2 New Books (and 5 Old Ones) That Prove the Epistolary Novel is Alive and Well

Aaron Thier's The Ghost Apple

When we previously considered the role of narrative voice in fiction, we left out one of the biggies—one in which, if you think about it, there is technically no narrator at all. The epistolary novel, traditionally made up of collections of letters or diary entires, pieces together a narrative through disparate documents, finding a story in the synthesis of information. High-minded analysis aside, it also allows us an opportunity to feel like we’re snooping into someone else’s Gmail account, and that’s always fun. Two new books—The Ghost Apple, by Aaron Thier, and The Divorce Papers, by Susan Rieger, both out this month—bring the format into the modern era, adding legal documents, blog posts, and online articles to the mix, and proving that the form will endure even though no one actually writes letters anymore. Call them “collage novels.”

The Ghost Apple pieces together the puzzling history of Tripoli College in New England and its sister location on a remote Caribbean island, using old journal entries, transcribed slave narratives, tourism brochures, blog posts, and the college’s course catalogues. This centuries-spanning satire explores issues both contemporary (struggling financially, the college enters into an unfortunate partnership with an omnipressive corporation that turns the students into lab rats for new dietary additives) and universal (a century after the end of slavery in the Caribbean, and some things still haven’t changed).

The Divorce Papers, meanwhile, manages to be funny despite the fact that it A) is about divorce and B) includes lengthy excerpts from “official” court documents of the proceedings. The central conceit—the story of a yearlong, contentious, high-profile divorce told via all the various news articles and personal correspondence it generates—could quickly grow dry or unwieldy, but Rieger maintains a light touch throughout, and the result is a 600-page novel that goes down easy. Below are five more epistolary novels that play with the form.

Dracula, by Bram Stoker
The story is part of our cultural fabric these days, but what’s fascinating about Stoker’s classic vampire tale is how fresh it still feels, despite some occasionally musty prose (I avoided about three obvious corpse puns there; you’re welcome). An assemblage of letters, diary entries, ship’s log entries, newspaper accounts, and dictation cylinders (the 19th century iPhone voice memo), it manages to be both enthralling and scary, even after the century of watered-down, glittered-up vampire stories that followed.

Up the Down Staircase, by Bel Kaufman
If the countless arguments I’ve been pulled into on Facebook are any indication, this 1967 novel about a new teacher at an inner-city school struggling against indifferent students, incompetent colleagues, and entrenched bureaucracy is as relevant as ever. The bulk of the story is told via the detritus of a teacher’s life: memos from the administration, student essays, lesson plans, and discarded love notes.

Carrie, by Stephen King
Stephen King nearly gave up on writing what became his debut novel after penning the famous shower scene (“Plug it up! Plug it up!”) because he felt like he couldn’t write from the perspective of a female teenager. Perhaps mixing in fragments of newspaper and magazine articles and excerpts from books was what he needed to do to get it over the finish line. It’s worth noting that his next book, Salem’s Lot, was directly inspired by Dracula and began life as an epistolary short story called ”Jerusalem’s Lot.”

Where’d You Go, Bernadette, by Maria Semple
To answer the titular question this lively, hilarious novel poses, you’ll have to piece together a string of student report cards, business invoices, press releases, essays, magazine articles, emails, blog posts, newsletters, and even a TED talk. Despite the narrative trickery, it’s one of the most heartwarming, laugh-out-loud funny books about mothers and daughters and the impossibility of parenting that you’ll ever read.

Attachments, by Rainbow Rowell
In one sense, there’s nothing groundbreaking about the format of Rowell’s debut novel, which builds a love story through alternating chapters of third-person narrative and traded emails. What is interesting is why and how we’re reading those emails: the protagonist of the narrative sections is a lonely IT geek required to screen all corporate emails to make sure no one is misusing their account. That he can’t stop reading the messages from one particular employee provides us with a peek into the narrative even as it gives the book a spine (and a warm, gooey center). In another sense, I’ll take every opportunity I can get to compel people to read Rainbow Rowell—trust me, you won’t regret it.

What’s your favorite epistolary novel?

  • WatchingFromOverThere

    I’d add “Before I Go to Sleep” by S.J. Watson, framed as the diary of a woman with amnesia.

    • mim

      If diary fiction qualifies for this list: Daniel Keyes’s Flowers for Algernon is a diary novel.

  • Sheryl

    Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff.

  • Mary Newton

    Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn. Funny, clever, and refreshing!

  • http://www.goodreads.com/joeleoj Joel Cunningham

    I failed to note it in the article, but The Divorce Papers actually begins with an epigraph from Dracula.