Metafiction and #MeToo

A new way to write trauma

Maggie Doherty
Painting of an abstract storm
H. Lyman Saÿen, The Thundershower, 1918. Courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Let me tell you a story, one you’ve probably heard before. An older man gains the trust of a younger woman. He is experienced, knowing, with charisma to spare. She is young, troubled, talented, precocious. (To some eyes, she might not even look that young.) She talks; he listens. She cries; he comforts. He kisses; she responds. For maybe the first time, she is seen the way she wants to be seen: that is, as special. It’s only later that any injuries become apparent: stains, bruises, empty spaces where pieces of herself used to be. By then, it’s too late for her to say what she wants, or doesn’t want, and why.

This story is just a template, a script, ready for adaptation. I could tell it to you in different ways and with different effects. I could give the man and the girl names, personalities, backstories, make them people we can study and psychologize. I could use the second person, make you feel the way the girl feels (a little proud and a little scared).

Or I can tell it to you in the first person: I am the girl sitting with the much older man who runs a magazine. I have just published my first book review. I am going through a devastating breakup, and I can’t really manage to eat or to sleep. I find myself flirting—even though I feel no attraction, even though I mostly feel dead inside—because it seems like what I am supposed to do. I feel like I’m auditioning for a play. I’ve taken my cue from the man in front of me, and I’m trying not to mess up my lines.

There’s something to be said for the first-person approach when it comes to telling a story like the one above. It’s direct, intimate, seemingly authentic. It makes clear demands on the audience: listen, believe, bear witness.

But an audience is rarely a blank screen, and a speaker is usually aware of what an audience demands or expects. Victims have scripts too, ways of making themselves more credible. In September 2018, when Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee about her memories of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulting when she was fifteen years old, she was praised for telling her story in the most convincing way. She was clear and controlled. She remembered the things she should remember and forgot those things—how she got home, for example—that a traumatized person would forget. She was the right amount of emotional, at the right times. But in testifying to a personal experience of sexual violation, Ford faced a problem familiar to many women: how to tell this kind of story in a way that was truthful and credible to both the victims of sexual assault and the many skeptics in the audience. You could see her strain to meet competing demands. Only nine days later, Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court.

Blasey Ford’s testimony—much like the many public statements by women who have been violated or harassed by powerful men—demonstrates both the value and the limitations of first-person testimony when it comes to stories about sexual misconduct. On the one hand, if violation silences a woman, a victim who tells her own story can feel empowered: by testifying, she reclaims her voice. On the other hand, first-person accounts struggle to be received as anything other than subjective: This is what she said, sure, but what about his perspective? The women delivering these first-person statements are easily dismissed, or ridiculed by their opponents as vindictive or unhinged: “A little bit nutty and a little bit slutty,” as political operative David Brock once sought to portray Anita Hill. And so in an effort to be taken seriously, a woman might shape her story to satisfy certain expectations. This isn’t to say she lies or fabricates. Rather, in telling her story to an audience, she hews to a received script, one that may not do justice to the complexity of her own experience. She abides by certain generic conventions.

But what violence do we do to ourselves or to others if we modify our stories to accord with an internalized template? And what about stories that don’t fit the “victim’s narrative” script? These are the questions taken up in a recent crop of books by women about sex, power, and the misuse of both that have won critical acclaim. These works break out of first-person narration and go—pointedly and self-consciously—off-script. To audiences now well used to stories about powerful men taking advantage of their female subordinates—these books were all published in the aftermath of the Weinstein revelations and the popularization of the #MeToo hashtag—the effect is at once jarring and illuminating, like seeing a familiar landscape from a surprising new angle.

Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend uses a one-way epistolary framing to address the womanizing of a minor male novelist and creative writing teacher, identified only as “you,” who has recently died by suicide. In her letters, the narrator mourns her friend while also pointing out his lapses in judgement. She wonders about what a post-#MeToo classroom will look like and what she might miss about the old, male-dominated literary world. Mary Gaitskill’s This Is Pleasure, originally published in 2019 as a short story in The New Yorker, offers a twist on the “he said, she said” concept, alternating between the perspective of Quin, a disgraced editor accused of workplace harassment, and that of Margot, a fellow editor and friend. The story grants insight into the mind of a man who is at once a champion of women writers and a flirt who violates the boundaries of women in his employ. Margot rejects Quin’s advances early in their relationship, when, as he tries to reach up her skirt, she thrusts her hand at him “palm out, like a traffic cop.” Why hadn’t other women done the same?

