Metafiction with a 21st Century Twist

Leo Benedictus

In The Afterparty Leo Benedictus combines reality and fiction to present a funny, but ultimately moving account of the ups and downs of being a celebrity in today’s world.

Leo Benedictus is an award-winning Guardian features writer whose first novel The Afterparty is published in March 2011 by Jonathan Cape. Described as “unlike any novel you’ve ever read”, The Afterparty propels metafiction and metafictive devices firmly into the 21st century, taking the novel-within-a-novel form and giving it a modern twist or two, creating what Benedictus describes as “hyperfiction.”

When you add good old-fashioned storytelling, an element of mystery and elegant writing, you have a mind-bending satire that is clever, funny and gripping. The story takes place on an April night when the conventional and sheltered Michael comes face-to-face with the deep shadows cast by the rich and famous. A lowly sub-editor on a London paper, he reluctantly agrees to attend an A-list birthday bash for film star Hugo Marks with the prime objective of sourcing and recording as much gossip as he can. Little does he realise as he makes his way to the exclusive club, that he will soon become the root cause of the biggest piece of gossip of the year. Also attending the party are Marks’ junkie supermodel wife, Mellody, and the ridiculously good looking “pop pup” and X-Factor runner up, Calvin. Over the space of a few hours, their four lives become entangled in a PR disaster that no one could have predicted and from which there is no return. The Afterparty is a novel that not only exposes the underbelly of celebrity life, but cuts it open to reveal the guts and gore; sex, drugs, self-promotion and self-loathing that defines a readily identifiable class of celebrities whose lives are frequently smeared across the tabloid newspapers.

Anyone familiar with Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, Martin Amis’ London Fields or Italo Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller, will be acquainted with the concept of metafiction. Metafiction is the literary term that describes a type of fiction that knowingly displays or flaunts fictional illusions by directly drawing attention to the devices of fiction and therefore questioning the link between fiction and reality. However with The Afterparty, Benedictus introduces the reader to “hyperfiction”, a self-coined term best described in the author’s own words: “A conventional novel presents the reader with fiction (the story in which they lose themselves) in a box of nonfiction (the cover, the author photograph, the Amazon page, the reviews, the author interviews etc). In metafiction, the author puts some of him or herself (usually himself, metafiction is strangely male) inside this box, reminding readers of the book’s real origins. This is something they seldom forget for long, in any case, but some still find that it spoils the fictional illusion, and thus the pleasure of the story. Hyperfiction opens the box. Whether reading the book, or about it, it is impossible for readers to be sure of what is true. This is the condition of all reading, but hyperfiction brings it to the surface.” Uncertainty is a constant companion when reading The Afterparty – uncertainty about what is true and what isn’t; what is real and what is invented; how much of Benedictus’ persona in the novel is actually him. This may not be to every reader’s taste, but most will find the fiendishly clever Möbius strip of a plot immensely satisfying, as it leads them through every level of the narrative.

As well as introducing us to a new kind of fiction, Benedictus is taking advantage of almost every bit of digital technology available to promote himself and The Afterparty. There are a number of publicity stunts that are advertised at the end of novel, which could be seen as part of the satire and the “hyperfiction” but which Benedictus is happy to admit are also open attempts to win attention for himself and his novel: “If a book needs publicising, isn’t it better to include the manner in which it does so honestly within its pages? This is something that “hyperfiction” makes possible. Rather than trying to separate what readers know of the author and their novel, this brings the two together into a continuous story.” There are a number of competitions that will be open to readers up to the publication of the paperback edition in 2012, such as tweeting any message a reader wants published in the paperback to #afterpartybook, and emailing reviews and new characters to for possible inclusion in a scene at the club in the story. As amusing or innovative these stunts may be, they do remind us about just how fast our digital culture and social media are moving. None of this would have been possible before the advent of email, the Internet and Twitter. However, if all these different media streams continue to merge and cross over, are we in danger of drowning in a flood of digital technology or do books such The Afterparty, with all its post-modern attributes, herald a new and exciting interactive literary age?

For all of these digital developments and the hyperfictive devices, The Afterparty is also – and perhaps more importantly – a cracking good read. It’s a smartly plotted and well-written story about people struggling to come to terms with themselves. It’s not an original idea in itself, but Benedictus’ treatment of the narrative is inspired in that he writes in each of the four main characters’ voices (Michael, Hugo, Mellody and Calvin). Every moment is examined from two or more perspectives as the characters’ paths cross throughout the evening and night. Each scene is viewed and re-viewed, either in part or in its entirety, which is the literary equivalent of theatre in the round; we can see every conceivable angle. The overall effect is impressive; the characters are brilliantly drawn and the telling and then re-telling of key points in the narrative allows the reader to reflect on the cause and effect of our behaviour and how we impact on each other without even realising. This idea of how we unwittingly shape the course of ours and other people’s lives builds throughout the novel until it finally crescendos in an unforgettable way.

Another reason the novel is so engrossing is Benedictus’ handling of the celebrity characters. As well as the main characters, with the exception of Michael, real famous people crop up throughout the story, such as Elton John and Gordon Ramsay. As Benedictus readily admits, his experience as a journalist provided plenty of material: “A consequence of writing features for a newspaper is that you do get to sample the strange experience of meeting very famous people. This has not been my specialty, by any means, but I’ve interviewed Kevin Spacey, Anne Hathaway, Russell Brand, Mike Leigh, Vic Reeves and others in the past … I’ve always found [it] fascinating, what is it like to be the famous person, surrounded by sycophants and social climbers and journalists and people who resent your success? What is it like when literally everybody on the street knows that you have just broken up with your boyfriend, or used to have a drug problem? What is it like to know that millions of people think you are a certain type of person, while you know that you aren’t? … I include many quotes from real celebrities in the dialogue, of course, often in the mouths of the people who spoke it. This felt important, as a way of reminding readers that this book is really very close to reality.”

The Afterparty’s closeness to reality is hard to escape. As well as the authentic presentation of celebrity, there are numerous references to contemporary television, film and music. Zeitgeist is a handy but often overused label, but one that is perhaps apt here. Not only does Benedictus weave strands of sociocultural realism into his fictional fabric, his novel also reminds us of the divide between us and them – the ordinary and the famous. Whether people take the moral high ground about celebrity or not, most of us would do anything to be Michael and to get to see behind the closed doors, inside the kitchens and bathrooms and witness the lives of the rich and famous first hand. But what Michael soon realises is that once across that divide, once any ordinary person becomes somebody famous, they too often find that there is a price to pay. Beneath the story lies a more sombre message about the modern cult of celebrity – just how easy it is to lose touch with reality. Having entertained his reader with a clever and funny story, Benedictus brings out an ending that is poignant and moving, reminding us that underneath the sheen of fame there are real people with real problems.

The Afterparty was published in March 2011.

Rachel Hazelwood