It’s About Time the Times Book Review Started Paying Some Attention to Imaginary Books

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07/27/2009 3:08 PM |

Pale Fire, Vladimir NabokovIn this weekend’s Times Sunday Book Review, Personal Days author, Believer editor and 2008 L Mag Summer Fiction Issue contributor Ed Park draws upon his own Invisible Library blog-project for “Titles within a Tale”, a survey of the volumes upon volumes of nonexistent books mentioned, at length or in passing, in other books — from the collected works of Kilgore Trout to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

When Park read at our fiction issue reading last July, he introduced his reading by reading “Borges and I”, swapping in his own name for JLB’s; I can only imagine the superhuman effort it took him to resist the impulse to spend all 1,200 words on Borges. Or, for that matter, to invent an imaginary book, and sneak it into his rundown of real books containing mentions of imaginary books. (I checked; all the books he mentions and describes really do exist. Disappointing.)

Now, it’s not just books, of course.

When I interviewed Ben Greenman about Please Step Back, I asked him about the impulse to treat pop history as a train set by inventing the history of a band, from songs and album art to banal ephemera like chart positions and reviews. “It’s like an exercise in pitch in text”, he said: “You make something up and then you see if it sounds right.” Along those lines, I’ve always suggested that the “Liner Note” section was the part of The Fortress of Solitude that Jonathan Lethem had the most fun writing — it’s a dense version of the kind of alternative history he loves creating, in his recent work, with stray, sometimes satirical allusions to nonexistent but credible-seeming artists or works. (In You Don’t Love Me Yet, Rain Injuries, a made-up band, is mentioned alongside cult article Souled American and the forgotten Memorial Garage.)

Fake movies, either titles or descriptions, abound as well, naturally. And Jack Kerouac was creator and commissioner of his own variation on Strat-o-Matic baseball. (I used to do the same sort of thing as a kid, on a much smaller scale; I can only imagine Kerouac was even more obsessed with the most boring, marginal aspects of his alternate sporting universe.)

All this is, of course, the creative impulse in microcosm: the impulse to create a different world. Books work from the top down, so that stray bits of detail, like fake books or fake bands or fake baseball teams, are meant to resonate suggestively, implying the entirety of the society to which they relate. Borges famously referred to himself as being essentially “lazy”, a self-depreciating admission — I think — that it’s impossible for him to create in full the worlds in which these imaginary books fit so naturally.

Stephen Marche’s Shining at the Bottom of the Sea is an anthology of the imaginary writing of an imaginary nation — the entire project implies that by filling out this backstory, we can make a whole new world. (Or make a point about our own, as in Roberto Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas, an encyclopedia of an imaginary literature.)

Academics who study TV point to the fact that cult shows — think, for instance, Joss Whedon’s various ‘verses — inhabit an alternate world, with distinct customs and cultures. But individual episodes can only give us glimpses of that world, and its banal trappings (like 3-D chess and Klingon, say). It’s been suggested that people love most intensely the shows that they can “imagine themselves into”.

Discussing the appeal of imaginary books, Park alludes to “all the books a writer will never get the time to write”, and all the books readers will never get a chance to read. But I think it goes deeper than that — it’s about all the worlds in which we’ll never get to live.