Looking for fiction where character's fiction appears
September 5, 2019 4:39 AM   Subscribe

So I'm writing a story where a character is losing her mind and also writing a book, parts of which appear in the text. Her losing her mind affects the development of the chapters I'm including in the story. Looking for literary models.

Surely this has been done before, and I would like to look at how other writers did it, but all I can think of epistolary stories like "Yellow Wallpaper" and some of S. King's stories. The 'chapters' aren't going to be literal reportage like a letter or diaries, though, so the epistolary models don't quite work. Does that make any sense? Any suggestions?

posted by angrycat to Writing & Language (36 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
What comes instantly to mind is The Golden Notebook - one of the notebooks is a novel. Caution: it made me feel like I was losing my mind and i'm not the only one.
posted by london explorer girl at 4:43 AM on September 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

Chris Priest's The Affirmation
posted by crocomancer at 4:45 AM on September 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
posted by essexjan at 4:59 AM on September 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski is not exactly what you’re looking for but worth looking into.
posted by ejs at 5:00 AM on September 5, 2019 [3 favorites]

Caitlín R. Kiernan's The Drowning Girl is another one. The protagonist writes short stories, some of which are included in the book.
posted by pipeski at 5:03 AM on September 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is a great model for multilevel metafiction.

Nabokov’s Pale Fire also has multiple levels combined with some...potential...perspective issues...from the(a) narrator. It’s only ~70 years old, I don’t want to spoil it!
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 5:07 AM on September 5, 2019 [6 favorites]

Also might not be exactly what you're looking for, but I think Carmen Maria Machado's Her Body and Other Parties includes a story about a writer at an artist colony.
posted by wicked_sassy at 5:47 AM on September 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

Jan Potocki's The Manuscript Found in Saragossa is a puzzle box of tales-within-tales like that.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 6:02 AM on September 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

Wonder Boys
posted by jessca84 at 6:08 AM on September 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

The World According to Garp. It's been 40 years but my recollection is that Garp's fiction was better than the novel.
posted by maurice at 6:21 AM on September 5, 2019

In Adrian Mole: The Wilderness Years, the titular character is writing an entirely dreadful novel called Lo! The Flat Hills Of My Homeland, which appears in the text. The character in Lo! The Flat Hills Of My Homeland is also writing a novel, which appears in his text (and the main book). It features a caveman.

Of course, the caveman starts writing a novel too.
posted by rpophessagr at 6:26 AM on September 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

Flann O'Brien's At Swim-Two-Birds. The narrator's writing a story about a hack author whose characters have free will when the author is asleep. The characters, realizing that the hack author has written them to be shallow stereotypes, conspire to drug him, but somehow the hack manages to have a child by one of his own characters in a rare moment between slumbers. This child grows up to be a talented writer who conspires with the rest of the hack's characters to plot the author's downfall. There are at least two other plots entwined with this.
posted by scruss at 6:27 AM on September 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

Going to slightly disagree with ejs -- House of Leaves is definitely what you're looking for. Johnny Truant definitely has his reality distorted by Zampano's book. It's just you have Inception-levels of reality warping through the stories.
posted by bfranklin at 6:45 AM on September 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

The Body Lies by Jo Baker. The main character is a creative writing professor; the text includes excerpts from writings by her students including (minor spoiler, but it's in the book blurb) a student who has a growing obsession with her.
posted by damayanti at 6:47 AM on September 5, 2019

David Markson's Wittgenstein's Mistress seems like a pretty close parallel to your planned book.

If tiny snapshots of plays work in place of the novel, Lauren Groff's Fates & Furies might be a decent example too.
posted by snaw at 6:52 AM on September 5, 2019

I think Pale Fire is kind of the standard here. I've also heard that "The History of Love" by Nicole Krauss includes fictional fiction, although I've never read it.
posted by kevinbelt at 6:55 AM on September 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

Foucault's Pendulum - three vanity press editors invent a conspiracy theory for fun, which takes on a life of its own, as other conspiracy theorists learn about it. It's not quite what you're looking for because they're not exactly writing their own story - they work for a vanity press, so they get sent a lot of manuscripts with conspiracy theories, and they plug those into a computer programm to draw new connections. But the creative process involved in making sense of the connections and making them into coherent theories is very similiar to story-telling, I think. One of the editors also uses the computer for writing his diary, parts of which are also part of the novel we're reading. As things start to get more and more serious we're definitely invited to wonder whether they're losing their mind and how that affects the kind of theories they're coming up with.
posted by sohalt at 7:01 AM on September 5, 2019

Jeff Vandermeer's Shriek: An Afterword has two sort of epistolary perspectives, Janice and Duncan, both of whom are writing in their own fields (art criticism for Janice, history for Duncan - so what they're writing varies, not just diaries but essays etc). Duncan starts having his mind affected at least part way through his "storyline." There are excerpts of their work throughout, I think? And footnotes.
posted by automatic cabinet at 7:14 AM on September 5, 2019

Philip K. Dick's A Scanner Darkly is one of my favourite novels for this very reason. Basically, the main character is an undercover cop within the drug subculture, with the task of infiltrating a drug operation. Over the course of the novel, he slowly loses his mind due to the drugs he is taking, and the novel gets increasingly bizarre and paranoid.
posted by moiraine at 7:45 AM on September 5, 2019

House of Leaves, Pale Fire, S. by JJ Abrams, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell.

