I like the midrashic commentary structure in fiction as much as anyone. Heck, I’m currently debating with my publisher how many different typefaces we can use in my next novel to set off the main first-person narrative from the invented “documents” fleshing out the story. Give me those footnotes that argue with the text; those Gothic framing devices beloved by Lovecraft and Hawthorne, pretending that the spooky tale was found in a genuine esoteric manuscript by the narrator. Done right, these tricks give pleasure because they re-create the complexity of real life, where one individual rarely has the complete perspective. As Aristotle observed in the Poetics, we enjoy the skill that went into a good imitation, even apart from its content.
However, I’ve been disappointed with a recent trend in structuring the multi-vocal or self-problematizing novel. Unlike the type of fiction described above, these books don’t reveal their layers of construction from the outset. Rather, what you get is an opening section that reads like a believable and emotionally engaging traditional narrative. Then, the next quarter or third of the book discloses that the story you just read is an inaccurate fiction by one of its characters, or by another character whom you haven’t yet met. Following this, you guessed it, there’s a third narrative undercutting the second one.
Some acclaimed books in this format include Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise, Paul La Farge’s The Night Ocean, and Hernan Diaz’s Trust, which won the Pulitzer Prize this year. David Ebershoff’s The 19th Wife got so close to being my favorite novel-with-archives, until the very end, when a very minor character “revealed” that the entire murder mystery and its gay ex-Mormon protagonist were merely a literary device she’d created to frame her research about fundamentalist polygamist communities. It gave me real heartache to have this young man’s happy ending snatched away within a few pages after it occurred.
At the fan fiction site Archive of Our Own, the post “The Violence of Fate (or, How to Tell the True Kind of Lie)” by a contributor named Osteophage voices the question that troubled me after reading these novels:
“Why does it feel like fiction has broken its contract with us when it conveys, in-world, that the story never really happened?”
The feeling that a story made itself pointless, Osteophage muses, requires us to ask what the “point” of storytelling is. The post delves into a discussion of a narrative RPG (video game) where an important character is fated to die regardless of the choices you make. Playing this game, with this knowledge, gives Osteophage a kind of catharsis in facing the fact that sometimes we’re powerless to save those we care about. But this feels different from a narrative where the author is arbitrarily pulling strings to make an outcome seem predestined. The latter is a lazy notion of “Fate” while the former tells us something true and difficult about the human condition.
I think Osteophage is getting at something about why I felt cheated by those novels, despite appreciating them in other ways. In fact, it’s because the first sections were well-written and emotionally affecting, that I resented having the rug pulled out from under me afterward. Maybe this literary trend dovetails with our current era of “fake news” and the hermeneutic of suspicion-verging-on-paranoia that it breeds. As each successive narrative within a book is discarded in favor of a new one, a numb cynicism sets in. I’m never able to care as much about the subsequent characters and situations, as I did about the first set. The whole point of the book is that I’d be a fool to do so. Which, to me, is ultimately not a very interesting or helpful raison d’être for a novel.