Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Truth is Fiction

By Ara 13
Covington Moore, Inc.
220 pages
March 2009

Ara 13's 2007 debut novel Drawers & Booths solidly established its author as a highly original and provocative voice in the world of literature. Its innovative blend of an unusual narrative voice and challenging subject matter were altogether a very bold introduction that now demands an equally daring follow-up. 13's second novel, simply entitled Fiction, is not a disappointment, but nor is it on par with Drawers & Booths (an admittedly tough act to follow).

Like its predecessor, Fiction is both amusing and thought-provoking, and not to mention occasionally disorienting. It is best described as a combination of Heart of Darkness and Catch-22, if you can stretch your mind enough to imagine such an astonishing thing. The plot at first glance is very straightforward: a priest named Father Daniel is traveling deep into the jungle with the romantic vision of converting a fabled tribe of ferocious cannibals. What he finds instead are sophisticated and knowledgeable hunter-gatherers whose religion, like his own, is based on a singular holy book. The twist comes when he learns just what book it is, and the reader is then treated to 13's trademark screwball logic whose mental gymnastics cleverly and effectively force a serious reconsideration of the nature of God, man, and morality. Fiction has, to borrow the words of Joseph Heller, an "elliptical precision about its perfect pairs and parts that [is] graceful and shocking." Once again, you can prepare to have many of your preconceived notions gleefully disputed.
"I have seen this type of book before. Where I am from there are many books – more than you would believe, although the majority are without images. . . This is simply one of many books. It was written by a man, just like all the others."

"But you, yourself, professed to have a book from the gods," said the king.

"Yes. The Holy Bible. It was written by man, but divinely inspired – by God."

"How do you know?"

"It says so."

"The book?" asked Manaloa Ha.

"Yes. Your book doesn't claim to be the work of God, holy cat, or anything grander than man."

"What if your author lied?"

"He didn't. It's ancient. It has historical perspective."

"And my book has none of those things?"

"Correct," said Daniel.

Of course, the comedy eventually goes dark once the ugly (pun intended) side of spiritual zeal and legalism also make themselves known. You'll never quite look at children's literature the same way again.

Now that being said, Fiction is nevertheless not without its glitches. Ara 13's specialty is extreme metafiction, in which the devices of fiction are self-evident and the reader is never allowed to forget that they are engaged with a work of art. In Drawers & Booths 13 used this metafictional structure to brilliantly illustrate what he perceives to be the conundrum of viewing reality through the man-made lens of theism. He attempts a similar project here, although the plotline is more traditional. Like Heart of Darkness, it is first and foremost the protagonist (Daniel) telling his tale to another character (his grandson) at an unspecified time in the future (although in this case a third-person narration is utilized). 13 goes beyond Conrad, however, by adding yet more layers to his story. We are intermittently taken outside even that narrative and into the viewpoints of other individuals who have encountered Father Daniel. On the one hand, it's an interesting mechanism that emphasizes individual subjectivity and its role in organizing reality, which ultimately means that any first-hand personal account is inherently unreliable.
He'd seen the book before, but he had forgotten the brilliance of its color – like a parakeet – sharp, and vibrant … in places. Every other page, the colors overlapped, forming a muddy brown or choking gray. The edges no longer distinct.

"What do you make of this?" asked Kugie.

The king leaned in and whispered, "I have a theory: More than one artist. Perhaps even four. I call them Jagged, Energetic, Dark, and Precise."

Kugie's eyes widened. "It does appear to be true. Four different styles indeed. But what are we to make of that? A dilemma, I'm sure. Which colors are right?"

"What could be wrong with four views of the same object? When hunters circle a water buffalo, each has his own perspective of the beast, but still, each view is right – just taken from a different point. In the end, each correctly sees the water buffalo."

"That is beautiful," said Kugie.

"The beauty is in its truth."

Unfortunately, it also creates confusion. The story will be gliding smoothly along when all of a sudden - plop, we're in a whole different setting – with characters we'd either almost forgotten about or never even met before – that has seemingly nothing at all to do with the travails of Father Daniel. I understand that 13 is probably trying to frame Daniel in a greater context and perhaps trying to emphasize that no narrative exists in a vacuum. But if that is the case, I'm not sure he quite pulled it off. Plus, the overall tone of the work subsequently feels unstable at times as it veers from serious and grounded to palpably satirical and then back again. (A very striking exception, however, was the tragic figure of GhAttu.)

And it is also for those reasons that the book really slows down in some places, as it is also difficult to be actually interested in these peripheral characters, several of whom aren't even particularly memorable. Luckily, Quan and MillardFillmore, two natives who are either incredibly brilliant or incredibly stupid, more than make up for this, as does the zany patter between Daniel, King Manaloa Ha, and Manaloa Ha's court on the subject of Sacred Books. The farcically ominous ending was also very well done and quite surprising in its topsy-turviness.

All in all, Fiction is a good book but not a great one. Anyone seeking a light, quick read will likely feel somewhat let down, although more astute folks should pick up on the underlying themes and the questions they post. Fiction is nevertheless original and thought-provoking in its own way and those of us more familiar with Ara 13's work will definitely appreciate this new variation on the topic of faith and reality. (But I do recommend reading Drawers & Booths first.)

This post marks also marks a milestone in the life of This Book and
I Could Be Friends. It is the first time I have ever reviewed an advance review copy! Never before have I had the opportunity to read a book that hasn't been released yet. Thanks Mr. 13!


Ara 13 said...

You are quite welcome. Thanks for two thorough reviews. The part you pulled about the natives mulling over the "authors" is meant to reflect the various authors that academics attribute to the Bible, J, E, D, and P.
I can understand why the tangent threads of the stories of those incidentally touched by Daniel, even in a removed "Sixth Degree of Kevin Bacon" sort of way may have dragged for you. And, somewhat, that was the intent, as it was supposed to narratively represent the reader's trudge back into the forest; hence, somewhat arduous; perhaps as Eco challenged the reader in The Name of the Rose prior to their rite of passage into the crime story.
Again, thank you for your reviews. Ara

Related Posts with Thumbnails