In Hollywood, where last year’s stars are this year’s busboys, Fictionals are everywhere. Niles Golan’s therapist is a Fictional. So is his best friend. So (maybe) is the woman in the bar he can’t stop staring at. Fictionals – characters ‘translated’ into living beings for movies and TV using cloning technology – are a part of daily life in LA now. Sometimes the problem is knowing who’s real and who’s not. Divorced, alcoholic and hanging on by a thread, Niles – author of The Saladin Imperative: A Kurt Power Novel and many others – has been hired to write a big-budget reboot of a classic movie. If he does this right, the studio might bring one of Niles’ own characters to life. Somewhere beneath the movie – beneath the TV show it was inspired by, the children’s book behind that and the story behind that – is the kernel of something important. If he can just hold it together long enough…
Niles Golan is an ass. There, I said it. He’s unlikeable, narcissistic, egocentric and he’s a realist—and not in a good way. Yet despite all this I was rooting for him to get it right, to get his life back on track and to become the success he so desperately wants to be. It is a testament to Al Ewing’s considerable writing skills that Niles manages to be a sympathetic character despite all his flaws. But The Fictional Man is more than just a character study of a rather unpleasant man; it’s also an exploration of what it means to be human. When does the Other cross that line and become human to us? Who are we? Are we who others perceive us to be or who we tell ourselves we are? Ewing never gives us the answer to these questions, but he gives us an answer. It makes for a fascinating, many-layered story that keeps surprising the reader at every turn.
The Fictional Man is a little metafictional as it’s a book about a writer writing a screen play. The story uses several different forms to tell its tale. There are fragments of a film script, a review, a children’s book written as a poem, a short story all contained in the narrative. And of course there is always Niles narrating Niles. These can be jarring, but as opposed to the metafictionality described by Adam Calloway, it doesn’t alienate. Yes, you are aware you are reading fiction – an awareness emphasised by this world being an alternate reality, it’s our world now, but with some rather significant alterations – but you’re never quite sure where the primary layer of fiction ends and the following layer begins. The reader is also confronted with the fact that every narrator is potentially an unreliable narrator, especially if a story is told in the first person. Ewing drives this point home through letting Niles self-narrate his life. It doesn’t just make for some very funny inner dialogues, it also shows that how we feel and what we think, in many cases isn’t what we say or do. In Niles’ perception – and imagination – he’s a badass crime writer and the only reason he’s not a bestseller such as Stephen King or James Patterson is because the critics have it out for him. But the Niles we’re shown in the novel is far from the stellar talent he thinks himself and we see him scrabbling for every bit of recognition and success he can get, even if it means doing something he’d rather not.
Ewing’s concept of fictionals – artificially grown beings, who are live versions of fictional characters – is awesome. It’s also a little scary, what if they translated Hannibal Lector, and rather exploitative, but brilliant in its wish-fulfilment potential. As such, I really liked the taboo on fictional/realist relationships, as on the one hand it takes away one exploitation factor, on the other hand it also shows the innate human tendency to dehumanise the Other. It makes Niles’ gradual realisation that fictionals are also humans, or at least as human as they’ve been written to be, more powerful and his prior prejudice even more obviously wrong-headed. He gains insight and a different perspective due to his friendship with Bob, a super hero fictional gone independent, and through his research of the source material for the film he’s asked to script the re-make for. Niles realises Niles Golan is just as fictional as Bob is, that in the end we’re all fictional, we all write our own stories, for good or bad. It’s a powerful message and it reminded me of the following quote from Kurt Vonnegut from the introduction to Mother Night: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
In the end, Niles does get his fictional, even if it isn’t the fictional he expected. It’s a satisfying ending, even if a little disturbing and sad. I was blown away by Ewing’s The Fictional Man, not in the least because the more I think about it, the more layers I discover and the more impressive it becomes. There is so much to unpack in this story, it’s amazing. This is definitely a contender to make my best of year list at the end of the year, in quite a high place as well, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find it on awards ballots next year. And you shouldn’t be surprised that I highly recommend it.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.