The most intriguing examples in this group do more than portray, in all their complexities, relationships between young women and powerful creative men. They raise questions about the ethics and consequences of narrating such experiences—not just for the author, or for the victim, but for anyone implicated in story. Lisa Halliday’s debut novel Asymmetry (2018), Susan Choi’s award-winning novel Trust Exercise (2019), and Carmen Maria Machado’s memoir In the Dream House (2019) all take up as their explicit subject the problem of narrating sex within power imbalances. Each has as a protagonist a writer, one who finds her material amidst the challenges and confusions of an untraditional or even harmful romance—and who is revealed as the author of all or part of the book we are reading. Each offers a complexly layered account of the relationship (or relationships) it is attempting to understand. These books draw attention to their own construction and self-consciously place themselves within a network of other texts. More than sex or power, they make storytelling itself their subject.

In so doing, they revive the techniques of metafiction a half century after its 1970s vogue, and put them to a new and serious ethical purpose. In its twentieth-century heyday, metafiction was often playful and satiric, given to demonstrations of authorial virtuosity. By contrast, today’s narratives shift and swerve not out of a sense of adventure, but out of a sense of obligation—to themselves and to those affected by the events recounted. All too aware of how a false or incomplete story can itself be a form of violation, these books seek to fill in gaps and reckon with difficult truths. If not “complete” accounts of sexual misconduct, they nonetheless make us think from a new perspective about the different kinds of harm that can befall those caught up in the situations they describe.

Metafiction, according to the scholar
Patricia Waugh, is “writing which self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artefact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality.” Although the technique has been around for almost as long as the novel has—Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy is one of the earliest examples—the term “metafiction” wasn’t coined until 1970. In an essay called “Philosophy and the Form of Fiction,” William Gass sought to demonstrate how similar philosophy and fiction were. Novelists, Gass argued, could themselves be philosophers: “Writers are seldom recognized as empiricists, idealists, skeptics, or stoics” that they ought to be seen as, he wrote. The novelists who came closest to executing Gass’s ideal of fiction-as-philosophy were those like Borges and John Barth, who broke many of the rules of fiction-writing. Instead of presenting the reader with linear plots or coherent, bounded narrative worlds, these writers produced work “in which the forms of fiction serve as the material upon which further forms can be superimposed.” In imitation of philosophical terms like “metalanguage,” Gass renamed the “anti-novels” of Barth, Borges, and Flann O’Brien “metafictions.”

A key point of metafiction was to demonstrate that our lived reality—our supposed “real world”—is a kind of fiction too

From the 1960s through the 1980s, metafiction was decidedly in. (During the 1970s, the journalist Tom Wolfe got so frustrated with the dearth of traditionally realist novels that he started writing his own—and later wrote a “literary manifesto” in 1989 to justify his approach.) Novelists and short story writers took to using pastiche, parody, and the conventions of scholarship. Nabokov laced Pale Fire with unexpectedly moving critical commentary on the poem and poet at the center of the work. Donald Barthelme incorporated fairy tales and newspaper headlines into his short fiction. Barth, who cited Borges as his influence, encouraged readers of his collection Lost in The Funhouse to cut the first story, aptly called “Frame-tale,” into a Mobius strip, creating a story without clear beginning or conclusive end.

A key point of metafiction was to demonstrate that our lived reality—our supposed “real world”—is a kind of fiction too, with agreed-upon laws and rules. As Waugh argued in her 1984 study, “In showing us how literary fiction creates its imaginary worlds, metafiction helps us understand how the reality we live day by day is similarly constructed, similarly ‘written.’” Or as Gass put it, the novelist “is ceasing to pretend that his business is to render the world; he knows…that his business is to make one, and to make one from the only medium of which he is a master—language.” Language is both the only tool writers have and the very thing they’re trying to break through.

