Does anyone other than a novelist truly like a story within a story?
The creation of multiple stories asks much of you as a reader. First you must inhabit the a fictional landscape. Then, once you have decided that you are sufficiently engaged to continue, you must commit characters’ names to memory —plus relationships, places, events, even argot and slang. And then, when you have done all this work — when you have given the gift of your attention to the writer, s/he repays you with a slap in the face — “Start again, with entirely new characters, places, relationships, situations, and events.”
Scheherezade notwithstanding, I don’t care for stories within stories. I would never knowingly read a book structured as a story encapsulating other stories. And even of the books I love that feature stories within the main narrative (viz John Irving’s “The World According to Garp”) I tend to skim over the stories within the story. I never did read the two novellas embedded Garp. (Or was it one novella and one fragment? I can’t remember — I didn’t read them.)
This is also a problem with picaresque novels that are painted on large canvasses — for example, Saul Bellow’s “The Adventures of Augie March,” which for all its brilliance is overly imagined, forcing the reader to follow too many twists, too many new situations, too many new characters, and too many events. Each new section requires the reader to learn a new universe. It’s a lot to ask of anyone.
None of these three books — “The Lazarus Project,” “The Resurrectionist,” and “The Blind Assassin” — could stand beside Garp or Augie, although I will say that the Hemon book is damn good.
What was striking about the O’Connell book (Resurrectionist) and the Atwood novel (Assassin) was that the stories within the stories were actually more interesting than the fictions concocted around them. O’Connell’s contained novel is a text-based retelling of a fictional comic book series, “Limbo Comics,” that features a traveling band of circus freaks on an invented planet. It’s really quite terrific: highly imaginative, entirely believable within the framework of its invented world, a gripping story; unfortunately, this very good story is wrapped inside a dreary, noirish narrative about the father of a comatose boy. It’s hard to imagine inventing something as engaging as Limbo Comics and its cast of castaway freaks — and then consigning to second-class citizenship of a book within a book… but that’s what O’Connell did.
As for the Atwood, well, I suspect she knew that her story within the story (actually it’s even more convoluted than that, but never mind) was her best work — the story within the story is in fact “The Blind Assassin,” giving the overarching novel its title. It’s a fantasy story set in a world of virgin sacrifices, blind bands of magically talented criminals, woodland kingdoms, and the like. As with the O’Connell, the wrapping of the Atwood novel is bland compared to the story contained inside — worse, the “real” story seemed wholly fictional and forced.
Now we come to the Hemon. The story within the story of “The Lazarus Project” is the novel that the narrator wishes to write and indeed wins a grant to research. The story around the story is the narrator’s trek to Ukraine and to Bosnia to research the life of Lazarus Averbuch, an actual figure from history. Averbuch was a Jewish immigrant who was shot at the home of Chicago’s chief of police. He may or may not have been an anarchist; he may or may not have been planning an attack on the police chief. In any case he was killed, a sad coda to a sad life.
Partly understandably, partly absurdly, Hemon (or Hemon’s fictionalized doppelganger) identifies with Averbuch, despite the fact that (as his fictionalized wife points out) Hemon is not Jewish. And so the narrator travels to Eastern Europe with his best friend Rora, a photographer, to research the life of Averbuch.
Now, as it happens, Hemon’s real-life best friend is also a photographer who happened to travel to Eastern Europe with Hemon on an actual research trip, and whose photos decorate the pages.
And so yes, what we have here is classic metafiction, which more often than not irritates the crap out of me, but Hemon is nimble writer, the Averbuch story is compelling, and the fictional Rora is given to illustrating points with lengthy jokes that made me laugh. And so despite the fact that it was mega-metafictional material, I enjoyed it immensely and would say that it was among the very best books I read this year.