I recently read An American Marriage, and although only about a third of the novel is made up of letters written between the husband and wife in the titular marriage, it got me thinking about my love for the epistolary form.
Even if you don’t know what an ‘epistolary novel’ is, you may have read one without realizing it. Classically, they’re novels made up entirely of letters written between different characters, but the genre now includes any novel made up of (typically fictional) documents, which might include diary entries, newspaper articles, film scripts, and more recently, blog posts or social media blasts.
It’s a format that lends itself to several different functions, and I love them all.
As a reader, when you’re piecing a story together from documents like this, it can feel very intimate (especially when, like in the epistolary portion of An American Marriage, you’re reading private letters between lovers), kind of like you’re sneaking around and spying on people. It’s an impact that feels silly if you think abut it too much, since technically reading a book with an omniscient narrator involves “spying” on the characters just as much as reading their letters does, but I can’t deny the extra psychological punch of reading a fictional diary entry about someone’s embarrassing moment that they don’t want anyone to know about. It can feel transgressive, even!
Daniel Handler’s Why We Broke Up is a beautiful example of this intimacy. The whole novel is a post-breakup letter sent alongside a box of stuff – the remnants of the former relationship. The letter names each item that’s being sent back the person who was dumped, with a description or an anecdote explaining of its significance (or lack thereof) to their relationship. Every chapter ends with “and that’s why we broke up”.
It’s honestly a fabulous premise for depicting all the things – from the utterly mundane to the catastrophically important – that make and break romantic relationships. And the way our perspective on some of those things, both little and big, can change drastically in retrospect. It’s a gorgeous book!
My favourite thing about a great epistolary novel, though? It’s the inherent sense of mystery that comes from putting together the story from fragments, whether they’re from a singular perspective or multiple. As a reader, I feel so actively involved, and no amount of knowing that all these documents were written, curated and ordered especially to reveal the story in just the way the author intended can dispel the feeling of being a detective trying to figure out what parts of the account are to be trusted.
Of course, this feeling isn’t exclusive to epistolary novels; any good mystery can make the reader feel this way! And I love a good unreliable narrator any day. E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars is a stellar example of a non-epistolary book that scratches this itch for me – the book follows Cadence, a teenager returning to her wealthy family’s summer island getaway while still recovering from an accident that happened there the year before, the details of which she can’t remember. There’s a lot of tensions among her mother and aunts as they squabble over their future inheritance, but Cadence is more worried about her cousins, lifelong summer-friends who stopped emailing her this year when she arguably needed them most.
The thing about epistolary novels is that the unreliability of the narrator (or narrators) is often more palpable – we are all highly motivated to present our stories in the way we want others to see them, especially in letters (or emails), and so we naturally assume these sorts of documents present selective descriptions of events and feelings. But narrator reliability still exists on spectrum in the epistolary form.
Bridget Jones’ Diary, for one, reads very sincerely. And why wouldn’t it? Bridget uses the diary to bear her very soul and vent her thoughts and feelings in a place that’s meant to be entirely private. It’s as close to her actual inner life as you can get in epistles.
On the other end of the single-narrator reliability spectrum, I’d put The Basic Eight (also by Daniel Handler, who apparently has this format on lock as far as i’m concerned). Flannery Culp’s ‘diary’ is very much written to be read, so much so that she includes discussion-style questions for her reader at the end of the entries. She also forthrightly admits to fabricating or otherwise bending the truth in some entries simply for the sake of narrative flow, as she unfolds the story of the escalating sins (and outright crimes) of her high school misfit crew the Basic Eight.
But where the epistolary novel really shines, as far as I’m concerned, is when there are multiple perspectives to sort through. The classic written-correspondence epistolary form always delivers to some extent, although when the characters are long-distance the experiences they write about to each other may not have a lot of overlap.
For the most immersive epistolary experience, you really want books that are made up of multiple forms of media – a format that, in my experience, particularly lends itself to mystery and horror.
One of my favourite recent examples of this is Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts. The book centers around the story of a young girl undergoing a major psychological schism (or is it a demon possession). Her family’s efforts to help her eventually lead to the them all starring on a reality show depicting the girl’s attempted exorcism (medical bills lead to desperate decisions sometimes, y’know).
Anyway, the book itself is told through multiple perspectives. First we have the girl’s younger sister, an adult now, being interviewed by a bestselling author who wants to write a book about the events. Merry was only 8 years old when her sister started behaving differently, and the process of the interview stirs up her memories in ways that cause her to start questioning what she believed happened.
Merry’s memories, dictated in interview and otherwise, are interspersed with a series of anonymous blog posts from someone who is obsessively analyzing the reality show to try to figure out what really happened (was Marjorie possessed? Was she severely ill? Was she *both*?).
Because a lot of the book is written as flashbacks, from the perspective of 8-year-old Merry, this book, like An American Marriage, is only partly epistolary. For the full epistolary horror experience, let me direct you to the much denser House of Leaves.
Let me start over. The book really centres around a mysterious manuscript (or rather, the book *is* an annotated, fragmentary manuscript). The manuscript is an in-depth analysis of the above-mentioned film.
Ok, let’s try this one more time. Johnny Truant is a generally unsavory sort of fellow, and though it’s not too important how it came into his possession, he’s been reading this weird manuscript about a documentary film called The Navidson Record, which depicts several regular-joe type guys on an expedition into an immense other-dimensional labyrinth that appeared in one of their homes. It’s not even clear that the movie even exists, but this old guy (Zampanò) who wrote the manscript was completely obsessed with it until he died.
Anyway, as Truant gets more invested in the manuscript, he starts adding his own annotations, including anecdotes about how his life starts getting weird and he stops being able to sleep at night. In fact, he’s convinced that whatever took Zampanò’s life is after him now too.
The book also includes footnotes from an unknown editor, and appendices of additional documents, including transcriptions of interviews with the owners of the home where The Navidson Record took place, and a collection of letters from Johnny Truant’s mother.
It all ultimately leaves you with more questions than answers, and of course, a prickling concern that maybe reading it was a bad idea if you don’t want to share Johnny’s fate (too bad you don’t realize he’s in peril until you’re in too deep yourself).
When I think about, it’s fascinating how truly immersive epistolary works of fiction can be – maybe it’s because it lets us explore fictional characters’ perspectives in the same way that historians learn about real historical figures – from documents surrounding them, their won writing, and other people’s descriptions of their personality and their actions. We’re more viscerally aware of how much might be missing from the glimpses the author gives us into the characters and the plot. By removing omniscience, or even any illusion of narrator reliability, epistolary works let us learn about people in a way that feels perhaps more natural?
I’m not totally sure. What experiences have you had with epistolary works?