For many writers, metafiction was the best way to get beyond stale “truths” about literature or perception. It also allowed writers to make politically subversive points at a time when many worried about being complicit with the institutions and discourses that backed military imperialism during the Vietnam War. In The Art of Fiction, published posthumously in 1983, the novelist John Gardner explained why metafiction was a less manipulative form of writing: it ensured that writers weren’t producing propaganda. “Nothing in the world has greater power to enslave than fiction,” he wrote. “One way of undermining [its] harmful effects is the writing of metafiction: a story that calls attention to its methods.… In this kind of fiction, needless to say, the law of the ‘vivid and continuous dream’ is no longer operative; on the contrary, the breaks in the dream are as important as the dream.” But Gardner recognized that something might be lost along with the “continuous dream”—namely, fiction’s ability to move us emotionally. “The appeal of metafiction may be almost entirely intellectual,” he suggested.

The best practitioners of the form—Nabokov, Barthelme, and, according to Gardner, Gardner himself—managed to unite the intellectual and the emotional, offering moving commentaries on the social and political world even in work that was intertextual and self-reflexive. (More than once, I’ve been moved to tears reading Barthelme.) But there were also imitators—the “crank turners,” as David Foster Wallace called them in a 1993 interview, “little gray people who take the machines others have built and just turn the crank, and little pellets of metafiction come out the other end”—whose work had little emotional power and offered nothing more than clever wordplay.

By the time of Wallace’s interview, the metafictional tide had turned. Interest in the textual or discursive nature of the world diminished over time, as new forms of media and technology—some less verbal than others—became more prominent. At the same time, writers from communities that had been less frequently represented stressed how important it was to use fiction to represent their particular identities and worlds. (This is not to say that these writers did not experiment formally; Toni Morrison’s Beloved is as innovative a novel as there is.) American literary realism resurged in the late twentieth century, and has held sway since. While some writers still played around with metafictional conventions—Don DeLillo and Philip Roth come readily to mind—metafiction, as a go-to novelistic strategy, began to seem outmoded, like a toy that no longer entertains.

. In the last couple of years, a group of women writers have reinvigorated metafiction as a way of dealing with a newly visible social problem. Like some of their predecessors, they use the form to accentuate violence and exploitation to which we might have become inured. But unlike the work of the more exuberant metafictionalists of the 1960s and the 1970s, their work feels sober, more careful than playful. The contemporary female metafictionalist may write in an equally unpredictable fashion, but she seems less rebellious than socially responsible. She turns to the form in order to avoid subsuming the stories of others, the way the powerful people in their books often do.

Trust Exercise, Susan Choi’s fifth novel, best exemplifies this new use of metafiction. The first part of the novel, set in an unnamed city in the American South in the 1980s, is focalized through Sarah, a precocious, punky junior at the city’s premier performing arts high school. It begins with one of the odd “exercises” devised by the theater director, Mr. Kingsley, a charismatic, respected teacher who is constantly pushing his student to feel more, reveal more. (One student, looking back on a particularly grueling exercise, likens it to “pornography” because of the indecent intimacy it encourages—implying, too, that Kingsley takes pleasure in watching it.) Mr. Kingsley has turned off the lights in the auditorium, and the students must grope forward in the dark. Sarah bumps into David, a Mick Jagger look-a-like with a “simian” smile, and the two kiss and fondle each other until the lights come back on. They spend the rest of the summer searching for places to be alone together, only to break up on the first day of school the following fall, when David makes a too-public display of affection.

At this point, Trust Exercise seems like a typical realist novel—a “vivid and continuous dream,” to use Gardner’s phrase. But there are a few indications that we shouldn’t believe what we’re reading too readily. It’s retrospective, for one thing: “Remember the dilation and diffusion, the years within days,” the narrator enjoins in the first section. The line suggests that the way Sarah experienced her junior year might differ from how it actually transpired. One starts to wonder about her impressions of certain events, particularly those of a sexual nature. For instance, Sarah suspects that Mr. Kingsley, who has taken an avuncular interest in Sarah, has been sleeping with a student named Manuel. She outs Manuel to his family. But does she have enough evidence, and does she interpret it correctly? And what about her sexual encounter with Liam, an older actor and a member of a visiting theater troupe—is it as benign, or as unpleasant, as she suggests?

