The novelist himself, Jordan Castro (Nicolette Polek)

The Novelist covers six hours in the life of a young man, a struggling novelist. It’s a working morning: our protagonist gets up, makes tea (yerba mate, in a French press), opens his laptop, pulls up his work on Google Docs, logs on to Twitter, then Facebook, and returns to his novel. His wife is sleeping; his dog will eventually beg him for a walk. The Novelist switches to coffee. He goes to the bathroom. He barely writes.

What makes this novel more than a test of the reader’s patience is that the main character’s stream-of-consciousness has a narrative arc. The banality of a normal morning calls out for purpose, for meaning, for a reason to get up. Our hero looks for one. His rumination becomes first a self-examination and then a wrestling with the virtual and real environments that surround him. Castro is an ironist: he constantly exploits the gap between who the Novelist thinks he is, and what he actually might be. The Novelist is an unreliable narrator of his own consciousness.

Looking at the Facebook pictures and tweets of former friends or current enemies, the Novelist projects onto others moral faults of which he himself is guilty. A beautiful woman who was once the Novelist’s high-school lab partner becomes, through her Facebook pictures, an object of both desire and resentment. Twitter reminds the Novelist that another writer named Eric, once a friend, is now the main target of the Novelist’s anger. Eric only ever writes “with a red pen in hand”; he is a “juvenile” writer who wrote a “lifeless” book and who triggers our Novelist when he posts a smug, preening paragraph of anti-natalist clichés: “I love all the already existing kids, there just shouldn’t be anymore [sic] from now on. I love kids so much, this is the perfect number of kids.”

It’s the misanthropy in Eric’s words that angers the Novelist. “Of course, it was really just nihilism; everything with people like Eric was nihilism; and as a result of this nihilism Eric was unable to see, or understand, the value of life enough to want to perpetuate it.” But this rant against misanthropy—by turns vicious and hilarious—is the product of a frustrated man in search of himself. 

We do not think then act; the relationship between thinking and acting is not at all a straight line. The totality of oneself—only a portion of which is conscious thought—acts, and in order to have even a slim chance of interpretation one must observe oneself.

It’s lines like these, along with several nods to Kierkegaard, that make The Novelist a philosophical novel. Like many other philosophical novels, it is driven by a young man wrestling with an unconscious portion of himself that refuses to yield to his commands.

This struggle is formulated in terms not of answering an ultimate question, but of getting the question itself right. The Novelist insists that the question must be: “How can I live a meaningful life?” and not “Is life really meaningful?” He gets this from Kierkegaard, and he believes it to be fundamental: “Asking the wrong questions would result in disjointed, world-weary meandering, or inaction.” To ask “How can I live a meaningful life?” is already to accept life as it is, and to work within its parameters. But living in a fantasy world dominated by the internet, social-media vanities, dopamine addiction, and the insecurities of an artist, the Novelist struggles to embrace the world as it truly is, beyond all the screens. But then his wife wakes up, and Dillon, his dog, begs to be walked.


'The Novelist' shows us one man’s mind curved in upon itself, looking for an exit from his mental prison.

There’s not much more to this novel’s story, and no spoiler alert is needed, because a plot is not what this book is about. The novel is an experience of a different sort: not of a story, but of a subjectivity symptomatic of our time. The Novelist shows us one man’s mind curved in upon itself, looking for an exit from his mental prison. The result is a novel that engages the reader on an intimate level, the level of ordinary thought as it unspools over the course of an ordinary day. If you are tracking, thought by thought, the mind of your neighbor, eventually you’re thinking the same thoughts he is, and for a time your minds become one and the same. Something similar happens when you read The Novelist: your consciousness might end up almost fused with the Novelist’s. You root for him because you cannot help identifying with him.

The Novelist takes the dog out to the woods next to his house. It’s not quite noon. The Novelist’s eyes are so used to staring into a screen that nature itself appears “like a simulation of a forest.” His eyes are slow to adapt to reality. “The sun cast pixelated patterns over everything.” But in fact the Novelist is just now leaving the pixelated world and entering the real one, guided by his dog. He is retreading the path out of the cave from Plato’s Republic.

That he is a middle-aged man walking through the woods evokes the Divine Comedy. (The dog might be Virgil: “I was never more myself than when I was talking or singing to Dillon,” says the Novelist.) But the last sentence in the book reminds me again of the Republic. There his rumination reaches a crescendo. The tension of his thoughts and doubts and desires is too much, and he seeks release merely by looking around at the real world. He rediscovers what it means to be resolute. He is ready to return home. “I continued on the path then turned around,” he says. In the Republic, Socrates calls education “the art of turning around.” The lack of education, the state of ignorance, is like being inside a cave, staring at the back wall, pondering the shadows of things one cannot turn around to see. To be educated is to turn away from those shadows and the figures that cast them, and to leave the cave. One turns around to walk away from images and to meet the real world, which is illuminated by the sun. Whether consciously or not, the Novelist—and the novelist—are repeating these same steps. This novel is, among other things, a revolt against the world of images in which we all seem trapped. 

American opinion columnists and talking heads have lately been arguing about the merits of a new book by the psychologist Jonathan Haidt, which argues that addiction to smartphones has caused a recent spike in mental illness among American teenagers. Many commentators have disputed Haidt’s explanation and point to other sources of the problem. But even without the mental-health angle, we can at least say that a lot of young people (and old people!) now spend too much of their lives staring at a screen. That should bother us, whether or not it leads to depression or clinical anxiety. What is the smartphone screen but a small portable version of the wall in Plato’s cave? Castro’s the-way-we-live-now novel reminds us that the root of our problems is not new. Moreover, the very existence of his novel is a reminder that human beings are free and can always transcend their circumstances—if not materially, then at least spiritually, through art and literature. There’s a lot of fatalism in the air about the future of technology these days, and Castro’s novel is an answer to that.

The best thing about the literary trend of so-called “autofiction,” which The Novelist exemplifies, is that, in crafting stories about semi-fictional versions of themselves, autofiction authors are participating in a much older literary genre: the confession. The confession is a story that interprets itself along the way, part exposé and part self-evaluation. One can write a confession for the same reason that one goes to confession. To let go of a burden, to become free.

The Novelist
A Novel
Jordan Castro
Soft Skull Press
$16.95 | 208 pp.

Santiago Ramos is a staff writer for Commonweal and executive editor at Wisdom of Crowds.

Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Published in the July/August 2024 issue: View Contents
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.