To create a sense of autofiction, that is to say, to make the reader aware of a form of saturation of autobiographical references in a novel, the author can rely on two types of elements: primary criteria and secondary ones. The former are to some extent compulsory; without them autofiction cannot work. The latter enhance the sense of the autofictional without creating it in the first place. There are only two kinds of primary criteria: onomastic correspondence and similarities in biographical background between author and narrator. I claim that it is inconceivable to consider a work as autofictional if there is not at least one of these elements in place, as they constitute the necessary signal. Secondary elements, which I call “enhancers,” contribute to the reader’s awareness of the necessary ambiguousness of the generic status of the text, but do not create it.
The first kind of enhancer that I would like to explore, used by both Hustvedt and Lerner, is metafiction. This typically postmodern device has been associated on many occasions with autofiction, Worthington recently going as far as stating that “autofiction is a highly metafictional genre” (2018, 3) or, as we saw above, Sturgeon equating autofictions with “memoiristic, autobiographical, and metafictional novels.” However, it is my contention that autofictional and metafictional texts are dissimilar in many ways, but thrive on the same narrative environment: unstable narrative centers and authorial intrusions. The fact that some texts are both metafictional and autofictional does not mean that they are similar, simply that metafictional and autofictional elements can work together. Many autofictions do not include metafictional elements. Lunar
Park is yet again a good example. Ellis’s references to Patrick Bateman, the notorious character from American
Psycho, are not metafictional, but intertextual.
Some theorists who resort to these analogies between autofiction and metafiction even omit to differentiate between metatextuality and metafiction. In La Figure de l’auteur, Maurice Couturier makes a useful distinction between the two practices, reminding us that, according to Patricia Waugh, metafictional writers “explore a theory of fiction through the practice of writing fiction” (Waugh 1984, 2), whereas metatextuality consists in embedding texts whose origin is problematic because they are originally non-literary, even if the distinction between both terms can occasionally be “thin” (Couturier 1995, 77; my translation). He goes on to compare John Barth’s LETTERS, a metafictional text according to him as it is built on other fictions (the novels previously published by the author), to Richardson’s Pamela, which is metatextual as the letters embedded in it did not have a literary status prior to their inclusion in the novel (77). Thus, Memories
of the Future may be seen as both metafictional (the main narrative embeds S.H.’s first novel) and metatextual (it also embeds the journal of the younger S.H.). Similarly, 10:04
comprises Lerner’s short story “The Golden Vanity,” which first appeared in The New Yorker, but also “To the Future,” a short piece about the apatosaurus written, the reader is told, by the narrator in collaboration with the young Roberto Cortiz (a non-literary text that turns out not to be as fictional as we might imagine at first, as we learn in the acknowledgments that “[t]he narrator’s collaboration with ‘Roberto’ is based on a self-published book [he] cowrote with Elias Garcia, but ‘Roberto’ is otherwise a work of fiction”). Multiple layers of narrative make texts either metatextual, metafictional, or both, but as far as autofiction is concerned, they enhance the impression of confusion regarding the source of the narrative. By virtue of the increased hermeneutical effort required to make sense of the text, the reader’s attention is drawn to the noncongruent origins of the narrative’s components. By mixing fictional and non-literary texts, the book also echoes autofiction’s mix of facts and fiction.
of the Future and 10:04 are also metafictional in that, on several occasions, the respective texts refer to their own status as artifacts. For instance, in Hustvedt’s book, S.H.’s mother asks her about the book she is writing, the frame narrative in other words: “She asks me about this book, and I tell her I am in the middle of it. ‘You are writing about your life, your own life?’ Only one year of it, I explain” (2019, 158). Lerner’s narrator and other characters also make multiple references to the narrator’s own work as a writer, for instance: “How exactly will you expand the story” (2014, 4) and “[…] over the next week, I began to work on a story, outlining much of it in my notebook while sitting in the theater. The story would involve a series of transpositions […]” (54). The narrator then describes what will eventually become “The Golden Vanity,” Lerner’s real embedded short story. As in Memories
of the Future, according to a metafictional logic, some characters in 10:04
display an awareness of the narrator’s status as a writer: “I don’t want what we’re doing to just end up as notes for a novel” (137). Passages like these not only emphasize the splitting of the narrative voice—that of the narrator and her younger self, in Memories
of the Future, or that of the narrator and his imagined self, in 10:04—they also inevitably evoke the very nature of autofiction: one real self and one invented self projected into a novel by a real self, a novel that is also, in the cases discussed here at least, strongly inspired by, even based on the author’s life. We will see below that the switch between tenses in both texts further reinforces this perception of narrative complexity and generates an isotopy of division, of estrangement.
