8 Stories Within Stories
Keziah Weir, author of “The Mythmakers,” recommends nesting doll novels
There’s something viscerally appealing about nesting dolls. The same holds true, I’d argue, for nesting narratives. Each new layer to the story can either reveal or obscure the capital-t Truth at its center. Sometimes both! As a magazine writer and editor, I’m particularly aware of the difficulties intrinsic to writing about other people’s lives. Nesting doll—or frame—narratives confront that particular anxious itch: in them, the narrators (often writers) disappear for long stretches, or reveal themselves slowly, or crumble under the weight of the stories they’re telling.
In my novel, The Mythmakers, a young journalist reads a short story by an author she met years earlier and finds signs that the story is about her. When she learns that the author has died, but that his widow lives not too far away, she abandons her life in Brooklyn to track the woman down upstate. What follows are glimpses into the lives of the couple, their families, and friends: a teenage future physicist living in Houston at the height of the space race, a mysterious therapist with a commune in the woods, a classical pianist grappling with failure.
I love reading about writers, but I also love abandoning what I know and sinking into a story about people with desires and professions that don’t resemble mine. Here are stories that have the best of both worlds—books worth swallowing whole.
Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov
On its surface, the book reads as a comic portrait of bumbling Russian professor Timofey Pnin. He does strange things to the English language, his ex-wife walks all over him, he’s the butt of his colleagues’ jokes. But from the very first page a puppetmaster lurks between the lines, and as the story progresses it becomes increasingly clear that one particular narrative thread holds the key to seeing the truth below the attractive gauze of storytelling—a subtle nesting doll in reverse.
The Night Ocean by Paul LaFarge
In the wake of her husband Charlie’s disappearance, Marina Willet, a psychiatrist and our narrator, retraces his recent travels and interactions in the hope of finding answers—and maybe Charlie himself. Before his disappearance, Charlie had become obsessed with the shadowy relationship between the weird author H.P. Lovecraft and a teenage fan named Robert Barlow. The book contains so many effortless shifts in place and time, from excerpts of what’s purported to be Lovecraft’s diary; to the travails of the adult Barlow, a professor in Mexico in the same circles as Rafael Nadal and Diego Rivera; to the WWII story of a shifty character named L.C. Spinks. It’s seamless, a high-flying trapeze act. Paul was my undergraduate professor and advisor, and his writing and teaching were and continue to be hugely influential to my own work.
Trust Exercise by Susan Choi
Theater kids at a performing arts high school fall under the thrall of their transgressive and charismatic teacher; when British exchange students and their own instructors arrive, boundaries are further blurred. It’s tricky to summarize this one without spoiling the roller coaster-drop sensation of its reveals, but suffice to say that in the following two sections, narrative flips upend various beliefs and expectations.
The Human Stain by Philip Roth
Following a prostate surgery that’s left him incontinent and impotent, Nathan Zuckerman, a writer posted at Athena College, becomes close with Coleman Silk, his 71-year-old neighbor who has recently been ousted from his longtime post at the college for his use of a perceived racial slur. When Coleman’s wife dies, he says it’s from the stress of the scandal and demands that Zuckerman write a book about the whole situation. He does end up writing something, but the focus falls instead on Coleman’s hidden family history, his relationship with 30-year-old Fania, a custodian at the college, and the mental turmoil of her ex-husband, a Vietnam veteran with stewing anger issues.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
In three normal length letters and then the longest letter ever written, lonely Captain Robert Walton tells his sister a strange tale. While Walton was stuck in St. Petersburg waiting for ice to melt and wishing for a friend, a ragged man named Victor appeared on a dog-sled, boarded the ship, and started telling his own story. He had built a monster from the bodies of the dead, and the monster wrought death and destruction upon Victor’s loved ones (because, interestingly enough, the monster was lonely, too).
A True Novel by Minae Mizumura, translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter
Clocking in at over 800 pages, this evocative, sprawling book has some room for frames. A Japanese writer recalls her adolescence in America, when her father’s job took the family to New York for her high school years. There, the family met a mysterious, career-climbing man named Taro Azuma, who disappeared into a life of opera and penthouses. Years later the writer takes a post at Stanford and on a dark and stormy night receives a visit from a stranger, a young man with a story of his own to share—of a story told to him by a woman who’d served as Taro’s housemaid back in Japan. The book is billed as an adaptation of Wuthering Heights—Taro is the book’s Heathcliffe, his longtime, star-crossed love Yoko its Catherine—but Taro’s secretive wealth and tragic romantic heroism also evoke Jay Gatsby.
Possession by A.S. Byatt
This is the only book on the list that doesn’t have a traditional first-person narrator, but it feels worth including for what it does have: a double timeline, one following 20th-century British scholars searching for clues to a presumed century-old literary affair, the other that 19th-century relationship. That second thread comprises dozens of diary excerpts, poems, and letters (by writers real and fictional); a complete 11-page short story—and the whole thing comes via an editorializing narrator intent on pointing out the magic of writing and reading, the length and limit of imagination, the pleasure of words.
Mouth to Mouth by Antoine Wilson
Over the course of a plane delay, the unnamed narrator—an author of middling popular success waiting at JFK for his flight to Berlin—runs into a college acquaintance who invites him for drinks in the first class lounge. There, the man tells him a twisting story of his rise, following their graduation from UCLA, in the Los Angeles art world, beginning with his saving a stranger from drowning, a successful man whose life he ends up worming his way into. The book has the propulsive pull of the most delicious psychological thrillers and an ending that feels—in the best way—like being pushed off a cliff.