Found Manuscripts

A manuscript has a life of its own. One never knows where it will end up. Once a physical copy exists, its future is uncertain: it could be destroyed, lost, or find itself in unintended hands. The following novels are set around found manuscripts, and use their material uncertainty as a narrative frame. In doing so, these books not only tell their stories at a remove, but also question the ways in which we know what we think we know.

War & War by László Krasznahorkai

A suicidal Hungarian archivist named György Korin stumbles upon a manuscript unlike anything he has ever encountered. He smuggles it out of Hungary (why he needs to do so is never made clear) and catches a flight to New York with no luggage and only a little money. Once he arrives, he buys a computer and rents a room in Washington Heights from a translator who assisted him at the airport. Korin decides that the last thing he needs to do before he kills himself is type out the manuscript and upload it onto the Internet for posterity—a rather prescient plot device for a novel written in 1999. He works every day, and then goes for walks through the city at night. As this happens, Korin’s own story, written in long sentences that range from a few lines to a few pages, are interspersed with excerpts from the strange tale he intends to save from oblivion.

The Incident Report by Martha Baillie

The Incident Report takes the form of 140 incident reports filed by Miriam Gordon, a librarian at a local branch of the Toronto Public Library. The reports describe strange notes left scattered around the library for the narrator (who also begins to tell her life story in the reports) by one “Rigoletto.” They recount the opera of the same name by Verdi, and gradually, the novel’s plot begins to mimic the opera. Although this might sound like a Wayne Koestenbaum novel, Baillie’s style and execution has a lyrical earnestness about it that is all its own. The reports range from fragments of language to fully-developed scenes and build towards an operatic conclusion. It’s a heartbreaking and affecting book in unexpected ways.

Senselessness by Horacio Castellanos Moya

Set in country that's likely El Salvador, Senselessness is the first-person account of a man hired by the Catholic Church to archive the testimonies of indigenous people tortured by the state. As the archivist drinks and fucks his way across the city, nearing mental collapse, his own narrative begins to blend with fragments of these testimonies. Senselessness begins with words transcribed from testimonials—“I am not complete in the mind”—and, in long Bernhardian sentences, unravels from there. One can imagine Senselessness as a fictionalized version of one of the accounts in A Miracle, A Universe, Lawrence Weschler’s nonfiction collection about political torture victims in South and Central America. Here, however, Castellanos Moya attempts to understand what might happen to somebody who spends his days recording and transcribing testimonials of extreme human suffering.

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

The classic of the genre, Pale Fire is framed around a posthumous poem that has been discovered and prepared for publication by an exiled academic named Charles Kinbote. The novel begins by mimicking an academic introduction which includes all the standard scholarly tropes: description of the copy, and assertions of fidelity to the text. The entirety of the plot occurs through exhaustive commentary on the poem, which Kinbote willfully interprets as an epic about his own homeland. With Pale Fire, Nabokov introduced the footnote to modern fiction. The technique requires the reader’s eye to be constantly moving—between text and margins, poem to footnote—unsettling our sense of where meaning is made, and who or what we can believe.

Esau and Jacob by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis

Written almost a hundred years before metafiction became a trend, the novel Esau and Jacob, is, on the surface, the story of two brothers, but it also functions as a political allegory for late nineteenth-century Brazil. The novel narrates the divergent political paths of twin brothers, who, as babies, received the prophecy that they were fated to fight. In a preface to the book, we read that the story purports to be taken from one of seven notebooks written by a deceased Brazilian politician named Counselor Aires. While the first six notebooks concern another of Machado’s novels, Counselor Aires’ Memorial, the seventh notebook, simply titled “Last,” is Esau and Jacob. Aires, the fictional author of Esau and Jacob, later writes himself into his own tale as a character, making the novel a fictional metafiction.

Aaron Peck’s first novel, The Bewilderments of Bernard Willis, took the form of a found manuscript. He is currently working on a second novel. He lives and works in Vancouver, BC.