Characters who are Narrators who are Authors who are Characters in their Own Fiction

Article by Jeremy

What should we make of novels that blur the line between fiction and fact?

Recently, I’ve been asking myself this question more and more while perusing the fiction section at Brazos, where I noticed a trend: contemporary authors are inserting themselves into their own work, usually as the protagonist/narrator. So many of our accepted notions of what constitutes fiction, narrative and even truth itself are complicated by the use of this literary technique that I cannot even begin to address them all in this limited space. However, it is clear to me that the blurring of this line is somewhat an end in itself. These authors seem to be trying to show their readers that the difference between fiction and fact may not be as clear as we think...or that, ultimately, it may not exist at all.

The following are selections of this trend for you to explore the next time you come visit us at Brazos.

The Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition) Cover Image
By Dante Alighieri, Robin Kirkpatrick (Translated by), Robin Kirkpatrick (Introduction by), Robin Kirkpatrick (Notes by), Eric Drooker (Illustrator)
ISBN: 9780143107194
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 7-10 Days due to Covid-19 shipping delays.
Published: Penguin Classics - February 26th, 2013

Written in the early 14th century, Dante’s epic poem is an enduring masterpiece of world literature and the oldest example I could find of an author writing himself into his own work of fiction. The allegorical visions of the afterlife employed by Dante are simply ingenious, with the power to move even an ardent atheist such as myself. The poet’s journey through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise revolves around his grief over the death of his beloved Beatrice, making the work as much about humanity as it is about the divine. It’s a literary effect that, in my opinion, could not be achieved without Dante making himself his own protagonist. Incidentally, Penguin has just released a new edition of THE DIVINE COMEDY in a stunning single-volume paperback!

In the Hand of Dante: A Novel Cover Image
ISBN: 9780316735643
Availability: Special Order - Subject to Availability
Published: Back Bay Books - September 1st, 2003

Me and the Devil: A Novel Cover Image
ISBN: 9780316120975
Availability: Hard to Find
Published: Little, Brown and Company - December 4th, 2012

Fast-forward about 800 years into the future and meet Nick Tosches, both the author and the character of these two fascinating novels. IN THE HAND OF DANTE intertwines the stories of the Italian poet’s spiritual awakening that led to his writing THE DIVINE COMEDY, and of the fictional Tosches as he is called upon to authenticate a stolen manuscript of the poem. It is a very cool, smart read full of attitude and style. Tosches’s other novel, ME AND THE DEVIL, is about evil and its seductive powers. Blending real life and fiction, the author/character takes his readers on a tour of the darkest regions of human desire. It is not for the faint-of-heart or for the easily offended. However, I found it to be anincredibly fun read! Even when the story seems to completely leave the realm of reality, you can’t help but feel that Tosches is in the process of exorcising his personal (and very real) demons through his prose.

The Pale King Cover Image
ISBN: 9780316074223
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 7-10 Days due to Covid-19 shipping delays.
Published: Back Bay Books - April 10th, 2012

DFW’s unfinished last novel was a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer, and it is his only work of fiction in which he makes an appearance as a character. THE PALE KING is the story of IRS trainee Wallace who finds himself overwhelmed by the boredom of a job that thrives on tedious repetition. It’s a brilliant and painstakingly researched look at the mind-numbing monotony workers endure in contemporary bureaucratic positions - think Kafka for the twenty-first century - and a sad coda to a talent lost too soon.

How Should a Person Be?: A Novel from Life Cover Image
Unavailable from Brazos Bookstore
ISBN: 9780805094725
Availability: Out of Print - Not Available for Order
Published: Henry Holt and Co. - June 19th, 2012

One of the most talked about novels of last year, HOW SHOULD A PERSON BE? A NOVEL FROM LIFE was both lauded and derided for its slippery mixture of memoir and fiction. Favorable or no, everyone who read this book had an opinion about it. The book follows a creatively blocked playwright, Sheila, as she tries to adjust following the recent breakup of her marriage. The story is taken largely from the Heti’s real life. She even went as far as to use recorded interviews of her friends to help develop the story more fully. The result is a candid, racy and self-critical examination of modern life and relationships.  

Percival Everett by Virgil Russell: A Novel Cover Image
ISBN: 9781555976347
Availability: Special Order - Subject to Availability
Published: Graywolf Press - February 5th, 2013

OK, so this novel is not exactly narrated by Everett (or Russell for that matter) but the title alone makes it worth mentioning. It is “a story inside a story inside a story” that brilliantly complicates conventional narrative structure in such a way that the very foundation of Truth is brought into question. A father in a nursing home writes the novel he thinks his son would write. Or is the son writing it? Does the son exist? How about the father, for that matter? Confused? Don’t worry. Percival Everett by Virgil Russell entertains even as it perplexes. It is a brain-bending work of metafiction by one of the most imaginative writers working today. You will not read another book like it this year!

A Tale for the Time Being: A Novel Cover Image
ISBN: 9780143124870
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Penguin Books - December 31st, 2013

In her first novel since 2003, Ruth Ozeki crafts a remarkably poignant multi-layered story. Ruth the character finds some debris washed up on the beach one day, including a diary by a young Japanese girl bent on suicide. However, the diary also recounts the life story of the girl’s 104-year-old great-grandmother, a Buddhist nun. It is a heart-wrenching tale that, due to its unique structure, re-envisions the writer-reader relationship while also affirming the power of stories to connect us with our greater humanity. This is quite possibly one of the best books you’ll read all year.

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