I enjoyed reading Michael Frayn’s novel The Trick of It quite a lot, although ultimately I’d say that it’s clever rather than really brilliant. But there’s nothing wrong with clever at all, particularly when it’s laugh-out-loud funny. It’s an academic novel, which is another reason I liked it. I can’t seem to get my fill of novels about professors and campuses and scholarly pursuits.
Another point in its favor is that it’s an epistolary novel, although the letters come from only one person and we don’t get any replies. But Frayn has a whole lot of fun with these one-sided letters, as the letter writer, a literary critic in an English university who is writing to a friend in Australia, spends a lot of time imagining what this friend might say or how he might look as he is reading. He creates whole imaginary conversations between the two of them, refuting arguments his friend hasn’t yet made and in some cases, telling lies and then admitting to the lies he just told and apologizing profusely for them. I’ve never come across a more playful and amusing letter writer in an epistolary novel before.
But it’s what the letter-writer is writing about that makes the novel particularly interesting: he describes meeting and then falling in love with the woman whose novels he has built a career on studying. It all begins when he convinces this writer to come visit campus to talk with his students, and the novel opens with the narrator’s uncertainties about whether this was such a good idea or not. Perhaps it would have been better to keep his distance? What will it be like to actually lay eyes on the person he has thought so much about and whom he knows quite well, in his distanced literary-critic kind of way?
These questions get much more complicated and fraught once he finally admits to his friend that he slept with this author. The round-about way he tells this story is very funny, and even funnier are the stories about how he pursues her to her London flat and makes a fool of himself as he tries to keep her attention and gain her love. The narrator is incredibly good at making a fool of himself, which must have endeared him to the novelist, because eventually he succeeds and they begin a relationship in earnest.
From their very first meeting, the narrator is preoccupied with questions about the nature of fiction and of the people who produce it — he is fascinated with the way the novelist transforms her rather dull life into exciting fiction. He is also preoccupied with the relationship of fiction and criticism. How much can he know about this woman and her writing, even once he marries her? Can knowing her in person make him a better critic? Because he has spent so long studying her fiction, is he in a good position to give her advice on what to write? Their relationship becomes a way to explore how mysterious fiction and the writing process are; the narrator is so obsessed with the object of his studies that he marries her, and yet she always remains distant and mysterious. The critical, academic impulse, Frayn is saying, is to work toward total and complete understanding, but this is impossible, nothing but a fantasy.
The book is short, under 200 pages, which I think was a wise choice on Frayn’s part, because the device of the letter-writing narrator would be difficult to sustain in a believable way for much longer. But as it is, the book works very well as a funny, amsuing, and very smart meditation on writing and writers.