A debut work that is explicitly identified as experimental--or in this case "unique and innovative," as the book's back cover has it--seems a useful opportunity to consider what "experimental" appears to signify to young writers aspiring to produce fiction worthy of that designation. Erin Pringle's story collection The Floating Order (Two Ravens Press) offers such an opportunity, and while I have some reservations about classifying it as experimental, I nevertheless found this book an impressive set of stories. It is certainly not an ordinary first work of "literary fiction" and for that reason alone commends itself to readers looking for more than the pallid and derivative exercises in convention most such fiction has to offer.
If an immediately observable characteristic of "experimental fiction" is an implicit questioning of the centrality of "story," with its attendant requirements of "exposition," "narrative arc," "backstory," etc., then The Floating Order initially meets this expectation. A few of the stories do ultimately include moments of action--even rather extreme action--but most of them either proceed in the absence of a chartable narrative line or in effect take place in a discursive zone in which the important events have already happened, the protagonist, frequently the narrator and frequently a child, continuing on while unavoidably returning to these events in a fragmentary and oblique way. The reader is asked to suspend final comprehension of the nature and the consequences of these events, but the gradual realization of their full import has a quietly powerful effect.
The collection's first, and title, story is a good example of this approach. Narrated by a woman who has, we ultimately determine, drowned her own children (a situation no doubt inspired by the Andrea Yates case), the "story" unfolds as a kind of spontaneous emanation of the narrator's disturbed mind, circling around the deed but not quite confronting it, freely shifting from past to present, often speaking of the dead children as if they were still alive. The story doesn't so much plumb the depths of the character's insanity as it spills that insanity onto the page through the narrator's free associations of memory--however dissociated--and detail. Ultimately the jumbled, distorted pieces of the story cohere into an affecting account of the narrator's troubles, and the impact is only heightened by the incremental way in which the horror of her experience is revealed.
"The Floating Order" also exemplifies the prevailng prose style of the stories in this book, a style that reflects a certain ingenuousness in the characters' perspective expressed in unadorned language:
I asked the policeman if he'd like some juice, as we were out of milk. He was polite. I explained that my babies are saved. He held my hand and opened the car door for me. Natalie sat in the passenger seat and played with the radio dials. I told her to stop it. The policeman asked who I was talking to. I wouldn't explain. My husband has such high hopes.
Many of the stories are narrated by a child, for whom this sort of low-affect discourse seems well-suited in its guilelessness, but it also has an almost hypnotic effect when applied to damaged adult characters like this one. The occasional shocks it delivers as revelatory images and bits of information punctuate the narrator's recitation effectively substitute for straightforward plot progression.
The author wisely chose to present what is perhaps the volume's best story first, but the next several stories are also quite good, reinforcing the themes and the narrative strategy introduced in "The Floating Order." "Cats and Dogs" relates the predicament of two abandoned children (the father is in prison), the nature of that predicament revealed in the same piecemeal fashion; in "Looker," a father struggles to convey to his daughter what her now dead mother was like as a young woman, although again we have to infer she is dead through indirect references ("Your mother shouldn't have smoked"); "Losing, I Think" fitfully unfolds a story of a mother raising a child without the assistance of a mostly elusive father; in "Sanctuary," a mover while transporting a piano from a church finds the corpse of a young girl inside it.
These stories establish an atmosphere of menace and foreboding that permeates the book and that the style and structure introduced in the first few stories evoke especially well. Children are portrayed as particularly vulnerable to the hazards of the adult world, and thus most of the stories in The Floating Order feature children, either as narrators or important characters, attempting to cope with the consequences of human weakness, or in some cases with what seems the random drift of existence. The second half of the book is not as effective as the first, featuring some stories that are a little too sensational ("Why Jimmy?"), too melodramatic ("Drift") or tug a little too much at the heartstrings ("And Yet"), but the best stories show a young writer seeking to reveal uncomfortable truths and challenge complacent reading habits.
However, I'm not sure "experimental" would be the appropriate term to use in characterizing Erin Pringle's fiction as represented in The Floating Order. Ultimately the stories work to create an overarching depiction of the lives of children in present-day America, and, the honesty of the depiction notwithstanding, this is a project all too familiar in first books (and sometimes later ones as well) by American writers. To the extent that the book does take risks in style and form, it does so, or so it seems to me, in order to first of all advance this project, the "content" elevated above formal experiment. I don't necessarily say this is a flaw in the book, although I do say that the effort to "capture" childhood in fiction has become rather hackneyed and that while The Floating Order surpasses most other efforts in this sub-genre of literary fiction, it tacks hard enough in the direction of "saying something" about childhood in America in purely sociological terms that I have to regard whatever is "experimental" in the book as secondary to this larger purpose of locating the stories within the sub-genre, however "dark" they may be.
In my opinion truly experimental or innovative or adventurous fiction attempts to expand the possibilities of fiction as a literary form and does so for the sake of the form itself, not to amplify social or cultural criticism or to intervene in philosophical debates (although these things might be an indirect effect, as is often enough the case in all worthwhile fiction). To question whether The Floating Order really signals that Erin Pringle will consistently produce such aesthetically challenging fiction, however, is not at all to diminish its achievement or deny its satisfactions.