There isn’t much overlap between my wife and me when it comes to reading. A few books have been passed between us, such as The Secret Life of Bees and The Help. But Kerry does not prefer literary fiction or fantasy—my most common bedside reading—and I don’t like Jodi Picoult, though I did enjoy the trailer to the movie to one of Picoult’s books.
Honestly, I had to look up how to spell “Jodi Picoult.”
My wife reads pretty broadly, but if she does not like a book, she will not read it. She is one of the gauges on my own fiction writing. She doesn’t even have to say anything about my work. I can tell a lot by her sheer willingness to pick it up.
I don’t tend to make recommendations to her, as she won’t believe me that they are good enough for her time. I’ve tried, but if I point to a book on our over-crowded pop-lit shelf, she will be certain never to read it. It is a superpower I could use sometime in the future. Literally, I think the only book she’s ever read at my suggestion is The Elegance of the Hedgehog.
Actually, I’m starting to wonder if Hedgehog was her recommendation to me.
I can’t remember, partly because when my wife recommends a book for me, I do consider it. I have Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children in the teetering piles on my bedside table because of her. If a book gets passed across the bed, I think about it.
Which was how Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me landed near the top of my pile. I’m actually the third person in our home to read it, and the fourth to burn through this copy since we picked it up at a yard sale. 10-year-old Nicolas read it first, and then one of his teachers borrowed Nicolas’ copy. If the pages of books keep some of the personality of its readers, this book is already buzzing with personal energy.
I am in the midst of a heavy book reading cycle, so I needed something light that I could gobble down. When You Reach Me was the perfect choice. It is humorous, clever, and convincing—essential elements for a book that sits on the ocean’s edge of implausible tragedy. In the “Show vs. Tell” struggle of writing, Stead is the master of Showing, of trusting the reader to see the details of the story by the sheer craft of imaginative shaping.
For example, the main character (Miranda) is just at the front of her teen years, and is negotiating how to be with her mom—who has been both friend and single mother—and with a stepdad character sidling into her life. All the dynamics of the coming-of-age tale and blended family after-school special are there, but they hide elegantly within the details of Miranda’s unusual tale.
There is no preaching. There is none of what C.S. Lewis called “gas.”
So while the theme of negotiating friendships is worked in—it is a middle grade novel, and MG novels can artistically use themes and morals—it is not narrowed to the classroom politics of 12-year-old children. The entire book is a life-or-death test to see how the protagonist will build multiple pathways of trust and friendship with the people in her world.
And though it is light enough to rest my brain in a heavy cycle, it isn’t a dumb book. It has at the centre of it a difficult mental puzzle. And the way that Stead introduces this quantum difficulty is by bringing another book into her own.
I have talked here about “intertextuality” before, about how authors use other literature in telling their stories. Narnia is a mix of fairy tales, legends, and myths, and even brings in characters from other imaginative worlds. It also echoes other kinds of tales, patterning itself after fairy tales, but including Arthurian and chivalric elements, and hinting at authors like Homer and Dante.
I have also explored Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, suggesting that Austen had in mind a trope or character she was trying to counter. Brave New World takes Shakespeare’s plays as the entire worldview of one of its characters, and then becomes a text echoed in future utopias by people like C.S. Lewis and George Orwell. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind uses intertextuality in a lovely and horrifying way on the silver screen.
Perhaps my first conscious memory of this effect is when Anne of Green Gables reads Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott.” Of all the Arthurian tales I have tried to avoid Tennyson the most because it sits in my brain as a sappy love story.
That is the power of intertextuality, usually for good rather than ill.
In When You Reach Me, Stead loops in one of my favourite books, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. L’Engle’s understand of time and time travel is the logical foundation for When You Reach Me, and A Wrinkle in Time is used throughout as a way that characters gain allegiances and navigate their world.
I don’t want to give too much away. You should read this book.
But I am curious about what this method of intertextuality is really called—if it is called anything at all. Douglas Adams is perhaps the greatest genius at referring to fictional books as the foundation of the “research” in his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. The Guide itself, of course, but also works like the Celestial Homecare Omnibus and The Ultra-Complete Maximegalon Dictionary of Every Language Ever.
Adams does this so well it makes me wish I thought of it. We mustn’t forget the complex mythology of J.R.R. Tolkien or the books on Mr. Tumnus’ shelf in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. But Adams is perhaps only exceeded in this generation by J.K. Rowling, who invented dozens of texts in the Harry Potter heptalogy, including Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them by Newt Scamander, which is due to release in film next year.
What do we call that? And what are some other examples?
I can think of very few. There are a number of Shakespeare books, such as (my favourite) Gary Blackwell’s Shakespeare Stealer trilogy. And there are a lot of Dickens and Austen spinoffs these days, but I don’t mean that precisely. Neither do I mean the constant reinventions of Homer, Arthur, Dante, Milton, and Faust tales (though Dan Brown in general does the kind of thing I’m talking about).
What books take up other books and use them as a foundation for their narrative?
Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi, perhaps. I suspect there was some of this in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, but I can’t remember.
So I am looking to you, dear reader, to help me think about ways that this sort of technique is used. We know about books that quote or allude to other characters or stories, and some echo a pattern or theme, delving into tropes and genres that have come before. And a lot of books create a fictional library that sits on their imaginative shelves.
But what are books that use other real books to shape the narrative?