Time, Tenses, and the Fallibility of Memory
Mimicking the chronological progression of traditional autobiographical form, autofiction is normally retrospective, an older self remembering or revisiting their past life. For Lejeune, this forms part of his definition of autobiography: “we call ‘autobiography’ the retrospective prose narrative of someone’s own existence” (1971, 14; my translation).Footnote 7 In autofiction, it is more precise to speak of an older self projecting himself or herself into an imaginary past. While Hustvedt complies with this narrative rule, Lerner offers a different, prospective version. Indeed, modeling his novel on autofiction’s principle of projection, he builds his narrative not only on the concept of everything being, in the future, “as it is now, just a little different,” but also on the idea of “projecting [himself] into the future” (2014, 109), a phrase which, similar to the Hassidic story, is repeated throughout the novel—for instance: “I’ll project myself into several futures simultaneously” (4)—and represents the narrative trigger of many passages such as the following one: “I imagined trying to explain all of this to a future child […]” (91). However, despite this distinction between Hustvedt’s traditionally retrospective narrative (the title of which paradoxically seems to imply the opposite) and Lerner’s prospective one, nothing fundamentally changes: indeed, both are narrated after the fact, in a timeframe when the past can be reimagined as autofiction. Lerner projects himself into a future which he has already imagined when he starts narrating it. The narrative can be prospective, but the narrating act is always retrospective (it narrates what has happened, or what the author has imagined). In a fashion typical of any life narrative (even those that encompass only a particular period), Memories of the
Future and 10:04 hinge on two periods, the past and the present, classically embodied by the narrated I and the narrating I. This is a narrative configuration that autofiction has widely embraced in its attempt to resemble autobiography, sometimes as closely as possible. Our two case studies do not depart from this rule, enhancing this ontological duality by implementing recurring tense shifts, mostly from past to present tense and vice versa. Below are just a few examples:
: “We sat and watched the traffic and I am kidding and I am not kidding when I say that I intuited an alien intelligence […]” (Lerner 2014, 3); “I want to say I felt stoned, did say to Alex […]” (19); “When the workers had moved on to Creeley’s house and I could read—I can only read if it’s quiet, but I can write against noise […]” (173); “They looked two-dimensional, like cardboard cutouts in a stagecraft foreground. Lower Manhattan was black behind us, its densities intuitive. The fireworks celebrating the completion of the bridge exploded above us in 1883, spidering out across the page. The moon is high in the sky and you can see its light on the water.” (239)
of the Future: “I remember the eerie illumination that came through the broken blinds the first night I slept in apartment 2B on August 25” (Hustvedt 2019, 4); “I am still in New York, but the city I lived in then is not the city I inhabit now” (10); “Were you disappointed, Fanny? Maybe you didn’t care? It seems I like girls more in my fantasies than in real life” (155–156); “They cross the street in our past but in their present and, as they walk, I adopt the present tense because you and I are with them now. It is May 17, 1979 […].” (211)
These tense shifts emphasize the chronological and ontological separation of events and narration, thus undermining the credibility of these facts as they put the stress on distance rather than accuracy. Even if many authors of memoirs proceed in a similar fashion, questioning their ability to remember properly by drawing the reader’s attention as much to the present of narration as to the past narrative, in memoirs such challenges to the narrative itself nevertheless take place within the framework of a reading contract that claims commitment to sincerity, if not accuracy. Autofiction undercuts this commitment, at times even ridiculing it. For doing so, it uses the same rhetorical strategy as autobiography, namely, focusing on the doubling of the authorial presence in the text, but in an autofictional context this distance has a stronger impact and resonance, as autofiction thrives on the kind of ambiguity that can emerge from the distance between narrated and narrating self. The same can be said regarding the fallibility of memory.
