The search for identity and personal meaning course through Paul Auster’s novels, so it should come as no surprise that he turned that reflection inwards — albeit with a nod and a wink. In City of Glass, the first of his postmodern detective pulp trifecta, The New York Trilogy, a writer named Daniel Quinn (who authors mysteries under a pseudonym) gets a call intended for a detective named Paul Auster, and, after accepting the assignment, assumes his identity. Along the way, he encounters a writer named Paul Auster and, predictably, descends into madness. A novel full of name play and thrills both literary and metaphysical, City of Glass questions both the limits of language and the immutability of identity.
Lunar Park by Bret Easton Ellis
Known for telling tales of hedonism and violence in affectless prose, Bret Easton Ellis loves breaking the rules of fiction. In 2005, Ellis appeared as a fictionalized version of himself in Lunar Park, which begins as a sensationalist memoir and explodes into something wholly different. Aside from Ellis, his friend and fellow literary brat-packer Jay McInerney makes a cameo, as does Patrick Bateman, the unforgettable fictional antihero of Ellis’s American Psycho. That Ellis and his fictional wife, Jayne Dennis, live in a place called Midland is no coincidence: this novel exists somewhere midway between fiction and reality.
The Pale King by David Foster Wallace
When David Foster Wallace committed suicide in September 2008, he left behind an unfinished manuscript about, essentially, boredom. The Pale King, due to be published on tax day this year, takes place at the IRS Regional Examination Center in Peoria, Illinois, where a trainee named David Foster Wallace has just reported for duty. This highly anticipated postmodern novel is said to be structured as a memoir, and includes a foreword in which Wallace tells of his work with the agency in the ’80s. Tackling existential questions about the meaning of life and the purpose of work, The Pale King explores tedium and repetition in a way that’s sure to be neither dull nor replicable. Wallace lives on in his fiction, in the hearts of his many admirers, and now as a character in his last novel.
The Alcoholic by Jonathan Ames
In the noir HBO series Bored to Death, Jonathan Ames is a struggling writer turned private investigator, played by Jason Schwartzman. The real Jonathan Ames is also a writer (and creator of the HBO show) as well as a character in his 2008 graphic novel foray, The Alcoholic. Here we meet Jonathan A., a writer on a bender, seeking both love and his next drink. Dark and funny, the comic blends autobiography with fiction. When asked how much of the book is true, Ames told an interviewer: “I always like to quasi-quote Tennessee Williams who said that all his work was emotionally autobiographical. And that’s true for me as well, though, of course, my emotional truths aren’t as fascinating as Tennessee Williams’.”
jPod by Douglas Coupland
Douglas Coupland’s fiction is both responsive to and a product of popular culture. His debut novel, Generation X, popularized a demographic term that would become the standard description of the post-baby boom generation. Known for his biting wit, Coupland writes techno-satirical books that skewer consumerism and challenge readers to look beyond hyper connectivity to see what really connects us. In 2005’s jPod, a novel centering on a cohort of video programmers, Coupland appears as a villain whose eyes were like “wells filled with drowned toddlers.” In an interview, Coupland said that his character was a response to personas created by digital data: “In the future,” he said, “everybody will have their real selves and their shadow self that exists purely inside computers.”
Notable American Women by Ben Marcus
On the back cover of Ben Marcus’s Notable American Women are two blurbs: one from fellow absurdist George Saunders and one from Michael Marcus, the author’s father (and character in the novel), who asks, “How can one word from Ben Marcus’s rotten, filthy heart be trusted?” A novel vexed by the question of whether words can be relied upon, Notable American Women centers around the Marcus family: son Ben; father Michael, who is buried in a hole in the back yard of the family’s Ohio home; and mother Jane, matriarch of a feminist cult called the Silentists who eschew language and want to purge noise and emotion from society. In an interview, Ben Marcus, the author, said that Ben Marcus, the character, is a worst-case scenario: “‘What if?’ What if my parents had decided I should grow up without feelings?”
Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco
Winner of the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize, Ilustrado vacillates between fabrication and fact. After Crispin Salvador, a prolific Filipino writer, is found dead in the Hudson River, a character named Miguel Syjuco seeks to assemble Salvador’s life story while investigating his death. Of the literary trickery, author Syjuco told CNN: “The idea that people are wondering if this is real, or if this is not, is an interesting dynamic for any reader, and I wanted to challenge the reader that way. And that’s also why I chose to name the protagonist Miguel Syjuco. That character is not me. But the reader is also wondering, and it’s not such a bad thing to keep the reader off-balance.”