The Strike Delivers a Multi-Sensory Reading Experience

Given all the new forms of storytelling competing for our attention, isn’t it time for the oldest form of storytelling--the written word--to undergo an evolution? This is what Harvey Thomlinson aims to do in his ambitious experimental novel The Strike.

The story revolves around a strike at the Bright Moon power plant in a Chinese factory town and is told by a revolving cast of narrators. Thomlinson’s style, in which he deliberates toys with the sentence structure in order to disrupt the way we as readers typically process meaning, mirrors the ways in which the strike has disrupted these characters’ lives.

Just as we expect sentences to flow in a particular way as we are reading a text, we expect our lives to follow a similarly predictable structure. When we experience an economic recession or political chaos, we feel off-kilter. Thomlinson’s disorienting style evokes within us a deep empathy with the characters. We experience their despair in the face of the crumbling economy and unease at what the future holds.

Don’t let the word “experimental” scare you away, though. In Thomlinson’s case, “experimental” does not mean “impenetrable.” His language is engaging and even playful at times, while his use of suspense drives the story forward.

The compelling cast of characters includes Old Yu, a banner artist who is reluctantly roped into helping with the strike, Xu Yue, a young sex worker who longs for love, and “controversial entrepreneur” Meizhu, whose drive and ambition puts men in a jealous frenzy.

While I did have a little trouble following the storyline at first, I quickly became absorbed in the characters and the immersive world that Thomlinson creates. In fact, it’s precisely through the unusual use of language that we get pulled into the story.

The experimental style helps us get to know the characters on an intimate level because it realistically reflects the way people think. Most writers reveal characters’ thoughts and provide descriptions in isolation. For instance, one paragraph will revolve around a character’s feelings and then the next paragraph will describe the setting.

Thomlinson, though, takes a more fluid approach, weaving together the external and internal in a single sentence: “Mrs Zhang was depressed purple leaves scattered along austere avenue because the wind was strong few of her friends were in the park.” Not only does the structure of the sentence capture the way in which external stimuli is continually interfering with our thoughts, but the image of the leaves blowing in the wind emphasizes her emotional state.

The imagery is ornate yet palpable, creating a dynamic environment that you can crawl inside: “As she wiped up the mess her thoughts drifted for nostalgic nourishment back to that warm brick hut lined with cardboard the dumplings were filled too fat. She floated in spirit along the small dirt track ran past a lot of smoke blackened boxes during summer wild flowers had blossomed there. She saw Dongmei as a child reading on the big red chest before her father died cooking smells filled the room.” Not only are the descriptions vivid, but they demonstrate how memories and observations often bleed into one another.

Thomlinson skillfully uses sensory details to pinpoint sensations that are difficult to capture in ordinary language: “When her eyes opened she couldn’t breathe sometimes they turned up the heating so high she saw chairs with spaces inbetween.” While the causality is unclear, sometimes the room temperature can affect our vision!

In an interview with Tantra Bensko, author of the Agents of the Nevermind psychological suspense series, Thomlinson states that his goal in subverting the way we normally process meaning in literature is not to be clever or deliberately elusive, but to “create literary forms that deliver a more thrilling aesthetic experience for readers, a transformative sense of something big being at stake.”

We’re constantly trying to outdo ourselves when it comes to providing stimulating, multi-sensory experiences--it won’t be long before we’ve swapped movies with the “feelies” of Brave New World. But isn’t it cool to know that we’re capable of creating these dynamic experiences through the written word alone?

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