of the Future resorts to the modern autobiographical trope of confessing to the flaws of one’s memory more than 10:04. As we see in texts such as The Shaking Woman
or A History of My Nerves and many recent interviews,Footnote 8 Siri Hustvedt is well aware of recent cognitive research on memory. There are countless studies on the limits of mnemonic capacity, from landmark texts such as Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons’s The Invisible Gorilla (2011) to more recent research such as Mark Rowlands’s Memory and the Self. Rowlands sums up the irony of memory’s limitations: “But by the time you need memory the most, it is beginning to become clear just how unreliable this faculty is. And it isn’t going to get any better—quite the contrary, in fact. As a general rule of thumb: the more important memory becomes in your life, the less you can or should rely on it” (2017, 6). Hustvedt integrates this knowledge into her autofiction by making her older narrating “I” constantly
lament her limited ability to remember:
If you are one of those readers who relishes memoirs filled with impossibly specific memories, I have this to say: those authors who claim perfect recall of their hash browns decades later are not to be trusted. (3)
The past is fragile, as fragile as bones grown brittle with age […]. (13)
I have no memory of Wanda [a person mentioned in her journal]. (17)
I have pictures in my mind that have lasted, but their accuracy is something I can’t vouch for. (77)
I can’t recover the now of it. It is a withered now. (91)
But what do I actually remember? […] I find bits and pieces of recollections in various modes that have no particular order […]. (93)
I have argued elsewhere (Schmitt 2011) that “coming clean” about the limitations of our mnemonic efforts and still attempting to build a self-narrative is not a contradiction, and that this is more or less what we have to do every day. However, the complexities of the process of remembering and its flawed results remain an oft-cited raison d’être of autofiction. Gasparini emphasized this aspect when he stated that disrupting “the representation of the time of memory in fiction and autobiography” by “constantly confronting one’s personal history with mnemonic capacities” (2004, 229; my translation)Footnote 9 is part of autofiction’s own history. Autofictionists are often suspicious of autobiography on account of the latter’s perceived overreliance on memory’s ability to conjure up accurate memories. This suspicion is part and parcel of autofiction’s ethos and Hustvedt repeatedly taps into it to undermine her narrator’s authority.
As mentioned earlier, the common denominator between metafiction and autofiction is the will to navigate in the same text through several narrative layers. This hermeneutical navigation can be descending, that is to say, shifting from the frame narrative to the first embedded narrative, then to the next one and so on. In cases of ascending frames, characters might meet their author in a metaleptic upward move (although in this case, it can also be said that the author is descending into her fiction). This ascending movement normally allows readers to zoom out and embrace all the ins and outs of the text they are reading, its narrative hierarchy, in other words. One ancient way of zooming out is the apostrophe, an actor or coryphaeus directly addressing the audience, putting an end to or temporarily suspending their immersion. A modern version of the apostrophe is when the narrator of a work of fiction directly addresses readers, a device which is quite common (one can find many examples in Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, for instance). The effect is slightly different, however, in an autofictional text. In this case, the apostrophe is a way of refocusing the reader’s attention on the matter of different narrative times and on the identity of an addressee who may or may not be the author, in other words, on the context and intent of narration and its ambiguities.