Then, too, there are Mr. Kingsley’s strange class exercises, which blur the line between subjective and objective truths. In “Ego Reconstruction,” two students sit facing each other and offer observations such as, “you’re tall,” or “your hair is curly,” repeating these observations back to each other ad infinitum. The students are supposed to progress from objective observations to subjective ones over the course of the class. “Subjective: an opinion, a feeling, very often a confession,” the narrator explains. “As opposed to ostensibly simpler objective: a statement of fact.” But an observation such as “you’re a virgin” ends up troubling this binary. “‘You’re a virgin’ is really objective—but is it?” the students in the audience wonder. “Isn’t that up to her? Isn’t it subjective…until she confirms it as a fact?” The exercise suggests that both kinds of truth depend upon collaboration: a person’s observation is only ever a “fact” if someone else agrees to it.

This confusion—of different kinds of truth—prompts the book’s major metafictional turn. Just after Sarah leaves to visit Liam in England, the narrative abruptly switches perspectives. “Karen” (not her real name, but this narrator eventually gives up the quotation marks) is a classmate of Sarah’s; in the first section, she’s mentioned a few times in passing. But Karen suggests that she and Sarah were in fact best friends. She reveals that the novel we’ve been reading was written by Sarah, whom Karen calls “the author” (perhaps she’s not “Sarah” after all?), and who is now on book tour in San Francisco. Karen takes a dim view of fiction writing: it’s either a mere record of what happened, like an H.R. report, or it is false, an unethical invention. Waiting to confront the author, Karen has put her bookmark in Sarah’s novel about their shared high school experience at the very spot that Choi’s first section cuts off. The narrative goes meta not out of authorial adventurousness, in other words, but readerly exhaustion.

Exasperated by a story that strikes her as both insufficient and untrue, Karen finds it too easy to identify within Sarah’s novel the real-life models for some of the characters, such as David and Mr. Kingsley. “In fact, the scheme is almost too simple—out of respect for the truth? From a failure of imagination?” Karen speculates. But she also sees that Sarah has made important alterations, some of which she doesn’t understand. “Why give the pain of the broken friendship to Joelle, why take it away from Karen?” she wonders at one point. Are the reasons for this invention “psychological,” while the reason for others are “artistic”? Karen doesn’t know; she “isn’t the type to pretend to have superior insight into people she knew as a child and then turned her back on and then used as she wished for her personal gain…. That would be petty.”

Karen is not petty, but she’s also not a pushover. In an act of unusual resistance—the artwork turning on the artist—she takes over the story, sharing, in her tense, overly controlled style, what these years of high school were like for her: painful, traumatic, full of rejection. She’s seduced and then dumped by Martin, a school theater director in his forties and the oldest of the visiting Brits; she carries an unwanted pregnancy to term and gives up the child for adoption; she cannot rekindle her friendship with Sarah when they both return to school. She doesn’t understand why her story—her victimization, her suffering—has been minimized and a high school romance has been given center stage. She can’t forgive the multiple violations she suffered: first by Martin, who also minimized her suffering; then by young Sarah; and now again by an adult Sarah who has misrepresented Karen’s story. When she eventually gets her revenge—on everyone involved, including adult Sarah—she does so not by telling a story but by taking violent, unexpected action. To her, fiction is insufficient as a way of reckoning with violence.

