazar's Hopscotch, the latter of which I have just re-read. In each case these novels jumble the order in which the parts of a prose narrative are expected to be related, each allowing the reader several different ways to put the narrative together in the process of reading it.
Pale Fire's initial gambit is to derive its "story" from the critical annotations to a poem presented as the novel's ostensible subject. The real story, however, emerges from the annotations themselves, shifting the focus to the circumstances and life-story of the annotator. But the annotations can be read either in the numbered order in which they occur, or one can follow the internal references and "jump around" in the notes until this buried narrative has been completely revealed. Hopscotch does something similar, offering up its story either as a series of linear episodes and an additional series of appended episodes and commentaries beginning roughly two-thirds of the way into the book, or as another version of the same story as revealed when read according to an alternative number map (the numbers of the episodes) provided by the author. One can "hopscotch" one's way through the text--as can be done with Pale Fire as well.
Thus, both novels offer the reader multiple perspectives on the core narrative, creating a kind of prismatic effect by which the narrative itself becomes less important and the way in which it can be put together, the way in which it can be "seen," takes precedence. In each, the underlying story remains the same, but the experience of reading it will be different depending on which route through it the reader chooses to take. Implicitly, each novel suggests to us that a story is just a story, but that the way it is told, the way it is constructed (in this case as much by the reader as by the author) is what finally matters--what finally contributes the "art" to literary art.
Stories are held in common by novels, plays, films, tv shows, video games. Surely it can't be the story alone, even if it is skillfully told, that commends a given work of fiction to us as worthy of our consideration. Most stories are, in fact, usually told with more immediacy of effect in these other forms than in novels and short stories. (My impression, as I have commented in previous posts, is that all too many current novels are written primarily under the hope they might eventually be made into movies. They are, in effect, movies presented through other means--certainly not through the belief that novels have a distinctive approach to story that can't be duplicated in movies.) A compelling narrative may hold one's attention during the process of its unfolding, but this in itself doesn't make it literature.
Experimental fiction does its job in reminding us of this fact. Sometimes, as is the case with both Pale Fire and Hopscotch, in doing so it also results in a fully satisfying work of literary art that will continue to stand up to subsequent readings by new generations of interested readers. At other times the experiment leaves us feeling it was interesting as an experiment, but didn' quite rise to this next level. (I would put John Barth's Letters in this category, for example, as well as Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves.) But we usually know when an author is attempting a literary experiment of the sort I am discussing, as opposed simply to trying out a new way of accomplishing an already existing set of familiar aesthetic goals--which is not, of course, itself something to be lightly dismissed.