Apostrophes are abundant in both texts:
of the Future: “At least a year after the book you are reading now ends […]” (Hustvedt 2019, 118); “Tell me why I need you with me as my fellow traveler, my variously dear and crotchety other, my spouse for the book’s duration. Why is it that I can feel your stride beside me as I write?” (128); “I need you as my intimate witness because without you, none of my stories will be real” (129); “Do not be misled. These stories are not extraneous to the question at hand” (181); “We all suffer and we all die, but you, the person who is reading this book right now, you are not dead yet. I may be dead, but you are not” (294); “I am going to tell you a secret now: There is a doctor in this story, but she arrives much later, well after the millennium has ended.” (301)
: “You might have seen us walking on Atlantic, tears streaming down her face, my arm around her shoulder […]” (Lerner 2014, 8); “Do you know what I mean if I say that when I reached the second floor […]” (14); “You might have seen me sitting there on the bench that midnight […]” (109); “Reader, we walked on” (234); “[…] maybe you saw me” (235); “[…] my book—not the one I was contracted to write about fraudulence, but the one I’ve written in its place for you, to you, on the very edge of fiction.” (237)
Apostrophe is not a primary feature of autofiction, but drawing attention to the intersubjective nature of literary communication, emphasizing how meaning is built jointly by both narrator and addressee, fittingly serves autofiction’s purpose to position a text “on the very edge of fiction,” as Lerner’s narrator claims is true for his writing, or at least on a narrative edge where authors can suddenly surface, confess to or lie about the nature of their text, and thereby sow the necessary seeds of doubt within the minds of their readers. Edges, limits, and boundaries are constituent parts of the topology of autofiction: “Unlike memoir or autobiography, autofiction often depicts its author-characters in clearly fictional situations, thus blurring the already hazy boundaries between fiction and nonfiction” (Worthington 2018, 2–3; my emphasis). For some theorists, like Lejeune, for instance, these boundaries are not “hazy” at all, but autofiction’s very existence depends on creating an ambivalence. To exist as autofictions, to be seen as autofictional, these novels cannot content themselves with being only “primarily novels.” They must also exist as something else, as potentially autobiographical, to be specific. Referring to controversial French autofictions such as Guibert’s, Angot’s, or Millet’s, and their “outpouring of resentment and orgasms that can only create a neurotic atmosphere,”Footnote 10 Claire Debru went as far as claiming that “autofiction is born of neurosis” (2007, 54; my translation).Footnote 11 Being constantly on the edge in order to exist does also create, to some extent, a form of neurosis.
It has been the purpose of this chapter to show how these two autofictional texts “straddle the line,” both rhetorically and stylistically, from a practical point of view. Indeed, if a “consensus definition of autofiction has become virtually impossible” (Mortimer 2009, 22), we should now focus less on deciding what autofiction is and more on what it means concretely, textually, for an author to project himself or herself into a text without an autobiographical pact. I have argued that there are some primary features without which autofiction does not exist and that it relies moreover on a series of tropes—enhancers, as I have called them. How these contribute to the interpretation of an ambiguous text by readers as autofiction might be the most important aspect of autofictional studies right now.
Autofiction has always been energized by an unresolved authenticity/sincerity dialectic. This dialectic is based on Lionel Trilling’s (1972) Sincerity and Authenticity and especially on how Trilling conceives of authenticity, namely, “as something inward, personal, and hidden, the goal primarily of self-expression rather than other-directed communication” (Kelly 2010, 132) and tries to reassess the value of sincerity, especially in an autobiographical context. Autofiction, definitely leaning toward sincerity, albeit a sincerity that is in no way connected to accuracy, aims to produce an autobiographical intent without clearly identifying the autobiographical content, and the stylistic and rhetorical skills employed in the effort are worthy of scholarly investigation. Autofiction is not a case of split personality, but clearly one of split narration: the pronoun used by the author to refer to himself or herself, whether it is the first-person singular or the third, points in two directions that are hard to reconcile. It conjures up Dorrit Cohn’s “disjunctive model” (1999, 126), the fundamental difference between narrator and author, which, for autofiction to make any sense, must somehow be or appear to be “rejoined.” I have tried to demonstrate how two different authors have resorted to similar conjunctional means to bridge this gap—but not fully—and to bring to light their use of specific rhetorical tools, some essential, others secondary (enhancers), to create what I have called a sense of the autofictional.