Ultimately, Trust Exercise sides with Karen in its skepticism about storytelling’s utility. Sarah had “aimed lower and chosen a talent anybody could fake with the right kind of tools,” Karen reflects at one point, comparing the fiction writer unfavorably to other kinds of artists. (Karen used to be a dancer.) Telling a story from multiple perspectives, as Choi does, is certainly better than telling it only from one perspective; it would be wrong to leave out the pain of others in the interest of narrative neatness or, as Karen puts it, “personal gain.” It’s not clear, however, that even a multiperspectival narrative can do much for the people who have been hurt. By the novel’s end, we learn that the prototype for Kingsley, a man named Robert Lord, was—like Martin—a teacher who preyed on his students. It is only after his death, after the school has been renamed the “Robert Lord School for the Arts” in his honor, that a “credible allegation of sexual abuse” comes out. Posthumous dishonor isn’t nothing, but nor is it entirely satisfying—not for Karen’s biological daughter, who has her own dicey encounter with Kingsley/Lord; nor for the reader, who doesn’t see any of the book’s several narratives neatly concluded. But this is of course the point: closure cannot be achieved through storytelling alone.

Carmen Maria Machado is more optimistic than Choi about literary innovation and its ability to reckon with abuse and injustice. She writes about being abused in a queer relationship precisely because she thinks there’s a social and political need for stories like hers. In the Dream House begins with an epigraph from Zora Neale Hurston that warns, “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” Machado picks up on this idea in the book’s prologue, where she explains that there is an “archival silence” around domestic abuse within queer relationships: the topic is missing from histories of queerness, while queer women are missing from domestic violence records. Her book, then, represents an effort to fill that silence—and, in so doing, to protect other people like her. Machado the memoirist is like Karen in this way: bent on correcting the record and filling in the gaps. “I enter into the archive that domestic abuse between partners who share a gender identity is both possible and not uncommon, and that it can look something like this,” she writes. “I speak into the silence. I toss the stone of my story into a vast crevice; measure the emptiness by its small sound.”

Like Trust Exercise, Machado’s memoir is a metafictional work that calls attention to its own constructedness. It might seem odd to characterize a memoir as “metafiction”—the term implies imagination and invention, whereas Machado’s story is autobiographical. But for Machado, the typical trauma memoir—first-person, stylistically consistent, a linear story of suffering overcome—is too limited. More than that, it risks reinforcing stereotypes about hysterical women and deviant queer people. Thus, out of frustration with the available scripts, she begins to invent—not facts but rather a new memoiristic form.

In each of the brief chapters, Machado experiments with different ways of narrating her experience. Many of them borrow from literary criticism and theory. “Dream House as Picaresque” presents Machado as a “picara…bopping from city to city.” “Dream House as Bildungsroman” gives us Machado’s condensed coming-of-age story. “Dream House as Romance Novel” offers a sweet, sexy postcoital scene. Each new genre or mode dramatizes Machado’s decision-making power as author: as a pioneer of the queer domestic abuse memoir, she is sifting through the available forms, seeing which can do justice to her material. Her use of such a wide variety suggests that no one style or genre can convey the complexity of this relationship.

Unlike Choi’s novel, the memoir is told from only one perspective: the goal of Machado’s literary elaboration is to provide a detailed account of what violence and abuse feel like inside a relationship and how they might appear to those outside of it. She writes mostly in the second person. It’s a choice that both reflects her trauma and dissociation—the “you” is her private, victimized self—and encourages the reader to empathize. Describing one of the first instances of physical violence in the relationship, which takes place in the girlfriend’s parents’ kitchen, Machado writes with striking sensory detail, as if to make the sensations arrive upon the reader’s skin:

Her grip goes hard, begins to hurt. You don’t understand; you don’t understand so profoundly your brain skitters, skips, backs up. You make a tiny gasp, the tiniest gasp you can. It is the first time she is touching you in a way that is not filled with love, and you don’t know what to do. This is not normal, this is not normal, this is not normal. Your brain is scrambling for an explanation, and it hurts more and more, and everything is static. Your thoughts are accompanied by a cramp of alarm, and you are so focused on it that you miss her response.

Here, Machado brings together her experience of the event—the “scrambling” brain, that “cramp of alarm”—and her retrospective understanding of it: “This is not normal.” The girlfriend’s response is elided in part because Machado, unlike Mr. Kingsley’s students, doesn’t require another person to confirm an observation as true. She switches styles and modes not out of an obligation to tell a story from all sides but to provide a variety of literary forms a victim like her can combine to compelling effect.

