by George Singleton
A review by Anna Godbersen
A novel called Novel may cause a certain amount of eye-rolling at this
point (surely this trick has been played before), but, before dismissing this
latest fiction-with-titular-self-reference, one should consider the reasons. Novel
is the first novel by George Singleton, a writer known for his three collections
of oddball and accomplished short stories -- one can hardly blame him for being
hyper-conscious of this particular book's form. And then, the narrator of Novel
is a man named Novel Akers, state-employed snake handler, undercover speech writer,
brother to James and Joyce, the counterfeit Irish orphans his parents adopted
before his birth. (A birth that involved John Cage as a midwife.) Novel is considering
writing a memoir -- then he could call it Novel: The Autobiography -- and
he does spend a good deal of Novel attempting to write his own Novel,
thus relating various scenes from his eccentric childhood.
But there is plenty of high-energy present action, too, mostly centered around
rural Gruel, South Carolina, the hometown of Novel's estranged wife, Bekah.
There he embarks on various ventures, including the Sneeze 'n' Tone spa (Bekah's
idea) and a writer's retreat. This last one allows Singleton to introduce the
writer's how-to books, which Novel references throughout his tale, as well as
some awful novel ideas and some very strange, but very eye-catching, first lines.
The writer's retreat is dissolved before long, and Novel continues writing Novel
-- here, Singleton brilliantly sends-up the conventions of the memoir, including,
of course, rough childhoods, especially those of Irish orphans, bizarre Southern
characters, etc. Soon, when Novel switches over to writing a history of Gruel
(Gruel: A Biography or More Gruel Please?), he begins to sniff out a
local web of lies. It looks like he may be switching genres again, to mystery,
or perhaps conspiracy -- Gruel's small population has quite a lot of secrets.
Novel is probably more rewarding for its zingers than for the way it
hangs together as a, um, novel, but it is a wild and hysterical ride, even so.
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