Sunday, July 31, 2005

Reality Literature

Toby Litt, Finding Myself (Penguin, 2003)

This is a novel about a novel with a reality TV premise. Victoria About is a thirty-something author of five novels that she describes as falling “at the very upper end of what has sometimes recently been called ‘chick fic’.” (18) But she has something very different planned for her next book. It’s to be “a novelization of something that really happened. Not something that has already happened, but something that will -- because I make it.” (3) She proposes to rent a large house by the sea then invite several of her friends to stay there for a month with the proviso that they must agree to let her write up a fictionalised account afterwards of the events that occur there.

The book is comprised of a series of documents: Victoria’s initial proposal to her editor Simona, Simona’s enthusiastic response (she asks to come along as one of the “characters”), Victoria’s preliminary notes as she plans who else to invite, her synopsis of what she expects to happen, then her first draft of the book (composed on the spot as events unfolded) complete with the subsequent crossings-out and hand-written margin notes of her editor, and finally a one page response to the draft from each of the inmates of the house.

The greatest flaw of Litt’s novel (and, by extension, of Victoria’s as well) is the illogic of the premise. Why insist on real people and real events if it’s to be fictionalised later? Surely a novelist would dispense with “reality” and just fictionalise from the start? But then, Victoria is not a very logical person so perhaps it works after all. And in setting up this tension between “reality” and “fiction,” Litt provides us with a dual subtext: a subtle critique of the documentary alongside a meditation on the novel.

On the surface, Finding Myself is a fabulous romp. The inmates of the house are an odd, interesting, and incompatible lot and much drama ensues. Not precisely the drama that Victoria was expecting as, of course, her efforts to stage-manage the whole thing go awry. There are several unexpected twists and turns before we arrive breathless at the conclusion. But even as the story carries us along, we get a very thought-provoking behind-the-scenes look at the construction of a novel.

In her preliminary notes, Victoria muses: “Singing to myself yesterday in the shower, I had a fantastic revelation. Because I’ve gone non-fictional, I no longer have to hide behind some semi-inarticulate narratress; no more must I deny myself a word merely because it wouldn’t be in her vocabulary or would but wouldn’t be used by her in that exact context ... It’s the literary equivalent of being let loose on Manhattan with someone else’s credit card.” (16-17) Alas it’s not so. When we get to Victoria’s draft, we find her highest-flown flights of fancy crossed out by her editor with the annotation: “pretentious beyond belief.” Even as her own narrator, Victoria’s wings are clipped.

Throughout the month in the house, we see Victoria’s frustration and anxiety mount as her “characters” refuse to behave as she wishes them to. This may simply demonstrate the folly of her attempt to manipulate real people into playing preordained roles. But most writers will tell you that even purely fictional characters can prove intransigent when one tries to shoehorn them into a predetermined place in the plot. So, all along we’re getting a peek into the creative process.

Some of the most entertaining bits are to be found in editor Simona’s margin notes: for example, “Lovely parody. No use whatsoever” next to several paragraphs she’s crossed out (247). We see the editor’s role in shaping the novel, and, because she’s also a participant, in shaping the way her own “character” is portrayed. The Simona that comes through in the hand-written notes is very different from the version that Victoria paints. This disjunction prompts questions about Victoria’s portrayals of all the characters. Does she have them wrong as well? How much is her vision of “reality” hampered by her expectations?

And the ending, well, I’d like to say something about the ending, but I don’t want to spoil any surprises for those who haven’t yet read the book. I can say, without spoiling anything, that the biggest surprise for me was how much I was rooting for Victoria by the end given how unlikeable she’d been throughout. But was she? After all, her original plan was to make herself the villain of the piece and to thereby generate conflict. Perhaps the “real” Victoria is not unlikeable. Perhaps an embattled Victoria who could ultimately be redeemed is a subtext she’s carefully planted…

So much to think about. So much fun on so many levels.

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