Still, Machado is worried about how her story reflects on the queer community. She kept silent about the abuse for so long because she was concerned about confirming everyone’s worst suspicions about queer women. “If your family found out they’d probably think it proved every idea they’d ever had about lesbians,” she thinks the morning after an abusive incident. “The last thing queer women need is bad fucking PR.” Historically, queer women have hesitated before speaking out about domestic abuse even more than their straight counterparts, perhaps in part because some radical feminists had suggested that communities of lesbian separatists would be free from the violence and exploitation that characterized women’s lives under patriarchy. Domestic violence between women, in this line of thinking, is a kind of political failure. Machado quotes the radical feminist magazine Off Our Backs and the first Lesbian Battering Conferences: “What will it do to our utopian dyke dreams to admit the existence of this violence?” “I am unaccountably haunted by the specter of the lunatic lesbian,” she writes, after discussing a Bollywood film Girlfriend, in which the lesbian character is portrayed as crazy. “I did not want my lover to be dogged by mental illness or a personality disorder or rage issues. I did not want her to act with unflagging irrationality. I did not want her to be jealous or cruel. Years later, if I could say anything to her, I’d say, ‘For fuck’s sake, stop making us look bad.’”

By playing with these scripts and tropes, deliberately and self-consciously, Machado seeks to denude them of their power. They are tools that a writer can use, not truths that she inevitably confirms. If her relationship—the “Dream House” of the title—can be described as a lesbian cult classic, and a noir film, and a romance novel, and a story of star-crossed lovers, then the reader must imagine that it is all of these and none of these at once. No stereotype is accurate; no one single script can do justice to what transpired.

two different literary approaches to narratives of sexual or romantic exploitation. In Trust Exercise, Choi suggests that even the most inventive and comprehensive story cannot repair certain kinds of injuries. In telling stories, we almost always recapitulate the domination and violations that we meant to correct. With In the Dream House, Machado suggests that storytelling, when done creatively, can prompt important revelations in an audience, or within a community. With enough invention, we can describe or redescribe the kinds of violations that are often written over or ignored. In its self-consciousness and variety, her memoir is something like the perfect victim’s impact statement, a text it is nearly impossible to quibble with or to contradict.

In Asymmetry, Lisa Halliday offers something like a synthesis. For her, all the writer can do is share what she sees. Depending on who she is and how she orients herself to the world, her vision may be partial and limited, or it may be expansive. Asymmetry stages a conversation between two different kinds of writers as a way of reflecting on literature’s social role. Ezra Blazer, modeled on Philip Roth, is an accomplished novelist in his late sixties living in New York City. He is funny, Jewish, sex-obsessed, a lover of baseball and of women. He is sought after by publishing houses and by young novelists who want a blurb. He has won nearly every literary prize but the Nobel. (“Blazer! You were robbed!” shouts a man on the street when he sees the writer out with his young girlfriend.) He has no trouble approaching a girl in a park—Alice, a twenty-five-year-old editorial assistant and aspiring writer—and asking her if she is “game.”

The first section of Asymmetry tracks the improbable relationship between Alice and Ezra, set against the backdrop of post-9/11 New York City. Like the first section of Trust Exercise, it’s a retrospective account of youth, a bit nostalgic for the uncertainty and intensity of that time. Ezra introduces Alice to Charlie Chaplin, Albert Camus, and Knob Creek whiskey. She picks up his favorite preserves (“the most expensive one they’ve got”) and journeys to multiple bodegas to get him a specific kind of ice cream. He pays off her student loans, buys her an air conditioner, and, when she slips on ice, gets her an appointment with the best hand surgeon in New York. They watch baseball games together and take dirty pictures. The sex, as Halliday represents it, is mutually desired and mutually satisfying.

