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Literature / Tristram Shandy

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Non enim excursus hic ejus, sed opus ipsum est. ("For this is not a digression from it, but the work itself.")
— Epigraph to volumes VII and VIII, taken from the Letters of Pliny the Younger

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is a novel written by Laurence Sterne in the 18th century. It's famous for being essentially Post Modern before its time — heck, before the modern style was at all common. It employs non-linear narrative and makes liberal use of stream of consciousness; while the book is ostensibly Tristram's narration of his own life story, he shows an almost pathological inability to stay on-topic and an obsession with explaining context and minute details, getting constantly sidetracked into lengthy digressions, and even getting sidetracked into another digression in the middle of a digression, which occasionally turn into digressions within digressions within digressions. This results in, amongst things, Tristram first actually getting around to telling the story of his birth three volumes into the work. As you can probably gleam from this, the humour is very meta; a large portion of the book explores the process of writing that very book.

It is widely considered unfilmable because of its meta nature. But some might argue that the work's non-linear nature could potentially lend itself well to a Interactive Fiction or even a video game adaptation. It was adapted into A Cock and Bull Story by Michael Winterbottom with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, which changes it to a film exploring the process of making that film.

Tropes featured include:

  • The Alleged Steed: The parson Yorick owns one, the result of having several very fine steeds reduced to this state by being constantly loaned to parishoners in need of a doctor miles away over very poor roads.
  • Awesome Mc Cool Name: Walter Shandy has a theory that one's given name will influence one's personality and fortune, so he wants his son to be called Trismegistus Shandy. Things don't go as planned.
  • But I Digress: Boy, does the narrator stray off from his topic a lot. Just the birth of the main character takes one volume, and then some.
  • Groin Attack: Phutatorius accidentally drops a chestnut into his open fly, and Hilarity Ensues.
    • Tristram's uncle Toby sustained a serious wound on the groin at the siege of Namur from a fragment of stone knocked off an outwork by a cannonball.
    • Shandy himself was accidentally circumcised as a boy by a window sash that fell while he was pissing out the window.
  • How We Got Here: Does everything with this trope possible. Shandy keeps cutting off his stories and restarting them, bringing up new ones—though many of his conventional digressions follow this trope strictly, he'll also open with the death of a character (who will only return volumes later!), and end his book long before it opens. That Tristram is a strange one.
  • Lemony Narrator: The Trope Maker. Tristram's narration is notoriously non-linear, full of extraneous detail, and what he finally conveys to the reader is a "cock-and-bull story".
  • Mundane Made Awesome: Some of the narration tends in this direction, such as the end-chapter revelation that, while bringing Dr. Slop his obstetric tools on horseback, Obadiah cannot hear himself whistle!
  • Narrative Filigree: Arguably the entire book consists of nothing but this. Tristram starts the tale of his life by telling the story of his conception, and then proceeds to get so distracted exploring the context and circumstances surrounding this event that it takes him most of three volumes to get around to the story of his birth.
  • One-Paragraph Chapter: A few examples; the book is in nine volumes of twenty or so chapters each, all of which fit, in a modern edition, into five hundred pages or so, so it'd be pretty surprising if there weren't any.
  • Prolonged Prologue: Thanks to the Narrative Filigree, Tristram is finally actually born well into volume 3.
  • Silly Reason for War: There's a chapter-long aside about a war between France and Switzerland which starts because the Swiss want the French Dauphin to be christened Shadrach, Mesech, and Abednago.
  • Spell My Name with a Blank: Played with in true Shandean fashion, since this trope was highly popular at the time. Tristram replaces whole sentences (and, on occasion, paragraphs) with asterisks.
  • Suspiciously Specific Denial: The book has an entire chapter devoted to denying that its extensive discussion of noses is in any way a Double Entendre. Since it has a later chapter about a traveler with an incredibly long nose that sends everyone into a tizzy (especially the nuns), this is rather difficult to believe.
  • Unbuilt Trope: The books is one of the first modern novels in the English language. However, it's incredibly self-aware and openly discusses, lampshades, and subverts tropes associated with the nascent genre and the art of writing itself. Very often, it is regarded as a postmodern work avant la lettre.
  • Unconventional Formatting: The double-sided black page after the description of Yorick's death, the double-sided marble page after a paragraph declaring that it will be just as inscrutable as the black page, a few squiggles representing the "narrative line" over each volume, and both liberal and eccentric use of punctuation, among other novelties.
  • Un-Installment: Chapter 24 of volume 4 is probably the Ur-Example. Chapter 25 describes what would've been in Chapter 24 if it existed.
  • Unusual Euphemism: Most of his digression about noses.
  • The Vicar: Yorick.
  • Who Names Their Kid "Dude"?: Tristram's father considers Tristram to be this, since nobody called Tristram ever did anything good or great. Tristram gets the name by mistake, much to his father's chagrin.