Layers in Fiction

When multiple narrative layers are incorporated into a work of fiction, they can have a disorienting effect. Whether they take the form of a shift in perspective, the introduction of interviews, or something else, they can deeply affect the way we perceive a novel, and undermine—or do away with entirely—our trust in the story’s narrator. These concerns surface in the works below.

How Should A Person Be by Sheila Heti

To answer its titular question, this “novel from life” turns to email conversations and transcribed chats between Heti and her friends. As Heti explains to her close friend Margaux, "I can listen to what we say, and think it over at home, and figure out where I'm going wrong." Laid out on the page, these recordings reveal the intricacies of relationships and offer insight into Heti's thoughts and ambitions. The recorded quality of the book ultimately bolsters its sense of verité, lending support to its claim of being "from life."

Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald

W.G. Sebald's novel is made up of a series of sprawling and deeply involved conversations between a nameless narrator and his lifelong acquaintance, Jacques Austerlitz. Though the story of Austerlitz’s life seems to be told in the first-person, it’s often not easy to distinguish between the narrator's story and that of his friend. It is only through infrequent and somewhat gymnastic narrative cues that we are reminded who these stories actually belong to: "On my third day in Prague, so Austerlitz continued his story, when he had recovered some degree of composure, I went up to the seminar garden early in the morning." Of course, there is craft behind this confusion, and the novel repeatedly approaches the possibility that these two friends are linked in some uncanny way that exceeds our understanding.

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace

The title story of Wallace's collection provides a too-close-for-comfort look into some of the most abhorrent male psyches ever to have been put to paper. Most of the story consists of one-sided interviews with the titular hideous men. The voice that emerges from these monologues is characteristic of Wallace—exacting but colloquial to an extreme: "Alls I was trying to say is you have got to be careful about taking a knee-jerk attitude about violence and degradation in the case of women also," one of the men attempts to explain. These interviews are so probing and complex that, instead of alienating the reader, they generate an uncomfortable sort of understanding.

The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño

Roberto Bolaño's first full-length novel to be translated into English begins and ends with the journal entries of a young Mexican poet as he becomes part of a fringe literary movement known as visceral realism. Between these entries is a nearly 450 page oral testimony that spans twenty years and gives voice to 38 different people—mainly poets, critics, and friends with ties to the movement. Each testimony contributes to a time-lapse vision of the movement and its deterioration, and many allude to visceral realism’s itinerant founders, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima. With no overarching plot or narrative direction, reading each contribution can at times be monotonous, but the novel as a whole still manages to achieve an affecting significance.

Jonathan Aprea is a writer and photographer based in New York.