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The Novelist:
A Novel

by jordan castro
soft skull, 208 pages, $24

Jordan Castro’s The Novelist: A Novel describes a morning during which an unnamed writer struggles to resume work on an autobiographical novel. He can’t stop himself from checking Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or his email; his progress is further impeded by anxiety, self-doubt, and the sheer variety of impressions and memories that flood his internal monologue. Perhaps he has good reason to avoid writing: His novel confronts his past as a heroin addict. 

In the first-person past tense, the narrator agonizes about whether to tell his story in the third-person present tense, or some other, more “literary” manner. Really, he’s worried about how much distance to place between himself and his narrative. The author of The Novelist has evidently wrestled with similar questions; yet the narrator, whatever his name is, turns out not to be Jordan Castro himself. In fact, he admires (a fictionalized) Castro from a distance, and has defended his work against hostile detractors, although he hasn’t yet read Castro’s controversial new book. 

At first glance, The Novelist appears to be an “autofiction,” a literary form less than half a century old. Autofictionists prefer to distinguish their work from both the old-fashioned autobiographical novel, as practiced by every major “serious” novelist from Goethe to Thomas Mann, and the “non-fiction novel” that was pioneered by Truman Capote and Norman Mailer in the 1960s. 

No novelist can fully escape or transcend what he has lived, no matter how successfully he manages to transform his perceptions into art. Autofiction is an attempt to destroy the illusion that writers might discover truth through artifice, and to cultivate instead the illusion of radical honesty. Their work often feels like an attempt to transfer the writer’s undigested consciousness into the mind of the reader. 

The most distinguished autofictionist in America is Ben Lerner, whose artfully artless 2011 novel Leaving the Atocha Station tells the story of a poet who wastes a year in Madrid on a fellowship and ends up as a not-quite witness to the Madrid train bombings on March 11, 2004. This is a self-portrait of the artist, “warts and all,” with a special emphasis on the warts, perhaps at the expense of any obviously admirable or redeeming qualities. In less capable hands, this would degenerate into a self-defeating exercise in narcissistic self-loathing. Yet Lerner writes so vividly that he gets away with the conceit. 

Alas, Leaving the Atocha Station spawned legions of imitators. Jordan Castro turns out not to be one of these; indeed, one can’t help but suspect that The Novelist is a cunningly malicious send-up of the very idea of autofiction.

The Novelist begins at 8:14 a.m. on a Friday, when the unnamed narrator opens his laptop to start his day. First he checks his correspondence, and finds only three unopened emails: one from a writer friend, another from his boss, and a third notifying him that his copy of the latest Jordan Castro novel has shipped. He tells himself that he doesn’t want to check Twitter before getting down to work. The spirit is willing; but the flesh is weak. 

He has tried to set a rule for himself: No Twitter before noon. But the more he clicks on Twitter, the more he feels compelled to continue. When he sees he has a new follower, his awareness of wasting time is defeated by vanity, which he misinterprets as good manners: He feels that he has to follow his new follower back. He loses interest in social media etiquette when he sees how awful other people’s tweets are and realizes that he should be thinking of novels—not the one he’s trying to read at the moment (Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine), but the one he should be writing.

The reference to The Mezzanine, Baker’s first book, is telling. This is not an autofiction, but a plotless stream-of-consciousness description of an office worker’s stray thoughts during his lunch hour. When this novel was first published in 1988, reviewers praised Baker’s powers of observation and ability to get inside the mind of “the common man.” But the author took for granted that his readers lived in the same world he did. Now The Mezzanine seems trite and dated; readers under twenty-five will need footnotes to understand Baker’s riffs on defunct technologies, quaint-sounding 1980s consumer products, and out-of-date brand names. 

Castro has learned from Baker’s mistakes as well as Lerner’s: He concentrates on capturing the effect of a mind wrestling with itself in real time. He has too much tact to spell out what he believes. “Addiction is a memory disease,” the narrator tells himself. He turns out to be quoting a line from a memoir by an academic. Then he shamefacedly remembers the lie he told the academic in an unsuccessful attempt to impress him. “Writing is a memory disease,” he thinks—and instantly realizes how fatuous the idea is. He is self-aware as well as self-conscious; but he’s not nearly as canny as Castro himself.

Castro can’t resist reminding the reader of his presence. This is most glaring when his narrator begins gushing over Jordan Castro’s interesting tweets and claims to find the man himself beautiful. But he rarely overdoes the provocation, even when he makes himself sound like a cross between Jordan Peterson and Bronze Age Pervert. For the most part, “Jordan Castro” is glimpsed indirectly, as when the narrator recalls an argument he had about Castro with a pretentious hipster-communist art gallery owner, then fantasizes having dominated the encounter. 

Over the course of The Novelist, the narrator reveals his reluctance to come to terms with his past. He has replaced an addiction to drugs with a compulsive social media habit that is merely another means of distracting himself from reality. This is Castro’s way of exploring free will: not through essayistic rumination, but by means of actively demonstrating how we consistently fail to do what we know to be right.

Artistically, The Novelist has a few weak spots. The passage in which the narrator searches for Jordan Castro on YouTube, then tries to watch a music video that someone has made using clips from an interview with Castro, is implausible, and too high-concept; the whole scene is impossible for the reader to visualize. Certain other passages, by contrast, are far too easy to visualize, such as Castro’s many graphic discussions of defecation. As a means of mocking the conventions of autofiction, this is brilliant. But after the point is proven, the toilet humor becomes as tiresome as constipation.

Happily, there is much more to The Novelist than this. Castro has a light touch, and a knack for deftly evoking not just atmosphere, but the passage of time. He can make the simple act of brewing tea into something dramatic, pregnant with meaning. The narrator’s inability to find a favorite coffee mug, and the agitation he feels until hot tea and Facebook help him forget about it, ring true, as does his vague guilt about snooping through photos on social media of people he hasn’t seen since high school.

Autofiction is ultimately a self-defeating exercise—a futile act of defiance in the face of death, as practiced by writers who equate death with annihilation. Castro is more hopeful than this; he tacitly acknowledges that there might be such a thing as eternal, absolute truth that exists outside his mind. This alone makes him stand out from most of his literary peers. 

Without getting bogged down in theorizing or abstract speculation, Castro has written a novel about the soul, and the challenges we encounter in trying to save our souls in a world that seems engineered deliberately to endanger them. He has learnt the hard way that there is such a thing as the natural law.

God willing, The Novelist will help kill off autofiction as a literary form. Castro has made its internal contradictions impossible to ignore, and in doing so he has revealed that he has any number of potentially interesting stories to tell about the world outside the writer’s mind, as it exists beyond the confines of the room in which he writes. Castro’s next task will be to settle on a subject ambitious enough for his range of talents, which is generous indeed. Now it’s time to stop procrastinating and get to work.

Jaspreet Singh Boparai is a former academic.

Image by Juanedc licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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