Although the term "transgressive fiction" was coined a mere 20 years ago by critic Michael Silverblatt, this mode of shocking storytelling is contemporaneous with civilization, and in fact the very oldest extant novel, The Golden Ass, is often cited as a transgressive work. In a sense, then, literary history began with transgressiveness. The roots of all storytelling are manured in rebellion.
Basically, this type of fiction concerns itself with pushing boundaries, with violating consensual paradigms of behavior, taste, and morals, with overturning and even defiling common pieties and beliefs, and with deranging the senses and contravening the rules of the universe. If the majority of fiction exists in a law-abiding matrix of establishment-endorsed behaviors and beliefs—exists partially in order to affirm that matrix—then transgressive fiction is the outlaw branch of literature, whose purpose is to denounce, overturn, and destroy such a matrix—if only for the duration of the novel's unfolding.
My own interest in transgressive fiction began in my early teens, and when I became a writer I was determined to perform at least a few such outrages.
In the 1960s, my parents subscribed to the offerings of the infamous Grove Press. These explosive volumes were carefully sequestered beneath piles of clothing in their bedroom closet—or, in other words, the first place an inquisitive youth would look for proscribed items. I encountered the work of de Sade—never really to my taste, but intriguing—and such pornographic classics as The Way of a Man with a Maid. While not all porn is necessarily transgressive, this one certainly was. Another Grove reprint, Under the Hill by Aubrey Beardsley, fit the bill as well.
Meanwhile my passion for science fiction and fantasy novels continued to run in parallel with this outlaw reading. Philip José Farmer, noted for his proto-transgressiveness in such books as The Lovers, burst forth unfettered in Image of the Beast and Blown. Around the same time, J. G. Ballard delivered The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash into my receptive hands. Not long after, starting with my encounter with his novella "Final War" in the pages of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, I began to seek out the quintessentially transgressive novels of Barry Malzberg, such as Beyond Apollo. And certainly many of Philip K. Dick's novels of this period, such as The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch andUbik, displayed a kind of daring ontological and epistemological transgressiveness, even if they did not offer sexual hijinks or ultra-violence. And one cannot forget the Harlan Ellison–edited anthologies, Dangerous Visions and Again, Dangerous Visions, whose actual explicit remit was the taboo.
But the definitive moment when the transgressive mode crystallized for me was when I encountered Samuel R. Delany's Tides of Lust in 1973. Famous for his science fiction and an object of my intense admiration, Delany leaped the genre fences with this novel full of sex, drugs, and the occult, and delineated the second half of his career that would be almost entirely transgressive, featuring such controversial novels asDhalgren, Hogg, The Mad Man, and Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders.
Raptly reading and re-reading Tides of Lust, I knew I had a template and a vision for books I might one day write myself.
In college I encountered fascinating and formative transgressive works from William S. Burroughs, Thomas Pynchon, and Charles Bukowski, all of which heightened my understanding of this worldview. But in the genre of fantastika, such aberrant nose-thumbing and pants-dropping books seemed on the decline. As the sixties receded, so too did many of the antiestablishment impulses and niches, and by the time Kathy Acker began to make a name for herself with her own phantasmagorically transgressive works in the 1980s, her books could only hover at the edges of an increasingly commercialized genre.
In 1985, having sold a handful of stories, I embarked on my novel Ciphers, my first foray into transgressive mode. Modeled on Gravity's Rainbow, this conspiracy novel featured a menu of bestiality; hyperbolic racism, sexism, and ethnic stereotypes; Catch-22–style absurdist corruption; and religious heresies—all to a rock 'n' roll beat.
Although I was satisfied with this novel as an expression of my skills and interests at the time, I felt it failed to capture the mode as deftly as I had always envisioned. Nearly 20 more years would pass before I felt competent to write A Mouthful of Tongues—the book I had been gestating since encountering Tides of Lust 30 years earlier. More tightly focused on a small cast and singular venue, this novel explores human biology in queasy metamorphic fashion. I suppose it's in direct line of descent from The Golden Ass! To my humble delight, I was able to elicit a blurb from Delany himself for the book, thus completing a circle of causality.
Only six years intervened until Cosmocopia appeared—a book dear to my heart, which will now happily have a fine ebook edition from Open Road Media. Cosmocopia takes a human traveler across a dimensional barrier into an alien society which is utterly sane and functional and commonplace on its own merits, but which to human eyes is a nightmare of confusion and disgust. Transgressiveness is surely in the eyes of the beholder!
What does the future hold for this type of literature?
On first glance, transgressive fiction might begin to look obsolescent, facing what might be termed the "anything goes" barrier, employing a reference to the famous Cole Porter song. In an era when S & M is mainstream, when transgender models grace the cover of TIME magazine, and when the most cynical realpolitik principles are brazenly enacted in fields of blood, then what cherished paradigms are left to overturn? How can readers be shocked any longer?
I think it remains possible to write transgressively. Pieties and conventional wisdoms and beloved icons always exist, even if they shift their forms and names. It's simply necessary to identify them before skewering them. Helen DeWitt gives us Lightning Rods, which posits corporate sex workers who defuse executive tensions. William Vollmann gives us necrophiliac romance in Last Stories. Steve Aylett overturns heroism and the very science of storytelling in his Beerlight books. Ryu Murakami plunges into the sex clubs of Tokyo with In the Miso Soup. Simply identifying and inverting the mealymouthed platitudes of humanism and social justice could provide endless work for transgressive authors.
As for myself, my novel in progress, Up Around the Bend, can best be categorized as "postapocalyptic, utopian, UFO-centric pornography."
And if that's not transgressive, I don't know what is!