Guys, I have to tell you about this book. Even though there are two other books on the review pile before it, one I was sent specifically for review (Die Seiten der Welt) and one I have been excited to read and join the conversation on for a long time (Station Eleven), once I read The Fictional Man by Al Ewing (2013, Solaris), I stopped caring about every other book that isn’t The Fictional Man. I want to buy it for everyone I know. I want to talk about it with everyone I meet. I want to read and re-read it and re-read it. I don’t know what to read next; nothing could possibly be as perfectly written, funny, and suited to my exact taste in literature. That’s right LITERATURE. That’s right PERFECT. This mother fucker is the real deal. It has it all. Holy shit. HOLY SHIT.
It would be an understatement to say that I like metafiction. Metafiction is one of those things that gets me really excited about a book, but metafiction can also be incredibly, nauseatingly pretentious. Metafiction is that cool kid who makes it obvious that he knows exactly how cool he is. But The Fictional Man is metafiction plus comedy. It starts out light, a joke here, a chuckle there, a snort here, until around three-quarters in I reached a critical mass of absurdity and humor that I started laughing so hard it looked like I was weeping uncontrollably. I couldn’t stop. I tried to keep reading, but I just kept laughing. It was practically orgasmic. Guys, read this fucking book. *grabs your shoulders and shakes you while repeating that sentence until you back slowly out of the room and run for the book store*
So The Fictional Man is funny, that’s the first thing it has going for it.
It is also decidedly modern. The pop culture references, the internet procrastination, the Hollywood movies, swiping the phone to answer it; these things are all decidedly of our time, but, because the focus lies somewhere far deeper, it never feels like a story about our time. It feels universal. May literature students of the future read The Fictional Man in Evolving Canon and marvel at the skill and intelligence with which it has been crafted. All hail!
What The Fictional Man is about in the broadest sense is identity construction. OH look, it’s time for a tangent! Ok, so you probably didn’t know that I am obsessed with identity construction. More than I am obsessed with tunnels and abandoned buildings, though maybe not quite as much as I’m obsessed with the apocalypse. Identity construction in fiction is a topic that I find endlessly fascinating, one that I spent a semester contemplating over a bucket of Ritalin, Nadine Gordimer’s novels, a timeline of South African history, and my senior thesis. I have communed with the theme of identity construction in literature, and IT WAS HOLY. (Is she kidding? Is she kidding?!) Who creates our identity? Is it the people we interact with through their perceptions of who we are? Do we create it? Is there a “real” identity within us that we can try to rewrite? If we attempt to artificially construct an identity, will it stick? Will it become what is “real”? What the fuck is “real” when it comes to identity and identity construction and our perception of self anyway?
The Fictional Man addresses all of these questions in the frame of a meta-fictional science fictional story about a writer who lives in a world where fictional characters can be made real, are made real in order to play themselves in the movies. And Ewing does it masterfully, humorously, offering an intellectual ah-ha followed by a joke and embedded in a story about friendship and love and sex and scriptwriting that I was unable to put down. Sure, I was supposed to stay in bed because I was sick, but fuck if I would have done anything but read this book once I had picked it up.
Niles Golan writes shitty novels about a shitty character named Kurt Power. They pay the bills, but they get mediocre—at best—reviews. He narrates his life in his head the way he wished it had been, and I have never seen a novel do character-daydream-fantasy as effectively as television. It was key to Niles character development (or lack thereof, as in, he is still basically a sullen teenager in the body of a semi-successful adult pretending he is way cooler than he is), and it often made for a good joke.
Then there were the Fictionals. Oooh and now we get to bite into the meat of the thing. Fictionals are the people who have been cloned from fictional characters—Niles’ psychiatrist is one of them—and they have a problem: most of the world doesn’t think of them as real, or human. They are made of flesh and blood, yeah, but because they are genetic experiments that are created in labs with a full set of memories, they are considered, well, fictional, with all its implications. “Realists” are people who discriminate against Fictionals in this way, and Niles is a raging realist, though he prefers to bend his narrative to make himself the sympathetic hero. Watching him justify his realism, continue to be blatantly realist, and then finally understand that he has been lying to himself is a really useful stand-in for the way people often refuse to see their own racism and discrimination because they can’t bear to cast themselves as shitty people:
“…you’re always telling a story about yourself. A little on-going fiction where you’re the hero and everything you do is—well, not right exactly, but at least sympathetic. You’re a good guy.”
Niles life kind of sucks, he cheated on his wife and she left him, and ever since he has been alienating everyone in his life, but he wants to be a good guy. For years he has been telling himself in his personal narration that he is a good guy. But it takes seeing the reality of the situation to change. Will he change? Can he? Niles’ best (and only) friend is a Fictional named Bob, created for some knock-off super hero television series. Niles treats Bob like shit—deep down, he doesn’t think he’s real—and Bob continues to try to be a good friend as they argue about who’s more real and what it would mean for one of Niles’ characters to be brought to life as a Fictional. Irony is, Bob seems to be more of a “real man” than Niles is. Which leads us back to that question: what is it that makes a person real in the first place?
Meanwhile we learn about Niles’ failed relationships and B-list career as he attempts to write a screenplay pitch for the remake of a sexist, campy 1960s spy film. His research on the film and its origins brings in more and more layers as we learn about the tv show the film was based on and the children’s book that inspired that and the short story that inspired the children’s book. As Niles chases the pitch down his own personal rabbit hole and through the plot of each newly discovered story, we learn a little more about this one.
There was no part of this novel that didn’t work to make the whole more impressive. Not even the hilarity of a murder case on the news about one of the Fictional Sherlocks killing the most recently “born” Fictional Sherlock, and all of the other Fictional Sherlocks insisting on coming in and consulting on the case. Not even the references to that mistake they made with Dexter Morgan. Not even the kinky meta sex scene where bottoms play the Fictional and tops play the Author, who “writes” a scene that the play-Fictional acts out. I couldn’t make this shit up, and I am so, so grateful that Al Ewing did. I thought I had exclamation points to give away to other books. I don’t, I’ve woven them all together into an inky, spiky crown that The Fictional Man will wear for the rest of my life.
READ THIS BOOK.
Where I got it: The dealer’s room at the 2013 Brighton World Fantasy Convention. I went up to the Solaris/Rebellion stand, browsing all the pretty covers, told them I like the apocalypse and Philip K. Dick, and those people sold me three of the best books I have read all year, fuck it: in the last five years. ALL HAIL.
Post Script: What the hell do I read next? No book is ever going to be this book again. I am at a loss. Besides reading everything else Ewing has ever written, which may or may not be particularly satisfying since a lot of it looks like franchise-y stuff, WHAT THE HELL AM I SUPPOSED TO READ NOW. *despairs*