June 7, 2012

Intrusions, by Ursula Hegi

Imagine a novel with two parallel storylines.

 The first storyline is an insightful literary tale in third person about a young woman, Megan, trying to figure out how to be a wife and a mother. It follows her from the death of her parents as a kid to her being raised by her aunt and uncle, their divorce due to the uncle’s infidelity, and her finding her own husband and having a child. The story is wonderfully nuanced and non-cliché, with the woman experiencing highs and lows in unexpected ways.

The second storyline is in first person and about a woman who’s a writer working on her first novel. We don’t get nearly as much background information about this woman, and she directly addresses the reader. As she’s trying to write, she gets all these interruptions ~ intrusions ~ into her writing time from her young kids and from life. We all know how it is to try to write a novel ~ it takes a long time and the world wants you to do what it wants you to do. In fact, it’d just as soon you not write at all. As it turns out, this is the woman who is writing the story of Megan above, and she talks a lot about her process as she tries to work out Megan’s story. She gives us interesting background about minor characters and all the other things you try to work out as a writer of a novel.

But it gets even more interesting. The characters start talking to the writer, arguing with her about why she made certain choices and left out huge chunks of their lives. It’s not just Megan who talks with the writer (named Ursula, by the way) but also Megan’s husband Nick. They say they the characters have been talking amongst themselves.

I’m only about halfway done, but as a writer of novels I am fascinated by this book ~ Intrusions, by Ursula Hegi. Don’t you love finding a point of view of someone who is way into what you’re obsessed by, whether it’s writing or engineering or tying flies? You love to hear the gory details of the work, how they used an egg hook instead of a nymph bend and they added a bit of Hungarian partridge feather in with the snowshoe hair.

And this type of metafiction is interesting in its own right. We live in an age of meta where we question everything ~ from the ironies of convention to the way we tie our shoes. Putting this questing into our work is a productive technique that can yield fascinating outcomes, but it also has to be balanced with convention so that the reader isn’t left wondering what the heck is going on ~ or worse, bored to tears.

I’m not drawn to metafiction or experimental fiction generally, but there are some fascinating experiments out there. Intrusions makes me think of Julian Barnes’s Talking It Over, where the characters break the third wall and address the reader directly. Or the movie Stranger Than Fiction, where the writer played by the wonderful Emma Thompson is writing a character played by Will Ferrell, and she’s the type of writer who always kills off her characters ~ will she kill him off? Or the movie Adaptation in which a screenwriter must adapt New Yorker writer Susan Orlean’s work as a film, and there is this wonderful shift when you realize that the screenwriter gave in and turned it into genre. (Any screenplay by Charlie Kaufman is weird and wonderful and meta.)

Have you read or watched any of this wonderful meta self-aware narrative? I would love to hear about it!

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