A number of times while reading The Fictional Man, by Al Ewing, I felt like I was on the edge of a great book. Like one of those clichéd oases in any stranded-in-the-desert movie, I could see it glimmering and hazy just at the edge of the horizon. But every time I thought I was nearly there, I was left with just more sand. Though that’s more than a little unfair. The Fictional Man is better than sand, but as tantalizing as it is it never got beyond decent for me.
Ewing sets the story in an LA not too different from our own — still filled with movie stars, sun, diners, loudly rude producers, corrupt agents, etc. What separates this world from our own is the creation of Fictionals in 1977 — clones created by the entertainment industry with the look and pre-programmed personality/mind of characters (already in existence or original ones) they’ll play in TV or film. Public domain characters are fair game for anyone, so LA is, for example, filled with a slew of Sherlock Holmeses (“Action Holmes,” “Classic Holmes”, etc.). But most studios make made-for-the-script clones in a tank, employ them for some years, then when ratings slide leave them “to their own devices.”
Niles Golan is a midlist (if that) pulp writer with a moderately successful series centered on divorced, hard-drinking former lawyer Kurt Power. When his agent invites him to a meeting with a studio guy, Niles hopes it’s about a movie version of a Kurt Power novel, complete with a Fictional Kurt Power. Instead, he’s tasked with, as the studio exec is careful to note, not a remake, but ”taking a movie from the past and making it again now.” The film most definitely not being remade is The Delicious Mr. Doll, a 1966 piece of misogynistic hackwork about Dalton Doll — by day lead singer of The All Together (him and “five glamorous female assistants in bikinis”), by night secret agent for Y.V.O.O.R.G (Young Valiant Operatives for Order, Right, and Good). Coincidentally, this was 13-year-old Niles’s favorite movie, and he still harbors fond feelings for it.
The rest of the book follows Niles as he works on writing the pitch for the not-a-remake, deals with his ex-wife who divorced him after one of his many affairs, sees his Fictional therapist, socializes with his best and only friend Bob — a Fictional who left his series and is trying to find his own way, meets a strangely beguiling woman who may or may not be a Fictional, tries to convince several people (including himself) he’s not a Realist (one bigoted against Fictionals), and tries to track down the source material for the Doll movie. That last leads him down a rabbit hole, as he learns the movie was based on a TV episode from a Twilight Zone-like show, which itself was based on a children’s book, which in turn was based on a short story. Golan gives us all three, summarizing in great detail the episode, giving us multiple passages and illustration descriptions from the children’s book, and including the entire short story.
Ewing is doing a lot here with identity and authenticity, the idea of a constructed personality, and he comes at it from a variety of angles, including the foregrounded one where, thanks to science fiction, the metaphor can become literal. I’ll grant it’s not the most original of ideas, but Ewing comes at it in a fresh manner, and from so many side angles, that it’s still a pretty exhilarating concept. Or, well, it could have been.
The first problem is that Niles Golan is a complete ass. It’s a tough challenge for an author to write a character that is wholly unlikable and ask a reader to follow along with him/her for several hundred pages, and I can’t say Ewing full meets that challenge here. I don’t require my characters to be likable, but if they aren’t, I do require them to be, if not engaging, compelling or at least interesting. And really, it felt to me that once you take away all the things that make Niles so off-putting, there isn’t a lot left. This changes somewhat toward the end, but the change felt more than a little abrupt and unearned. But, and this was key, it didn’t feel like it couldn’t have been earned, which is why by the end I was still happy I’d read The Fictional Man. As noted in the intro, it felt like it was just “off,” just by a little. Toning down some of Niles’s worst points, or balancing them out with something, anything, would have made it far easier to flow along the story with him. Draw out those changes at the end a bit more so they felt wholly earned and it could have been quite moving.
Take out some of the running interior narration that is a tic of Niles’s (“Blazing with fury, the author drew himself up to his full height”), and it would have been less irritating. Give Bob a bit more substance, and his side-plot could have been greatly emotional (to give credit where it’s due, Ewing does wring some solid emotionality out of Bob toward the end). Make it so not all the studio execs are in typical parody mode (blustering, yelling, using “baby”) and it might have been a bit funnier. Delve a bit more into the role of Fictionals in society, and it could have been a bit more thoughtful. For instance, there’s a taboo regarding Fictional-Real sex, but it feels more like a plot necessity than something fully born from the Fictional world. The one aspect I felt Ewing nailed was the nested structure created by Niles’s attempts to chase down the origin of the Mr. Doll film. I loved each example of a story-within-the-story (you’ll swear the TV episode, starring William Shatner, was real based on Ewing’s vivid recreation and be wholly disturbed by the other two) for the writing itself and also for the way the nested stories act as yet another metaphor for the central theme of authenticity and construction of the “real.”
I wasn’t sure early on if I would finish The Fictional Man. I hated the main character, found the frequent interior narration annoying, and the LA satire too broad and familiar. It did grow on me past the halfway point though, and by the end I was glad I’d finished it, though it was a frustrating read for what could have been.