In reading the sophomore novel by ara 13, my reaction was (while reading it) that I’d not ever read anything quite like it before. Fiction is actually a work of metafiction, and while I have read other metafictional books in the past, Fiction is unusual in its narrative approach and style – and I mean that as a good thing. Although it is difficult to pinpoint any particular writer 13’s novel reminds me of, I would have to say the closest thing might be Nathanael West, albeit 13 tends to veer off into more philosophical elements than West does, though both writers share a certain element of humor.
Readers may wonder why he chose to title his book Fiction. I wondered the same. As many might already know, metafiction is the art of bringing to the reader’s attention that one is in fact dealing with artifice. In his Encore, he addresses it:
"Scoff not at fictions merely on account of their fabrications. Nonfiction too is manufactured, therefore subject to the same human imperfections upon production, relieving no reader of the onus of deciding that which is sound judgment. So, digest not only fact; read fiction."
One of the many questions the book asks is the idea of real versus artifice, and if something is man made, does that make it any less real? Is reality merely that which is found in nature, or can it be invented? All these questions hold a greater heft against the idea of religion and the existence of God, and if God is in fact all made up, does that make it any less real? The questions spawning from such debates are endless.
The story involves a priest named Father Daniel who encounters a group of savages in the forest. His intention is to help convert what he believes to be a cannibalistic tribe to Christianity, but his inability to communicate and their inability to understand cause some friction between them (much of which is terribly funny). For example, in one scene where Daniel is trying to write words in the dirt, the natives mistake it for a map, commenting on its “complication.”
In another scene, Daniel is forced to pick out a “ceremonial penis sheath.” When Daniel asks if he can pick two (one to cover the penis and testicles) the king permits this, with the rational: “After all, he had two sheaths himself. One with sprigs coming out of the end for when his mother-in-law was in town.” Then readers are given the following scene, which could have been something out of a Mel Brooks’ film:
"Daniel picked two random sheaths … He had tied two sheaths at once; one over his penis pointing up and one over his testicles pointing down. The natives gasped. The pointy toothed maiden fainted. A man fell through the partially thatched roof."
13’s sense of humor makes this book a fun and enjoyable read, but these humorous scenes also serve a greater purpose in helping to lighten the narrative when later on more heavily digestible issues are discussed. In other words, the humor helps to offset some of the heavier moments, much in the way the humor in Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories contrasts against the fact that the film involves an artist who is in search of “deeper meaning.”
Meanwhile, as readers are given the tale about Father Daniel, a first person narrator who acknowledges that he is the one telling you this tale, even self-deprecatingly refers to himself as a “bore” at one point. Fiction goes back and forth in between first and third person, past and present, and the interweaving of the narrative helps to make it more like a memory, rather than a linear, plot-driven tale. There are some insightful exchanges among characters when the discussion of God comes up later on, notably when Father Daniel is trying to explain the Commandment “Thou Shall Not Kill.” The natives then ask, “Well how do we eat?” Daniel clarifies that the rule only applies to people. And then they bring up the tale of David and Goliath, asking if it “violated the lesson” while another native admits to finding the tale “offensive.” Daniel, of course, has no real answers for the natives, save for repeating what he’s been told to believe.
The themes present in Fiction are so interestingly presented that considering the book’s humor coupled with its unique narrative, even if the prose were ordinary, the tale likely could have sustained itself on the ideas and humor alone. But I am pleased to note that there is a muscularity in 13’s writing that in moments veers towards poetic:
"Despite the shield of canopied growth, the water found land, in its relentless, cyclic quest – downward, a reluctant rise toward heaven, and subsequent eviction back to Earth, where it pooled and rutted, and forced all to pay heed – from rock to ant to man."
The novel succeeds in questioning God and authority, without becoming preachy. Though there were only a few instances where 13 used some clichéd phrases that, while not larded in mawkishness, are weak against the stronger descriptive sections like the one quoted above. Yet they are so few in number that this weakness does not impede the strength of the overall narrative.
Fiction is not like the novels being published today, notably because it happens to be a good read that does not dumb itself down for the audience. The book takes risks both in theme and narrative, which makes it difficult to pinpoint 13’s writing within some trite, little box. It’s also very difficult to reduce his book into the measly marketing bumper sticker “pitch” that literary agents drool over. (As it is for any artistic work of quality).
I’ve only touched upon just a few of the narrative elements present in this 227 pager. Another good sign is that despite its brevity, I found myself slowing down in parts and rereading them just for enjoyment sake, but also because the ideas alone interested me. With crappy writing, one does not need do this. I am pleased after having read Ara 13’s novel, and new novels rarely please me. I tend to avoid them, because they’re usually dull, stagnant and safe. Thankfully, not this time.