There is a sense, though, that Alice, or whoever is narrating this relationship (it’s told in close-third person), is papering over some of its disappointments. “Do you ever think this isn’t good for you?” Ezra asks once, early in the relationship, calling Alice from a blocked number. Alice counters, “a little too loudly,” that it is “very good.” The power dynamic clearly favors the older novelist. Alice can only see Ezra on his terms: he summons her by phone, and he starts crooning an old song when it’s time for her to leave. He retreats upstate to write his novel, for as long as the novel needs him. When asked by an elderly neighbor whether she has a boyfriend, Alice repeatedly answers in the negative, although Ezra is, at least in part, just that. Once, while masquerading as Ezra’s assistant Samantha, a home health care aide recommends, sotto voce, that Alice “freeze an egg,” a suggestion Alice receives as a warning that Ezra is wasting her time.

But she’s also spending this time carefully: listening, observing, and writing “a little,” as she confesses to Ezra. The conversation that ensues contrasts different ideas about the novelist’s place in the world. Ezra believes that a novelist’s choice of subject doesn’t matter all that much. He encourages Alice to write about herself, about her father. “Don’t worry about importance” of subject matter, he explains. “Importance comes from doing it well.”

Alice has a different idea: she wants to write about “War. Dictatorships. World affairs.” She wants to imagine the lives of people very much unlike her: a homeless man, an older woman she sees on a train, an Iraqi-American economist she notices at the courthouse while serving jury duty, maybe Ezra himself. Ezra discourages this impulse. Even when Alice makes a simple, objective observation about another person—for example, that the older woman was wearing a periwinkle blouse—Ezra shuts her down with his injunction: “Don’t sentimentalize.” To Ezra, you’re either being true to your own story, or you’re mischaracterizing someone else’s. It’s all subjective observation, so you may as well stick to writing what you know very well.

In the end, Alice does it all. She writes about herself as a young woman, she writes about Ezra, and she writes about the economist. The second section of Asymmetry is the story of Amar Jaafari, an economist with “two passports, two nationalities, no native soil,” who has been detained by British immigration officers en route to visit his brother in Iraq. It’s 2003, the War on Terror is in full force, and Amar’s dual citizenship is enough to rouse suspicion. As he waits for his case to be decided, he reflects on his life—his education, his romances, his distance from his brother, Sami, who decided to establish a life in Iraq—and the major political events that have shaped his life. The brief references to the second Bush presidency and to the deployment of US armed forces in the novel’s first part are expanded into new, horrifying significance.

There’s a lot that we don’t know about the narratives that comprise Asymmetry, a lot that Halliday’s spare prose leaves out. We don’t know who exactly authored the novel’s first section, though by the end we suspect that it’s a present-day Alice looking back. We don’t know when or why Alice and Ezra broke up. We don’t know how Alice gathered the material to write Amar’s story—did she conduct interviews? Do research? Simply invent?

These omissions demonstrate the partiality—what Choi’s Karen might call the insufficiency—of storytelling. As a writer, neither Alice nor Halliday can include everything about everyone implicated in their stories. But nor, Asymmetry works to convince us, would it make sense to follow Ezra’s advice and write only about “the self” or “the family”—that is, the private, subjective world. Asymmetry presents the self and the family as socially embedded; telling your own story inevitably means telling the stories of others. How could Alice write about “herself” without also writing about Ezra? How could she describe New York of the early aughts without also describing how the city participated in and endorsed military action overseas? It would be an ethical failure, the novel suggests, for Alice not to try to represent the suffering of people like Amar—suffering in which she and those she loved were complicit.

But Alice, aware of her own subjectivity, leaves room for her subjects to speak for themselves. Asymmetry ends with Ezra, his voice apparently unfiltered by Alice’s ear. The novel’s last section is a BBC interview, “Desert Island Discs,” and Ezra is the interviewee. During the interview, he confirms that Alice is the author of Amar’s story; he describes the book as a “rather surprising little novel,” as well as “a veiled portrait” of Alice—but then he would think these things. The third section presents a less flattering representation of Ezra than the one offered in the first section: in the interview, he is at times self-important and dismissive. He hits on the interviewer (younger than him, married) at the end, using the very same line he used on young Alice. He jokes that he earned a Purple Heart for his sexual adventures. A reader can’t help but be disappointed that Ezra is not as generous or considerate as Alice has represented—or imagined—him to be.

