When You Reach Me: A New Kind of Intertextuality?

Bedside ReadingThere 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.

Hedgehog_cdBox_OTI 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.

when you reach me rebecca steadI 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.

Of Other Worlds by CS LewisThere 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.

pride and prejudice Keira Knightley reading a bookI 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.

Madeleine L'Engle A Wrinkle in TimeIn 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.

Eddie Redmayne Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find ThemBut When You Reach Me doesn’t invent a canonical text that it relies upon. Instead, it uses a book from 45 years earlier to shape the narrative.

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.

when you reach me stead coverSo 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?

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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33 Responses to When You Reach Me: A New Kind of Intertextuality?

  1. laurasmit says:

    Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clark is full of references to fictional books.


    • Yes, it has a fictional library behind it, and it is that complex kind of intertextuality that draws in other stories at many different kinds of levels. I think that’s its beauty.
      Does it have nonfiction books that shape it like When You Reach Me is shaped by A Wrinkle in Time?


  2. Thanks for this fascinating post! It’s really cool. Here are a few examples I can think of.

    “Frankenstein” uses “Paradise Lost” as an important prior text, both as plot device and as thematic commentary. “A Myth of Shakespeare” by Charles Williams consists partly of huge chunks quoted from Shakespeare’s plays and partly of CW’s original story about Shakespeare’s life.

    How about the Paolo and Francesca incident in “Inferno”? They were reading a book about illicit love and then enacted it in their lives. Is that the same?

    The Doctor Who episode “The Shakespeare Code” uses “Macbeth” in much the way you’re describing.

    I’ll try to think of others.


    • Thanks for this. Shakespeare and Milton are canonical and show up a lot. I had noted Milton in Frankenstein–the Adam conversation. As in Perelandra. Shakespeare appears in the witches books of Terry Pratchett, to a greater or lesser degree. I didn’t know that about CW just because I haven’t read it!
      Your response helps me clarify. Does it happen to non-canonical literature? Perhaps “A Wrinkle in Time” is part of fantasy canon, but certainly not the Bloom-style English-language capital C canon.


  3. jubilare says:

    If I remember rightly, Northanger Abbey, by Austen, refers to some of the staples of gothic lit, and is a downright parody of the genre.
    I know there are others, but that is all my mushbrain is giving me right now.


    • I have not read Northanger Abbey! I know, I know. I’m still an Austen neophyte. I argued elsewhere that I think Elizabeth in P&P is a parody of a Richardson character, so I believe you about using the forms and images of a genre and then inverting it.
      This is where, I think, C.S. Lewis excelled. Today it would be easy to go to the parody folk, but I think Neil Gaiman does it well.


      • jubilare says:

        LoL! Well, I don’t think N.A. is an essential Austen read, nor Mansfield Park, for that matter. The former is her first (I think) novel and amusing, but not polished. The latter is just… kind of boring. So there you have it. I may be an Austen heretic. 😉

        I just realized that my “raised by dragons” story directly references E. A. Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.”

        Liked by 1 person

  4. L.A. Smith says:

    You had me at “A Wrinkle in Time”, which is pretty much one of my favourite books ever. So I’m going to have to read When You Reach Me as well. Another one to add to my currently groaning pile. As to your question….my mind is blank. There are probably books out there that do this, but I’m not much help to you, I’m afraid. I think I get what you are asking, but I’ll have to read this book to see what you mean, exactly. So, in other words, in a couple years I might be able to comment on this post intelligently. Ha ha.


  5. Anne says:

    Rebecca Stead’s book is brilliantly written — and I understand your question. Stead does more than allude to Wrinkle nor is it a pastiche. Simulacrum comes closest but it’s not a distortion. Rather, Stead not only bases WYRM on the reality posited in Wrinkle she also interweaves the two.

    Dorothy Gilman does something similar in two of her books. The Tightrope Walker (1979) is a murder mystery/romance in which a young woman investigates the murder several years prior of a woman who turns out to have been the author of the young woman’s favorite childhood book, a fantasy/allegory titled The Maze in the Heart of the Castle. Quotes from The Maze appear as epigraphs before each section, and the plot of The Maze helps the young woman solve the murder.

    Gilman makes The Maze sound like a very real book, at one point referring to illustrations by Howard Pyle. Pyle, however, died in 1911, and this book was supposed to have been published in 1949 or so. As it happens, Gilman herself wrote The Maze in the Heart of the Castle, which was published four years after The Tightrope Walker.

