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Absurdist fiction is a genre of narrative (traditionally, literature), most often employed in novels, plays, poems, and films, that focuses on the experiences of characters in a situation where they cannot find any inherent purpose in life, most often represented by ultimately meaningless actions and events that call into question the certainty of existential concepts such as truth or value. Common elements in absurdist fiction include satire, dark humour, incongruity, the abasement of reason, and controversy regarding the philosophical condition of being "nothing." Works of absurdist fiction often explore agnostic or nihilistic topics.
While a great deal of absurdist fiction may be humorous or irrational in nature, the hallmark of the genre is neither comedy nor nonsense, but rather, the study of human behavior under circumstances (whether realistic or fantastical) that appear to be purposeless and philosophically absurd. Absurdist fiction posits little judgment about characters or their actions; that task is left to the reader. Also, the "moral" of the story is generally not explicit, and the themes or characters' realizations—if any —are often ambiguous in nature. Additionally, unlike many other forms of fiction, absurdist works will not necessarily have a traditional plot structure (i.e., rising action, climax, falling action, etc.).
The absurdist genre grew out of the modernist literature of the late 19th and early 20th century in direct opposition to the Victorian literature which was prominent just prior to this period. It was largely influenced by the existentialist and nihilist movements in philosophy, and the Dada and surrealist movements in art.
Psychologists at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the University of British Columbia published a report in 2009 showing that reading absurdist tales improved test subjects' ability to find patterns. Their findings summarized that when people have to work to find consistency and meaning in a fragmented story, it increases “the cognitive mechanisms responsible for implicitly learning statistical regularities.”
Examples of notable absurdist fiction writers include Samuel Beckett (for instance, with Waiting for Godot), Ferdydurke, by Witold Gombrowicz, Albert Camus, Nikolai Gogol, Franz Kafka (for instance, with "The Metamorphosis," The Trial, and The Castle), and Jean-Paul Sartre. Specific absurdist works include Joseph Heller's Catch-22; Thomas Pynchon's V.; the plays of Eugène Ionesco, like The Bald Soprano and The Lesson; and some early plays of Harold Pinter, Edward Albee, and Tom Stoppard (like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead); as well as Jára Svěrák's "The Lying Student."
- Greig E. Henderson and Christopher Brown,Glossary of Literary Theory, University of Toronto, 31 March 1997.
- Cornwell, Neil (2006), The Absurd in Literature, New York, NY: Manchester University Press, ISBN 978-0-7190-7409-7
- Tom Jacobs, This Is Your Brain on Kafka, Pacific Standard, 16 September 2009.
- Cromwell, Neil (2006). The Absurd in Literature. Manchester University Press. pp. 2–3, 45, 186–7.
- Abrams, M. H.; Harpham, Geoffrey (2013). "Literature of the Absurd". A Glossary of Literary Terms. Cengage Learning. pp. 2–3.