No Real for You

Tree map titled "Novels and Their Long Lost Twins" and tree map titled "Novels and Their Not Lost Twins" written in pen on notebook paper

I’m going to begin by asking your forgiveness for two things I usually don’t do. The first is speaking Spanish in my English. The second is using the prefix meta-.  But this is a family of meta-fictional twins, and come on, don’t you agree that “Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote” sounds better than “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote?”

Here is what I mean by meta-fiction: all these books, stories, and bodies of work contain made-up books and bodies of work. Some are based on real books. Some are making fun of real books, a little bit, gently. Some are invented entirely. And one, you can go out and buy. Hint: it’s not Don Quixote.

In the short story “Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote,” Jorge Luis Borges describes the work of an author who set out to write

the Quixote itself. Needless to say, he never contemplated a mechanical transcription of the original; he did not propose to copy it. His admirable intention was to produce a few pages which would coincide—word for word and line for line—with those of Miguel de Cervantes.”

He succeeds, but what he creates is an invisible work: someone else’s novel.

Plenty of writers have tried to recreate J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. I’m sure it has more twins out there, imitations or fictional versions, but I’m picking these two because I love the books where I found them. In James Magnuson’s Famous Writers I Have Known, a con man named Frankie Abandonato, finds himself impersonating V.S. Mohle, a writer who isn’t J.D. Salinger just as much as the Fiction Institute of Texas, where this impersonation takes place, isn’t the Michener Center at UT-Austin, where Magnuson teaches. Elinor Lipman describes Famous Writers I Have Known as “triumphantly preposterous,” but having been a creative writing student not too different from the ones Frankie teaches, I don’t find it too ridiculous. And I wouldn’t have minded a class with a con man, either—because (and Magnuson doesn’t put nearly this fine a point on it) fiction is its own kind of con.

And then there’s & Sons, a much more serious book, though perhaps more preposterous in its ultimate plot twist. David Gilbert probes through the male relationships in two mirroring families, one of which has at its helm the novelist A.N. Dyer, author of Ampersand, which, to be fair, sounds like The Catcher in the Rye rolled together with Tobias Wolff’s Old School and a bit of The Lord of the Flies. V.S. Mohle’s Eat Your Wheaties, on the other hand—that’s straight Salinger.

Let’s skip now to The Story of A New Name, the second of Elena Ferrante’s three (soon to be four!) novels following the friendship of Lila Cerullo and Elena Greco. At the end of The Story of A New Name, Elena, the books’ narrator, writes a novel whose central event is a negative sexual experience she has had, and which Ferrante describes earlier in the novel. Protagonists are not the same as their authors, even when they have the same name—and bear in mind, Elena Ferrante is a pen name—but a reader could be forgiven for wondering if she’s reading Elena Greco’s novel.

A reader could also be forgiven, when reading Ben Lerner’s 10:04, for wondering what exactly she’s reading. 10:04 contains the poem that the protagonist writes during the book. It also contains “The Golden Vanity,” the story he publishes in The New Yorker to great acclaim. And by “he” I mean both “the fictional protagonist of 10:04, which is a novel by Ben Lerner” and “Ben Lerner.” The epigraph to 10:04 is as follows:

The Hassidim tell a story about the world to come that says everything there will be just as it is here. Just as our room is now, so it will be in the world to come; where our baby sleeps now, there too it will sleep in the other world. And the clothes we wear in this world, those too we will wear there. Everything will be as it is now, just a little different.

I can’t explain this to you. I can only tell you that reading 10:04 gave me the unsettling feeling that it is impossible to identify what’s supposed to be fiction and what’s supposed to be real, and which I am and which I was holding between nice hardback covers, and this, in turn, made me feel a bit like I was in a Borges story, and a bit adolescent. A bit, shall we say, like Holden Caulfield.

And the combination of brilliance and adolescence brings us to Philip Roth. Was that mean? I’m sorry. I love Roth. You may have figured this out already. His prose is exceptional. I honestly believe that he is a literary genius. However, he is a highly mockable literary genius, and if you happen to enjoy mocking Philip Roth and other Great White Men of American literature, you will enjoy Meg Wolitzer’s The Wife, a book for which she should be made an official feminist hero. Certainly she is one of my heroes because of it. I don’t want to give anything away, so I’ll just tell you that Wolitzer’s Joe Castleman is a little bit Roth, a little bit Bellow, and a whole lot of bullshit.

Whether you enjoy mocking Roth or not, though, you should read him. Like I said, he’s a genius. And one of the things he does best is mock himself. Also, write himself, both as Philip Roth and as reflected in the novelist Nathan Zuckerman, author of Carnovsky, which is not Portnoy’s Complaint in the same way Eat Your Wheaties is not The Catcher in The Rye. What Ben Lerner did to me, Roth did to himself in the creation of Nathan Zuckerman. He props a bunch of mirrors in front of each other, stares into them, and shows us. If Ben Lerner and Jorge Luis Borges leave the reader wondering what’s real, Philip Roth sticks out his tongue and bursts out laughing. Like a literary Soup Nazi, he teases us with the real and snatches it away. No real for you. It’s all fiction—so enjoy it.

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