    I know this isn’t quite the same as what Stead did with Wrinkle and WYRM, but I think it’s close. The Maze stands alone as a marvelous allegory, but read another way it provides the solution to the murder in The Tightrope Walker. More than allusion, not pastiche nor simulacrum. Maybe we need to come up with a new term.


    • Thank you for this intelligent response.
      I wonder how much the plotlines/settings of mystery books echo one another. Something tells me that is a bit of an open possibility, to hint at previous work through setting or even a similar crime.
      I love the Gilman project you describe. I am inclined to find it if I can!
      We may need a new term.


  6. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    This is all very interesting, though I can only suggest possible examples, not knowing Stead:

    Henry Fielding’s Shamela and his Joseph Andrews, each in its own way interacting with Richardson’s Pamela.

    Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, imagining a back-story for Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre.

    John Gardner’s Grendel, giving an unreliable (unless you read between the lines) Grendel’s eye view of the action of Beowulf?

    – though of all of those, all are treating what they interact with as actual history, though I think Fielding (if I recall correctly) also explicitly interacts with Pamela as account.

    Perhaps the way Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time interacts with Thomas More’s History of King Richard III (and, checking on the latter’s exact title in Wikipedia, two fictional books, as well – a history and a novel!).

    Have I ever shared what my friend, the Rev. Dr. Ian Graham, pointed out to me, about how Brave New World interacts with Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”? This is all allusive and implicit, rather than explicit, like John’s knowledge of Shakespeare. (I have just been wondering, though, in how far Brave New World interacts with the plot of The Tempest, as well – time for some rereading!)


  7. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    The phenomena of (1) responses to others’ recommendations, and of (2) shared ‘oiko-canons’ (or whatever they might be called) are two other very interesting subjects you’ve launched, here, about which it would be interesting to hear others’ experiences.

    For example, I think I generally tend to take seriously recommendations, but not be put off by people’s dislikes from trying the work in question (unless the details communicated make it seem off-putting in its own right: sometimes that does happen with recommendations, too!).

    I was astonished when I read, in A Severe Mercy, of how Sheldon Vanauken and Jean “Davy” Palmer Davis acquainted themselves pretty exhaustively with each other’s previous reading histories.

    We have gotten acquainted with each others’ favourite reading, en famille, by reading aloud to each other alot (though I have still not yet caught up with The Shakespeare Stealer corpus, found and devoured by one, but somehow not fed into the reading-aloud cycle).


    • “oikocanons”–you are most likely the first person to every try that word out. I read Severe Mercy this summer and was struck by the same thing.
      When we go on road trips, we listen to books on tape. But we haven’t read aloud to one another yet.


  8. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Do you think it likely that Fantastic Beasts will include some location filiming on Cerro Tololo in Chile?

    And how much of a drawback do you think it is, that Eduard Khil is not available to play Newt Scamander’s grandfather? (And his anyone remarked on a certain resemblance to Smeagol, “a joyful, sweet character”, as Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Phillippa Boyens recently described him?)


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  10. Sharon says:

    It seems to me you are asking about one book using another specific book, rather than joining a a long line of retellings, like King Arthur or Gilgamesh. A few books occur to me:

    Felix Palma has done this in his Victorian Trilogy with both the books and the life of HG Wells.

    Robin McKinley’s Sunshine references both real and fictional books on vampires.

    Lauren Groff’s Monsters of Templeton makes use of the fictional history that James Fenimore Cooper wrote for Cooperstown.

    Thom Satterlee’s The Stages makes the books of Kierkegaard central to the mystery.


    • Dear Sharon,
      Thank you for this note. I was totally thinking about what you have suggested. I am glad that this sort of approach is out there. I’m interested in seeing how people do it well–especially when the real book at root is obscure.
      I also came across James Bliss’ “A Case of Conscience”, which uses Finnegans Wake by James Joyce.


  11. Stephenee Dyreson says:

    It seems that Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series fits your criteria nicely.


  12. Sheila says:

    The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde does this beautifully – and all of the books in the series. Great article!


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  14. joviator says:

    The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco orbits around the Comedy volume of Aristotle’s Poetics. It’s kind of a boundary-straddling case: a real book, but nobody has read it.


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