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Absurdist fiction is a genre of fictional narrative (traditionally, literary fiction), most often in the form of a novel, play, poem, or film, that focuses on the experiences of characters in situations 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 humor, incongruity, the abasement of reason, and controversy regarding the philosophical condition of being "nothing." Works of absurdist fiction often explore agnostic or nihilistic topics.
A great deal of absurdist fiction may be humorous or irrational in nature. The absurdist humor is described as a manner of comedy that relies on non-sequiturs, violation of causality, and unpredictable juxtapositions. However, 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 conventional elements of fiction such as plot, characterization, and development tend to be absent. Some scholars explain that this fiction entails a "going away from" a norm. There is also the case of the questioning of the validity of human reason, from which perceptions of the natural laws arise.
The absurdist fiction also does not seek to appeal to the so-called collective unconscious as it is fiercely individualistic and almost exclusively focuses on exploring an individual's or a being's subjective feelings of its existence.
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:
- Edward Albee
- Samuel Beckett (e.g., Waiting for Godot, The Unnamable)
- Albert Camus
- Fyodor Dostoyevsky
- Jean Genet (e.g., The Maids)
- Nikolai Gogol
- James Kelman (e.g., How Late It Was, How Late)
- Franz Kafka (e.g., "The Metamorphosis;" The Trial; The Castle)
- Haruki Murakami
- Jean-Paul Sartre
- Philip K. Dick (e.g., A Scanner Darkly)
- Kurt Vonnegut
- Kobo Abe
- Daniil Kharms
Individual absurdist works include:
- Dino Buzzati's The Tartar Steppe
- Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man
- Joseph Heller's Catch-22
- Thomas Pynchon's V.
- John Irving's "The World According to Garp"
- Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove
- Plays by Eugène Ionesco (e.g., The Bald Soprano; The Lesson)
- Some early plays of Harold Pinter
- D. Clark Gill’s “So Special in Dayville”
- Some works by Tom Stoppard (e.g., Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead)
- Witold Gombrowicz’s Cosmos
Examples of notable absurdist filmmakers include:
- Henderson, Greig E.; Brown, Christopher (March 31, 1997). "Glossary of Literary Theory - Absurdism". University of Toronto. Archived from the original on 2016-01-12.
- Cornwell, Neil (2006), The Absurd in Literature, New York, NY: Manchester University Press, ISBN 978-0-7190-7409-7
- Reinsch, Paul; Whitfield, Lynn; Weiner, Robert (2017). Python beyond Python: Critical Engagements with Culture. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan. p. 224. ISBN 9783319513843.
- Cai, Rong (2004). The Subject in Crisis in Contemporary Chinese Literature. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. p. 92. ISBN 0824827619.
- Harper, Graeme (2002). Comedy, Fantasy and Colonialism. London: Continuum. p. 111. ISBN 0826448666.
- Jacobs, Tom (16 September 2009). "This Is Your Brain on Kafka". Pacific Standard.
- Proulx, Travis; Heine, Steven J. (September 2009). "Connections From Kafka: Exposure to Meaning Threats Improves Implicit Learning of an Artificial Grammar". Psychological Science. 20 (9): 1125–1131. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02414.x.
- 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.
- Riddhiman, Basu (15 July 2011). "Absurdist Themes In The Virgin Spring". Retrieved 4 July 2016.
- Santander, Hugo N. (2002). "Luis Buñuel, Existential Filmmaker". Retrieved 4 July 2016.
- Conrad, Mark T. (1 March 2009). The Philosophy of the Coen Brothers. University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 978-0-8131-3869-5.
- Romney, Jonathan (2018). "Yorgos Lanthimos, director of The Lobster, on his wild, star-studded life of Queen Anne". Retrieved 9 December 2018.
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