Fiction As Nonfiction (I Think) in “The Unwritten Book” – Chicago Review of Books


“This book is not fiction,” Samatha Hunt asserts at the beginning of her new, ostensibly nonfiction book, The Unwritten Book. “My father is writing a novel disguised as a journal entry. However, much of his partial book is true to his life, tempting me to ask, is it all true? Then, as someone who writes fiction, I know of course it is, regardless of whether it is called fiction or nonfiction.”

Hunt, a celebrated novelist, is best known for her short story collection, The Dark Dark, and prizewinning novels Mr. Splitfoot and The Invention of Everything Else. Her short stories impressed me, being both terse and Hemingwayesque; her novels, by contrast, are a bit more sprawling, prompting another reviewer here at the CHIRB to write, “[Hunt’s] narration zigzags its way from thought to thought.” The Unwritten Book will appeal to fans of her novels. 

But it’s not a novel (I think). Maybe, though, it’s a novel-within-a-novel. Following her father’s death, Hunt discovers unpublished chapters he has written for a book he didn’t finish, and she assumes the same role as we readers do: reading a book and trying to figure out if it is real or imagined, or if that is even a valid distinction. Her father’s unfinished novel is satisfyingly rife with spies, international intrigue, and supernatural occurrences. The idea that these may be inventions of Samantha Hunt, the elder Hunt, or “actual” occurrences that took place in our shared reality is similarly satisfying, deputizing the reader as a fellow detective and elevating this mystery story to a meta-level. 

Interpolated within these chapters are essays in which Hunt muses extensively about other writers, other realities, other fictions… her father, alcohol, motherhood… police power, nature, mediums who speak with the dead… These essays are peppered liberally with references to many other texts, as though Hunt is trying to catalog every book she has ever read. She quotes Saint-Exupéry, teen pop band One Direction, and the Unabomber; she even includes a six-page bibliography. She also admits, “I’ve never written a book that doesn’t contain mention of at least one book that doesn’t exist.” (Which I simultaneously doubt as fiction, and accept as a clue that her lists are at least partially made up.) On their own, these impressionistic musings often go nowhere, but taken as a whole they make up a portrait of a dazed daughter trying to make sense of the grief of her father’s loss. 

At times, Hunt wanders quite far. She even admits on page 60, “An early reader of this book suggested I condense my father’s materials, thinking these chapters boring. That might be true, but I am a detective collecting clues … Apologies if this is boring to you.” At times I sympathize with that early reader, but I also wonder if there even was an early reader, or if it is a fictitious invention of Hunt. Or, am I the early reader, and Hunt is writing me into her novel? This type of rumination makes for a thrilling meta-detective novel that reminded me of Paul Auster’s City of Glass, reaching beyond the page and literally involving the reader in the story.

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 It is impossible to give spoilers for this book because it is a choose-your-own-adventure: as detective and main character, you will come to your own conclusion as to who is controlling the narrative. Whatever your verdict, Hunt enjoys taunting us. “How many times will we strike up the same commotion when once-popular memoirs are revealed to be fabrications? People are enraged to learn that the border between fiction and nonfiction is slippery. I am delighted as it confirmed a truth I’ve always known: Fiction wins! (She writes in a book of nonfiction.)” The Unwritten Book is a treatise on fiction disguised as a work of fiction… or a work of fiction cleverly hidden in a nonfiction book.

The Unwritten Book
By Samatha Hunt
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Published April 05, 2022


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