When I was taking my MA back in the halcyon years of my overly medicated mid-20s, me and my fellow students were offered our pick – after faculty and PhD candidates – of all the many, many, books that had been submitted to what was then the inaugural Goldsmiths Prize. (If this statement seems familiar to any regular readers, it’s because I’ve mentioned it before.) I took six books, and Al Ewing‘s The Fictional Man was one of them. I believe I’ve now read five but, to be honest, there are so many unread books piled on my desk that this may be wrong.
Right, so, the publishers of The Fictional Man felt it fitted within the remit of the Goldsmiths Prize – i.e. it was seeking to do something original. Fair enough, I suppose, The Fictional Man is a postmodern novel. It is, I suppose, engaging and fun to read, but – and there’s no supposition here – Ewing’s novel is pretty pulpy and stood no chance of winning any prize when compared like for like with Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. To compare the two is a bit offensive, actually, so let’s forget that this book was asking to be judged alongside serious, life changing, literature, and instead consider it for what it is. And doing so, actually, is going to lead us to quite a favourable conclusion.
Al Ewing – who I’ve looked up, of course, I’m a biographical critic – is a British comics writer who’s written a few pulp steampunk novels. To be honest, they sound like a lot of fun, as does Ewing’s career writing bits of prose and bits of comics across the UK and North America. There’s gonna be a definite tinge of jealousy to my review here, because Ewing’s career sounds ideal, and if I’d engaged with comics when younger it’s the kind of place I could be by now.
The Fictional Man is flagged in the blurb as Ewing’s first attempt at a “serious” novel. Whether Ewing thinks of it this way or not, I don’t know, but to approach The Fictional Man as “serious literature” would leave a reader frustrated, as there are regular problems with dropped scansion, too many clunky sentences and not a single properly developed female character. If considered as literature, these add up to a pretty serious failure, but if we instead look at The Fictional Man as a polished piece of trash – like a “thought-provoking” Hollywood blockbuster (think of David Bowie’s son’s films, or Christopher Nolan pre-Batman) – it stands up pretty well.
The premise is weird. In an alternative present, actors are being slowly phased out of existence and replaced by clones that are created with set fictional personalities. These clones don’t age, don’t tend to do well once their film or TV franchises are shut down, and receive huge abuse from the rest of the populace. Niles, our main character, is “real” but his best friend, Bob, and his therapist are “Fictionals”. He has a lover who pretends to be a Fictional as a fetish, and he is a writer who’s pitching for the opportunity to create a Fictional of his own. In this alternative world, a Fictional has gone crazy and is on a murder spree; Bob wants to become real; Niles is pursuing the origin of the story he has been commissioned to look into writing; there’s a character who fucks chickens; there are long asides written in different styles; there’s violence and sex and gentle gore and lots of pop culture references, though conspicuously too many to a couple of now (only three years later!) culturally irrelevant figures, particularly the TV show Dexter.
Ewing’s world is the same as ours, there are no technological breakthroughs other than normalised human cloning, and this is both pleasing and confusing. It’s a very simple “what if?” he’s written here, and explores the prejudice people feel towards clones and the disgust with which sexual relationships with them are treated.
Niles isn’t a very likeable character, but neither is anyone else. It’s all set in LA and, I suppose, the vacuous self-important arrogance of near on everyone encountered may well be pretty accurate, but The Fictional Man isn’t a book anyone’s going to read for a glowing and all-consuming exploration of the depths of human existence. However, as a fun high-concept pulp paperback it does exactly what’s needed. It’s funny, it’s exciting, it’s got a premise that seems both interesting and half-baked, and it plays around with form in a pleasing way. It’s very postmodern in an 80s sense, but pop culture, silly ideas and a handful of solid gags make for an easy and inoffensive reading experience. I wanted something light and pulled it from the bottom of a stack. I don’t regret the decision. But I’ll read something more grown up next.