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The Anxieties of Autofiction in “The Novelist”

The Anxieties of Autofiction in “The Novelist”

The unnamed narrator of Jordan Castro’s The Novelist is not Jordan Castro. Castro, the author, wants this to be clear. So clear, in fact, that there is a famous writer named Jordan Castro within the novel. The unnamed narrator admires Jordan Castro—he’s everything the narrator wants to be as a writer, and he envies Castro’s intellect, success, and fame. What results is an engaging reflection on the anxieties of writing autofiction, and of the genre as it exists today. This is where The Novelist shines—not only in its exploration of the conventions of the genre, but in his experimentation with it as well. This novel, if at times tedious in its granular approach, breathes air into a tired form.

The novel recounts a single day in the life of our unnamed narrator as he goes about his morning. He is writing a novel, and yet he spends his morning avoiding this task: he scrolls through Twitter and Instagram, reflecting on social media in general; he brews tea, then coffee; he sends e-mails to his friend Li; he thinks a lot about poop and pee; and only in brief bouts does he reflect upon his addiction, which is the topic of the novel he is meant to be writing. The narrator is meticulous in how he describes all the above, such as when opening the internet: 

“I focused my eyes and touched the trackpad on my laptop with my middle
finger, then dragged the cursor on the screen toward the bottom row of icons,
and, inhaling deeply, I clicked. The internet opened and I immediately clicked
the Gmail icon—which appeared on my homepage next to my other ‘Favorites’
in a row across the top of the screen.” 

This comprehensiveness to detail, to the step-by-step and physicality of doing nothing more than opening a web browser, is not dissimilar to Tao Lin’s Leave Society. Both are diligent in how they approach the minutiae of daily life. But the similarities end there, as Castro resists working within the conventions of autofiction and drug novels. 

“I hated drug literature,” Castro’s narrator says at one point, “which—with a few exceptions—caused anyone with a modicum of awareness to cringe. It was all, in large part, half-formed sentiment and navel-gazing drivel.” He continues: “Every book about drugs was inherently less interesting than every book that was not about drugs.” There’s a clear refusal here to write this drug novel. In fact, very little of The Novelist is devoted to the nitty gritty details of the narrator’s substance abuse. This is an inspired choice; it’s a feat to write a novel about addiction without including the particulars. These off-camera details of the narrator’s addiction become both the elephant in the room, and something else altogether—everything about him is in some way informed by his addiction. In refusing to write a drug novel, he is nonetheless doing just that. At one point, the narrator considers whether he could write a good, conventional drug novel, if he used third person present tense: “it could seem intentional and literary, as opposed to pornographic and self-absorbed, like most drug novels.” 

This is a highly self-aware novel, and Castro spends a lot of time exploring the writing process itself. He considers POV and tenses (third person present tense is ultimately bad, while first person past tense reigns supreme). More prickly is when he explores gender: “Jordan Castro’s first novel, which critics had said contained only one flat female character—the narrator’s girlfriend—and some other female appearances as, more or less, objects.” In fact, that is all Violette, the narrator’s girlfriend, does in The Novelist—she lays in bed, half-asleep, for the entirety of the novel. This is something Castro, the author, does a lot: he spreads every possible critique he may face with The Novelist onto the page. By bringing attention to all that may be lobbed his way, those critiques are blunted in the process—if Castro has already acknowledged any controversial threads here, what is left to do? This seems to be a trend in fiction where any controversies are explained away within the text. This is made doubly so with autofiction, where separating the author from the narrator can already be a difficult task. Despite this, Castro continues to lean into the knottedness of autofiction at his own whim.

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If he’s going to get in trouble for his novel anyway, why not go all the way? The narrator changes lanes, choosing instead to work on a mean, satirical novel in the vein of Thomas Bernhard’s Woodcutters. The novel we are reading is perhaps some combination of both, his Woodcutters homage and the drug novel he had already been working on—the resulting work is observational, somehow philosophical, and always digressive. It is also here, working in this meaner register, that the unnamed narrator effectively becomes Jordan Castro: “I acknowledged that I was almost entirely taking on the tone and worldview of Jordan Castro, but, feeling energized, kept going.” Castro, the author, revels in muddying the waters, chipping away at the multitude of personas, loosening the foundation to what was initially almost a work of anti-autofiction. Which is to say, the unnamed narrator and Castro, the character, are not so dissimilar after all. Near the end of The Novelist, as the narrator has finally reached a point of artistic satisfaction, Castro writes, “A part of me felt pulled into myself, into another life that felt less like life, and more like a novel.” Ultimately, Castro surrenders to the greater pressures at play in the genre, and welcomes the collapse between the various competing forces in the novel. Between the fictitious Jordan Castro and the narrator and the author, between fiction and real life and all that comes in between. In rejecting autofiction, The Novelist ultimately welcomes it.

The Novelist
by Jordan Castro
Soft Skull Press
June 14, 2022

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