I've sold a book that does this but it won't be out until 2021, wah.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:52 AM on September 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

Came to say The Golden Notebook. Warning: while the main character is intensely interesting, (I'm not sure sympathetic is what Lessing was going for,) there is an extended passage where she is nasty and homophobic to her housemate. It's weirdly gender-essentialist. I was given this book at age 15 and it was an enormous influence on me for a while, but it's definitely a problematic fave.

Definitely read her later introduction to the book too, where she grapples with how it has become a feminist "tract" (her word) when her intent was to produce a realist (?) novel of the 20th c.
posted by Lawn Beaver at 7:57 AM on September 5, 2019

Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi might be what you're looking for. The author and the structure of the book are all mixed up and what happens to the characters starts to affect what the stories look like, and his fictional characters start to affect his reality.
posted by LKWorking at 8:18 AM on September 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

Yeah, the "footnotes" in Pale Fire are very close to what you want.
posted by praemunire at 8:37 AM on September 5, 2019

There are at least two other plots entwined with this.
And they all speak a different idiom of English!

So there is an 1824 Scottish novel, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, where the main character isn't writing a novel, as such, but has ... let's call him an imaginary friend. The narrative shifts between the main character and a couple of others so you get a parallel consciousness going on, affecting what the main character does, thinks and how the reader interprets it. It's available on Gutenberg.

Wouldn't want to spoil you for the book and it's worth searching for with care so that that doesn't happen - wiki says "Many of the events of the novel are narrated twice; first by the 'editor', who gives his account of the facts as he understands them to be, and then in the words of the 'sinner' himself" so that's two interlocking narrative voices and iirc there at least two more.

It's not that much of an easy read unless you're used to old-fashioned phrasing + some Scots dialect. Worth it though. Weird and creepy.
posted by glasseyes at 8:38 AM on September 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

+1 on Wittgenstein’s Mistress
posted by stinkfoot at 9:44 AM on September 5, 2019

Freddy's Book by John Gardner maybe.
posted by bdc34 at 9:46 AM on September 5, 2019

As best I remember, the Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth contains long passages from one of the character's journal. So, not fiction in fiction, but, yeah, fiction in fiction.
posted by SemiSalt at 10:01 AM on September 5, 2019

(what did writers do before metafilter, sheesh)
posted by angrycat at 10:07 AM on September 5, 2019

If I understand your question correctly, The Resurrection of Joan Ashby might work.
posted by lyssabee at 10:27 AM on September 5, 2019

Really surprised it hasn't been here yet.

Dhalgren, Samuel R. Delany. It is an opus, it is one of the best novels I have ever read. The author is either losing or has lost his mind, memory is shaky, the notebook he discovers turns out to contain the manuscript of the novel in which he appears... Just bizarre and wonderful.

to wound the autumnal city.

posted by Meatbomb at 10:44 AM on September 5, 2019 [3 favorites]

This is not what you asked for, but how about a real world example?

In 1968, an inexperienced amateur sailor named Donald Crowhurst entered the first ever solo, non-stop, round-the-world yacht race. With his business failing at home, in desperation he had bet his family's home and all the money he could borrow on winning the race. He could not afford to lose. But soon into his voyage it became clear that he had little chance of even completing the course.

Trying to buy time with his sponsors, he began to slightly exaggerate his radioed reports of his progress. Ambiguous optimism gradually grew into outright deception. Eventually he abandoned sailing round the world entirely, and merely bobbed around the mid-Atlantic, broadcasting an increasingly elaborate deception of his journey to the world.

Alone at sea for months, he gradually lost his mind. He wrote extensively in his logbook throughout; at first about the genuine challenges of the voyage, then increasingly about his dismal situation; wrestling with whether to commit to the deception; then having done so, the stress and guilt of maintaining his lies. Later his writing became increasingly detached from reality, culminating in euphoric revelations and wild theorising about the true nature of God and the universe.

He never returned, but his logbook did, along with the rest of the contents of his boat, found drifting empty in the north Atlantic.

The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst (1970) by Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall, tries to piece together what happened to him from the surviving evidence. Towards the end of the story it relies heavily on his own delerious writings, which are quoted extensively in the text.

It is a work of investigative journalism, not of literature. But it is a true and compelling tale of someone losing their mind whilst both writing and living an elaborate work of fiction, and I couldn't help but think of it in response to your question.
posted by automatronic at 10:55 AM on September 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

This kind of thing is right up PKD's alley. In addition to Scanner Darkly, check out Ubik. Also, although it's a movie, check out Adaptation.
posted by adamrice at 10:57 AM on September 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

a scanner darkly is fantastic; ubik is good. but from dick, the one featuring long excerpts from narrator's exegesis grappling with incipient insanity is VALIS.
posted by 20 year lurk at 11:33 AM on September 5, 2019

Seconding Justified Sinner: it's even got 4th-wall breaking from a truth-telling minor character. I'm lucky as it's written in my first language, but English readers might struggle with it.

The Donald Crowhurst story is immensely sad. The 1970 book, hurriedly reissued for the under-rated movie The Mercy, is a hard read as it's very clear from the beginning that he was a fabulist backed into a corner of social expectation. Only read or research this when you have access to sunlight, fresh air and good company.
posted by scruss at 12:35 PM on September 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

This kind of thing is right up PKD's alley. In addition to Scanner Darkly, check out Ubik. Also, although it's a movie, check out Adaptation.

Oooh, yes, watch Adaptation, because it does exactly this while also discussing two different modalities of storytelling.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 2:17 PM on September 5, 2019

Unreliable Narrator - Literature may be worth browsing, assuming I'm understanding your question correctly.
posted by WCityMike at 4:07 PM on September 5, 2019

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