On Epistolary Novels - Dundurn
Nov 18, 2021

On Epistolary Novels

If I had to guess, I’d say the epistolary novel—a story written as though it were a collection of letters—resonates with readers because it’s in lockstep with the current moment, with the confessional aspects of online life, with the tantalizing prospect of spilled secrets, violated privacy. The letters we send these days aren’t scented or tied in bows or stuffed in boxes for our grandchildren to discover; they’re bursts of light on our phones, DMs and TikToks and Twitter missives sent, like ocean bottles, off into the void to whoever might be walking on that distant shore, but the content differs little. Human hearts are still the same.

When I think of epistolary narratives, the first thing that comes to me is Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded, Samuel Richardson’s 1740 novel about grievous workplace harassment. I read it in university and forgot it utterly before I’d even graduated, and musing about it now in this way makes me believe that I never really cared much for the form. But of course that’s not true at all. At least not if you loosen the definition to include other kinds of communication: Jennifer Egan’s PowerPoint presentations and Rick Moody’s Yelp reviews and whatnot. These things I like a lot.

I don’t know. I dig the thought of an object getting plucked from the gutter and placed on a pedestal, so that the light hits it differently. Warhol’s soup cans, Jeff Koons’s balloon dogs, Tracey Emin’s messy bed. I find it thrilling. The pastiche, the parody, the perfect imitation, scooped out of life and presented as if without comment. I love that part: the no comment. No value attached, quiet, amoral.

My own novel, Seven Down, is written in the form of interview transcripts. This choice came early on. It was inspired in part by the infamous 1935 deathbed ramblings of Dutch Schultz, the New York City gangster who, gutshot by contract killers, had his final delirious statement recorded for posterity by a police stenographer. While coppers plied him with brandy and attempted to pry out some useful intel, Dutch embarked upon a wild, digressive word salad that included such gems as this:

“I don't want harmony. I want harmony. Oh, mamma, mamma! Who give it to him? Who give it to him? Let me in the district fire factory that he was nowhere near. It smoldered. No, no. There are only ten of us and there are ten million fighting somewhere of you, so get your onions up and we will throw up the truce flag.”

Drop a frame around that, hang it on a wall, call it art.

If you can conceive of something, no matter how outlandish, you gotta know you weren’t the first. I like to think that Seven Down is something akin to Dutch’s final dispatch. A kind of found object, a Duchampian ready-made that I inadvertently imitated, a lost document sitting, quiet and amoral, on some dumb company’s shared drive.

David Whitton is the author of The Reverse Cowgirl, a story collection. His short fiction has appeared in a number of journals and anthologies, including Darwin's Bastards, Best Canadian Stories, and The Journey Prize Stories. He is a graduate of the University of Guelph Creative Writing MFA program. He lives in Toronto. Learn more here.