There are many, many reasons to love Tristram Shandy – only half of them involving the term ‘postmodern’. Sterne’s rollicking opus is at once a satirical masterpiece of the order of Rabelais and Swift, and a novel so restlessly ingenious it makes Foer and Calvino seem old-fashioned. The tale of a man who starts to tell you his life story, but nine volumes later has barely managed to get born, Tristram Shandy is a hilarious tribute to the idea that every story leads to an infinite labyrinth of other stories, and how sometimes, NOT sticking to the point can be the more entertaining path.
At another level, of course, Tristram Shandy is a deeply serious book. Critics will tell you that it’s a rebellion against the tyranny of narrative, against the clockwork of birth and death; a sustained and breathless evasion of the fact of growing old. With his asides, his circumlocutions, his constant side-tracking, Sterne’s narrator is not just trying to kill time, he is trying to kill Time.
Mostly though, Sterne is just plain old fun. What other novelist would draw a squiggly line across the page to graph the progress of his plot? What other writer would stop in the middle of a sentence to scold the reader for not paying attention and make her go back to the last chapter to read it again? This isn’t just a book ahead of its time, it’s a book still waiting for its time to come.
Oh, and for those of you who find the idea of a 720 page novel daunting, there’s always Martin Rowson’s superb comic book rendition.