I’m a huge fan of the novel structure known as epistolary, where the story is told through primary sources such as diaries, newspaper articles, or letters back and forth between characters. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is one of my favorite examples of epistolary, as the mystery is heightened by Stoker’s clever choices of whose diary to show at which point in the story. Epistolary form allows the author to strengthen the reader’s immersion in the story by allowing the story itself to influence the final form the novel takes. Leave off a character’s diary in a tense situation where he’s about to go do something dangerous and stupid, with the cry “Goodbye all!” and then cut to someone else’s diary for the next hundred pages, and you leave the reader begging to know what happened back there – did he make it out? Why are we not reading more of his diary? Is he okay? Tell me please!
I recently finished another epistolary novel that has quickly made it onto my list of great examples of the craft of writing – one I think everyone should read. It also takes the prize for longest title of any book I’ve read. The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party is a young adult novel written by M.T. Anderson. The Pox Party tells the story of a young boy growing up in a scientist-philosopher’s commune in revolutionary-war-era Boston. The first half of the novel is all from the boy’s perspective, and feels like a relatively standard first-person narrative with the exception of the fact that it begins with the statement “Drawn Primarily from the Manuscript Testimony of the Boy Octavian”. Already the epistolary format is working its magic, albeit subtly. Manuscript Testimony, eh? Why is Octavian writing this testimony – what happened that he needs to testify about? Is he testifying for the defense or the prosecution? He alludes several times to some kind of looming tragedy that he didn’t expect at the time, reinforcing the reminder that he’s producing this story as a testimony. The wheels are turning in the reader’s head, trying to piece the puzzle together ahead of the narrative and worrying over the possible outcomes they’ve imagined.
And then, in the middle – everything changes. I don’t want to go too much into it, because it blindsided me completely and was extremely effective that way and I don’t want to spoil it, but something happens that renders Octavian unable to continue to write. This plot point causes real changes to not just the story, but the book itself. The story so far has been told through Octavian’s manuscript, after all, so what happens now that he cannot continue his writing? The resolution of that question makes the second half of the novel a completely different reading experience and drastically heightens the dramatic tension. I’m sorry to be so vague here, but the surprise was part of the effect for me and I don’t want to spoil it. Suffice it to say that the story affected the book in a very real way, and I’m still thinking about it a week later. I highly recommend it.