Tristram Shandy is, almost beyond argument, the most unusual, outrageously experimental and subversive novel that most people who possess basic literacy skills could ever read. While James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake definitely outstrips this novel in terms of experimentation, the inescapable fact of the matter is that even those with the most advanced of literary degrees probably do understand half of what they claim to understand in that book. Tristram Shandy, by contrast, uses basic language construction to tell a fairly straightforward story capable of being understood fully by a large chunk of the English-speaking population. That being said, the novel is narrated by Tristram himself and commences with the story of his birth, but the title character then proceeds to completely disappear from its narrative progression for a ridiculously long period of time. But then that’s the whole point of Tristram Shandy: to point out the sham of the imposition of reality upon the distinctly unrealistic nature of the novel. Which was, at the time of its writing, a revolutionary new form of literary expression viewed with great suspicion and mistrust partly due to the lengths that many of its earliest proponents felt compelled to append onto their work in an effort to lend it an aura of factual authenticity.
By the time of its initial publication in 1759, the novel was still the stages of being the punk rock of literature. Prose was not considered as lofty a pursuit as poetry and the characters who stories were being told in novels were not the usual suspects populating beloved plays: novels had sailors getting shipwrecked on nearly deserted islands rather than Lords and Ladies and Kings and Queens and mythical tragic heroes. In order to attract readers, the concept of prefatory material was created which stood both apart from and as part of the fictional construction of the story. The preface took on the tone of a non-fictional introduction and analysis of the phony story to come, complete with endorsements by figures sporting respectable titles and academic degrees. The 0nly thing is that this prefatory material was every bit as much pure fiction as the story they were intended to lend some kind of realistic credence to. Laurence Sterne took to writing Tristram Shandy in part as a way to expose the inescapable reality that novels simply could not be realistic. Not in any real sense. And so, Tristram Shandy shuns, evades, challenges and parodies conventions of realistic expectations in a number of creative and entertaining ways.
The most immediately obvious flouting of novelistic conventions is the means by which the familiarity with existing birth-to-death style novels are upended. A novel titled Tristram Shandy would instantly result in the perception among readers of the time that they were going to open the book to read of Tristram’s birth and close the book either upon his death or a major point in his later life at which all travails had been finally put behind him. Tristram Shandy fulfills the first part of this covenant, but almost instantly fails to follow through. The fact is that Tristram spends 90% of the time telling history story going on off on ever more unrelated disgressions focusing on the wild adventures experienced by various forbears. The reader eventually learns more about the Shandy family than readers of other book ever learn about their titular character, but the knowledge gained of Tristram himself is in shockingly short supply.
As readers make their way through the digressive nature of Tristram Shandy, they are confronted with a inventive literary smackdowns of convention that many young people might find surprisingly familiar. The experimental nature of the novel inspired the stream-of-consciousness fiction that marked the 1920s, but the digressions, blank pages, change in fonts, diagrams and robust use of symbols makes reading Tristram Shandy an experience more akin to reading a blog or following someone on Facebook or Twitter than it does to trying to work one’s way through Finnegan’s Wake.
Ultimately, such a legacy is exactly what should have happened to Laurence Stern’s anti-novel. A book that set out to challenge every existing preconception of what a novel is or should be has never more righteously belonged to an age than the present one in which every existing preconception of what it means to communicate through publishing is being challenged in some new and exciting way nearly every day.