When I picked up this book in Waterstone’s Oxford Street it was next to a sign that said “Cult is a nice way of saying nobody likes you”. Well, don’t worry The Fictional Man – I like you! As protagonist, Niles Golan would say, “You’re a good Joe.”
Let’s start with the books premise, The Fictional Man is set in an alternate modern day where the latest movie craze isn’t 3D, it’s to have your own genetically engineered character called a “Fictional”. Human cloning is here and it’s relatively inexpensive for a Hollywood budget. Obviously cloning people is unethical… It would take a pretty crooked industry to find a loophole in the law and start doing it… Hence why, it’s Hollywood that has been successfully cloning people since the 1980’s. Fictional characters are brought to life in genetically engineered body and have every detail of their personalities embedded by talented scriptwriters. Fictionals are actors but they are already 100% in character. Ultimately, they are acting as themselves. When the filming is done, Hollywood can throw them out with a big wade of cash, a film friendly personality and a fictional back story but no new script to follow. Al Ewing takes a giant swing at Tinsel Town in this satirical story and successfully highlights all its narcissism and superficiality. And while doing so The Fictional Man is a whole lot of funny!
Niles Golan is a professional writer and all-time douche. Reading any of his obsessive self-narrations can only lead to you to hate him. Niles is a middle aged, self-absorbed, C-grade writer primarily known for his character Kurt Power (an unoriginal ex-lawyer turned private eye) whose books include such titles such as Down to The Woods Tonight and Pudding and Pie: A Kurt Power Novel. Niles gets through life in a strange self-delusional grandeur that makes it increasingly difficult for him to understand reality. For example, why his books are considered trash, why his love life has failed or why his lifelong dream to have his own character translated into a Fictional is still mere fantasy. I’ve never read a protagonist this abhorrent but despite Niles many flaws, after seeing him reach rock bottom (deservedly) you can’t help rooting for the guy.
Niles is given his chance at a big break when hired to remake the very camp “classic” spy movie (The Delicious Mr Doll). If he can pull off a retro/modern remake that is VERY serious but includes plenty of latex he might get his dream to create a Fictional character for the big screen. Plagued with writers block, follows the origins of The Delicious Mr Doll into stranger and stranger narratives for creative inspiration and gradually goes off the rails into his own existential crisis. Following a series of bizarre twists, Niles is forced to take a serious look at what makes someone real or fictional.
There’s a hint of noir under the laughs/satire and you can’t help being reminded of Blade Runner as the book debates what qualifies someone as “Real”. Niles spends a lot of time judging the people around him and very little on judging himself. This is particularly apparent when he is around Fictionals such as his Therapist and best friend Bob. Unsurprisingly Niles is not only pompous but incredibly discriminative against Fictionals, classing himself as “more real” which is ironic considering he perpetuates a completely fictional/more likable version of himself on a daily basis.
This is a really enjoyable, laugh out loud book that also manages to tackle some existential issues on identity and prejudice which I think is bloody impressive. There are some great tangents including a subplot about a fictional Sherlock Holmes, on a serial killing rampage of all the other Sherlock Holmes Fictionals – I actually think this would make an awesome short story. It’s a great page turner and I’ll be definitely looking out for Al Ewing in the future.