Some of the novels we chatted about last week reminded me of another with an arch, strong narrative voice. This one was the voice of a woman.
When we first meet Octavia Frost, Dear Reader, she comes across as a smug, knowledgeable woman more proud of her novels than her estranged rock star son. But, as with other things going on in Carolyn Parkhurst's The Nobodies Album, don't come to a hasty conclusion. There's a reason why Octavia and Milo haven't spoken in years.
Octavia is in Times Square, going to her publishers to drop off her latest project. It's called The Nobodies Album, a name that came from her son, and is made up of new endings of her earlier works. The new endings matter to Octavia, she says, not because she is interested in "what if" but because she enjoys the power of how she thinks she affects the life of every reader of her works, how she puts ideas in their heads that were not there before. When she sees on the Times Square newscrawl that her son has been arrested in San Francisco for the murder of his lover, she's on the next plane. Readers be damned. What she really wants is a second chance, the opportunity to rewrite her own life.
In between the segments of the main storyline of what happens when Octavia flies across the country to see if her son will let her back in, and what she can do to help him, are interspersed the original and revised endings of her novels. These are stunning pieces of metafiction that add so much knowledge to what happened to this family, and a solid understanding of how those who survived a horrific accident have been shaped.
There is a lot going on in this novel, but it's all paced perfectly. As Octavia meets the people now most important in her son's life, she also shows how people find out about celebrities in today's online world. She's nearly a cyber stalker. Later, the tables are momentarily turned on her. It's another layer to the main story of how people who love want a second chance when things go wrong. They just want to know what's going on, to do a better job, brush the mistakes away, make the connections stronger.
Parkhurst, whose Dogs of Babel was so appreciated, has much to say about writing itself and what it demands of a writer. She also has commentary dropped in here and there about what readers may think they discern about the writer herself based on the works. Parkhurst even has Octavia do the same thing about a fellow writer. And not by interpreting that writer's books, but by watching a movie based on a bestselling novel. We all know how faithful those adaptations are.
It's this kind of human foible presentations that keep The Nobodies Album, well, human. Parkhurst has tremendous ideas about ficiton and the process of writing, about second chances in life and how parents mess things up without meaning to hurt. She also has kept this novel firmly grounded in realistic characters who are not perfect and who are viewed through a lens of compassion. Finding out about the murder makes for a pretty zippy story, too.
Although The Nobodies Album was a case of meta fiction that worked for me, the first novel I came that was described this way I didn't finish. It was Charles Palliser's Quincunx in 1990. All I saw was a rewrite of the quintessential poor Victorian mother and child, but without the sly names and wicked success at tugging at heartstrings. I gave up. Someone said, "Well, you know it's metafiction, right." My interior reaction: So?
Over the years, I've seen such oohs and aaahs over the idea someone was writing reflectively about writing and its artificiality that it's tempting (at least, when sleep-deprived), to be contrary about it. But that's just playing a game. That's not why I read, nor why I read about what I read. "Only connect" is what E.M. Forster wrote in Howards End, and it fits my heart:
Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.Patricia Waugh, in Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction (NY: Routledge, 1984), describes metafiction as:
...an elastic term which cover(s) a wide range of fictions. There are those novels at one end of the spectrum which take fictionality as a theme to be explored . .. whose formal self-consciousness is limited. At the center of this spectrum are those texts that manifest the symptoms of formal and ontological insecurity but allow their deconstructions to be finally recontextualized or 'naturalized' and given a total interpretation . . .Finally, at the furthest extreme that, in rejecting realism more thoroughly, posit the world as a fabrication of competing semiotic systems which never correspond to material conditionsWhen it comes to that extreme, Paul Auster comes to mind, as do Haruki Murakami (and yes, I'm still reading 1Q84 in fragments) and Kurt Vonnegut. My favorite metafiction is Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children. That snot-nosed Saleem and his travails, from childhood on, that mirror the birth and youth of the modern state of India, is a glorious piece of metafiction:
I have been only the humblest of jugglers-with-facts; and that, in a country where the truth is what it is instructed to be, reality quite literally ceases to exist, so that everything becomes possible except what we are told is the case.And, really, when a novelist decides to make fiction of fact, what else can a story be?
Does this kind of writing appeal to you? What are some of your favorite examples? Which ones couldn't keep the disbelief suspended?