Fans of the movie Birdman will not be surprised that its co-author, Nicolas Giacobone, has written a debut novel full of metafictional twists and turns. The layered storytelling of the Oscar-winning movie doesn't quite come off in the novel form, but there is much within to keep readers – and especially aspiring writers – interested along the way.
The conceit of The Crossed-Out Notebook sees an Argentine screenwriter (so far, so meta – Giacobone is from Buenos Aires), held hostage in a basement by a famous film director with only an internet disabled laptop for company. Already five years in captivity in San Martín de los Andes when we meet him, Pablo has delivered two award-winning screenplays but his megalomaniac director Santiago is expecting even bigger things from his latest offering. Weary of winning Oscars for best foreign language pictures, Santiago insists that this new script must take the overall gong of best picture.
This type of humour is typical of the novel – absurd, often hilarious demands put upon Pablo by his captor. In a prose style that is breezy, easy to read and packed with witty one liners, there is much to hook our interest in his confinement. Speaking in the language of his captor, Pablo tells us he is not imprisoned but “basemented”. Although Santiago assures him that he’ll never lack for anything, we are privy to Pablo’s interior thoughts, which tell a different story: “There are a ton of things I lack. For example, news about my mother.”
With a plot that has strains of Stephen King’s Misery, there is, however, none of the dread or horror of crippled writer Paul Sheldon’s situation. In The Crossed-Out Notebook, a small amount of suspense early on is derived more from the absurd premise rather than any deliberate attempt on Giacobone’s part to evoke a malevolent atmosphere. His novel is Misery mined for laughs. For much of the book, this is enough to sustain us. Like any good screenwriter, Giacobone skilfully sets up the world – the small rectangle of sunlight, the stony silence of Norma the maid, the spicy food that gives Pablo haemorrhoids, the titular notebook of ideas and musings, where everything is crossed out by its author the following day.
It is a stark metaphor for the writing life, which is the central focus of this novel. Through his likeable, eccentric narrator, Giacobone muses on the creative process, taking in everything from Beckett to the Beatles, Pretty Woman to Amadeus. Pablo talks at length on the “pleasant exhaustion” of creative outpouring, the difference between art and entertainment, and his belief that no work of literature, no matter how great, can do justice to describing nature. It is, like much in the novel, a multilayered insight, coming from a man who has not been outside for years.
Giacobone would do well to heed his character's own advice about plot points and getting through the difficult middle
Elsewhere, there are wry one-liners on the classics: “The great writers of history do nothing but ruin us. We can’t escape them, we can only be ruined by them.” Giacobone has interesting things to say on collaboration in art as well. He holds up The Beatles as “a clear example of the virtues of collaboration” but in the medium of film-writing, this can be a toxic force: “Film is an industrial art, and for that reason it is deeply imperfect. The more people who participate, the more imperfect the result.” Aspiring writers will find plenty of advice on the mechanics of structure and plotting – “any scene that is not a transition must have a twist”. Action, conflict and twist, or what’s also referred to as “scene reversal” – and a sympathetic voice in Pablo who spends many pages talking about the difficulties and frustrations of creating something from nothing.
Sadly, the charm starts to wear thin midway through the book and, ironically, Giacobone would do well to heed his character’s own advice about plot points and getting through the difficult middle. Perhaps it’s on purpose – the book frequently satirises its own plot and premise – but the repetitive musings and labyrinthine storytelling grow tiresome in the second half as Pablo’s revenge fantasy on his captor blends with his fictional output. The diversions become boring – his thoughts on the Argentine singer Gilda, his time in the School of Music in Buenos Aires – and jarring time shifts and reminders that the battery on his laptop is running out start to grate.
The book is almost saved by a section from Santiago that hilariously summarises the film industry and awards season but overall there is the sense that we are more in first-draft territory than the polished, finished product we hope to receive. At one point in the novel, Pablo quotes Flannery O’Connor on the writing process, in a line that has as much resonance for this debut novelist as it does for his characters: “I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”