The Alice who wrote the novel’s first section has, it seems, gotten Ezra wrong—but this is fitting. Roth, Ezra’s model, once wrote about the value, indeed, necessity of “getting people wrong” in fiction. In American Pastoral, Nathan Zuckerman, a writer and Roth’s frequent alter ego (one of his trademark metafictional moves), is reflecting on the impossibility of knowing, and representing, others. “You get them wrong before you meet them, while you’re anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them wrong again,” he muses, adding:

[W]hat are we to do about this terribly significant business of other people…? Is everyone to go off and lock the door and sit secluded like the lonely writers do, in a soundproof cell, summoning people out of words and then proposing that these word people are closer to the real thing than real people that we mangle with our ignorance every day? The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong.

The passage can be read as self-exculpating—no writer is capable of representing others accurately, so who can blame him for inventing too freely? But it can also be read as a statement of authorial anxiety. It is impossible to get people right, in life or on the page, but it is equally impossible—or maybe just irresponsible—to seclude oneself entirely. We’re stuck in the social world, perceiving and describing and understanding others as best we can.

Despite or because of such ambivalences, Roth operates as a kind of hinge between Halliday’s generation of metafictional writers and his own: if his work exhibits some of the rule-breaking effrontery that characterizes 1970s metafiction, it also demonstrates some of the anxiety and social responsibility that we see in this new generation of metafictional writers. In part, Halliday is paying homage to the writer who cleared the ground for her work.

But sexual politics are where Roth and Halliday diverge. It’s not an accident that during his BBC interview, Ezra, Roth’s stand in, marks himself as the product of an earlier generation. When the interviewer asks if he wishes he’d raised his illegitimate children or written a book differently, he responds that he is basically satisfied. His character is voicing a belief closely held by many of the male artists on display in these books: any and all casualties that occur in the grand battle of art are worthwhile. What’s bad sex, or a broken heart, compared to a great novel?

It’s this idea that these #MeToo novelists so skillfully dismantle. In the second section of Trust Exercise, David, now a theater director and a drunk, takes a stab at defending Martin, Karen’s former lover. Martin has been fired from his teaching position for sleeping with his students. David, along with Kingsley, who is also eventually named in a “credible allegation of sexual abuse from a former student,” belongs to what Karen sardonically refers to as the “Elite Brotherhood of the Arts.” He feels compelled to go to bat for a Brother. “Even if he was fooling around with his students,” David says to Karen, “it’s not a fucking crime.” He implies that a man of Martin’s (arguably limited) talent can, and maybe should, break the rules of propriety in order to make art.

A similar conversation takes place in Nunez’s The Friend. “You,” drunk and in love with a nineteen-year-old woman, justifies his womanizing and his many romances with students: “The intensity of your romantic life was not merely helpful but essential to your work, you said…. You yourself never wrote better than during those periods when you were having lots of good sex, you said. With you, the beginning of an affair often coincided with a spell of productivity. It was one of your excuses for cheating.”

These books show how groundless such a defense is. Using the tools of the “great” male artist himself, they not only deftly dissect that figure’s self-justifications, but anatomize the ways such frameworks contribute to a troubling reality—one in which women’s wounds are seen as mere byproducts of making great work.

This isn’t a reason to reject Roth and his ilk entirely. Rather, it is a reason to study them, correct their misperceptions, and take their best advice. Roth was right about at least one thing: the best writers—and he was one of them—don’t sit locked in soundproofed cells, plumbing the depths of their own minds. They observe, they engage, they fall in love and make mistakes, and get a lot of things wrong. But what a relief, in the end, to make an imperfect work of art—a work of art that acknowledges its “wrongness”—the costs and calculations involved in all acts of storytelling. What this new crop of metafictional writers demonstrate through their restless formal searching is that, paradoxically, the more multivocal and less “authoritative” a work of art is, the more illuminating an account it can be. The challenges are not reasons to stop writing, these writers suggest; they are reasons to keep telling the stories, not once but again and again, holding up to the light the twisted events they describe.

Originally published:
April 1, 2020


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