Alongside his work in comics, Al Ewing has in recent years built up an exciting and original body of prose fiction, most notably for Abaddon Books with novels like El Sombra, Gods Of Manhattan, Pax Omega, Death Got No Mercy and I, Zombie. He has displayed a skill for spinning familiar pulp tropes into shapes both hilarious and profound, whilst also providing bizarre invention and narrative ingenuity. Essentially, you never know quite what you’re going to get when you open an Al Ewing novel. Now, Solaris have published Ewing’s first non-franchise, creator-owned novel, The Fictional Man.
The Fictional Man is set in a world very like our own, with one crucial difference. In this world, it’s possible to bring a fictional character to life. These beings – Fictionals – are ‘tubed’ rather than born. They come into the world fully grown and don’t age, and have largely replaced actors, at least in starring roles. Several differing versions of Sherlock Holmes and the Batman-like ‘Black Terror’ walk the streets, but the line between the real and the fictional is blurred (as we’re told happened with the Fictional of one Dexter Morgan…).
The novel centres around pulp author and screenwriter Niles Golan. Struggling with his commission to revive the cheesy 60s spy movie The Delicious Mr Doll (think Austin Powers, but played straight), Niles finds himself trying to trace the source material that gave rise to the original movie in the first place. The truth that lies at the heart of the story, like the truth at the heart of his own, is very different to the fiction presented to the world.
One of Ewing’s big achievements here is to create a character who shouldn’t be remotely likeable but somehow manages to be. Niles is vain, self-centred, self-obsessed and above all self-deceiving, suppressing unwanted memories and rewriting his own past to make sure he’s the hero (complete with increasingly comical bursts of self-narration), but at the same time he’s a recognisably damaged and pitiable character who over the course of the novel begins a halting and painful crawl towards redemption.
Ewing takes the novel’s one fantastical element – the existence of Fictionals – and rings every possible change on it; there’s ingrained prejudice against Fictionals and one of society’s biggest taboos is sex between Fictionals and ‘real’ people. There are Fictionals who want to be ‘real’ and ‘real’ people who want to be Fictionals, even sexual fetishes constructed around the latter. It also poses the uncomfortable proposition that we’re all fictional to some extent – our identities constructed, like Niles’, with past events censored and revised to create a self-image that fits with what we want to believe, rather than facing uncomfortable truths about ourselves. The dividing line between fiction and reality, Ewing suggests, is a far more blurred one than we would like. Philip K Dick would have mightily approved.
The Fictional Man is a blackly funny satire on Hollywood and LaLa Land, but readers looking for the spectacular action scenes and explosive denouements of Ewing’s earlier, more pyrotechnic novels will do so in vain. The Fictional Man is a character-driven novel set in the parallel world Ewing has created. It’s a bold concept and there’s much to admire here, but it did lend the book’s conclusion a slightly anticlimactic feel. Ewing couldn’t write a boring sentence if he tried – the prose brims with zest and invention – but that’s part of the problem. The book feels as if it should go crazier, and wilder, but doesn’t.
Whatever The Fictional Man’s flaws, however, they’re minor compared to the overall achievement, and Ewing will assuredly go from strength to strength in future novels. May there be many more.
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