When Fiction is Fictional

I was first introduced to Dave Eggers through his memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and his work in the innovative publishing house, McSweeney’s.  This summer, I got my hands on Egger’s first novel, You Shall Know Our Velocity!  The majority of the story is told from the point of view of Will, a young man who has recently obtained a large sum of money but wants to give it all away through the means of a week-long trip around the world.  Will’s voice is fast, rambling, raw.  Yet, what really intrigues me about this novel is the way it puts into question how we read fiction and how important it is to trust a fictional narrator.

For the first three quarters of the book, we follow Will and his friend, Hand, from Senegal to Morocco to Estonia.  Will weaves in stories of a childhood friend killed in a car accident and stories of his sick mother.  It’s very dramatic and intriguing.  And then, the book switches point of view.  Roughly 50 pages of the 400 page, paperback-version of the novel (in the original, hard-cover version, these pages are left out) are told from the point of view of Will’s friend, Hand, in a section titled, “An Interruption.” In these pages, Hand comments on Will’s section of the text, correcting and elaborating on points that he felt to be insufficient or false. He explains: “Earlier readers of this book, I feel, read a diluted version of the week Will and I spent, a version afraid to speak, one which…was built in large part upon at least three enormous and unjustiable lies.”

I won’t spoil the plot by telling you what these lies are, but I do want to talk about the implications of this storytelling method.  What does a reader do when he or she finds out that the text being read is fictional and made-up?  How should he or she feel?  It might seem like a silly question.  Invention is inherent in the genre; we should expect and accept it.  Yet Hand’s section claiming Will’s already fictional story to be fictional colored my reading of the piece as a whole.  I felt cheated.  I felt as though the character of Will had lied to me.  Hand not only casts Will’s reliability as a narrator into doubt; he claims that certain events in this fictional world were lies.

I turned to the internet and book reviews to gauge other readers’ reactions and found that they felt similarly.  Many expressed anger and confusion.  Whether or not Hand’s section lessened the quality of the work is debatable. I felt it was admirable for the way in which it makes people aware of how they read fiction.  The fact that this section could summon frustration and anger in readers shows that when we read, we accept the fictional world as reality.  We suspend our disbelief to allow ourselves an emotional stake in the story.  I recall heated discussions over the reliability of Holden in Catcher in the Rye, or Lauren Slater in her memoir, Lying, in which she admits that some details she has made up.  People don’t like to be told that their favorite characters lie. Stories exist in a world of their own, a world that we believe in as much as we know that it is make believe.

-Dana Diehl

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