Stephen Collis’s The Red Album is not what would normally be called a novel. It does, however, consist of layer upon layer of fiction. Nor is The Red Album actually by Stephen Collis, or at least that is the very first layer of fiction presented within its pages.
At the start of the book, Collis claims that a manuscript entitled The Red Album was e-mailed to him as a PDF by a colleague named Alfred Noyes, a poet and translator. Noyes explains that the author of the manuscript is yet a third party, a former companion of his named Gloria Personne. Since writing the manuscript and entrusting it to Noyes, Gloria Personne has vanished.
Noyes urges Collis to edit Personne’s manuscript, in which her characters confront alternate versions of the narratives of social struggle and revolution in Spain’s history, and see to its publication. Collis informs would-be readers in his “critical introduction” to the text that he has implored Noyes to annotate Personne’s compelling but brief novel so that the gaps in the narrative can have the benefit of some explanation and will hopefully be less frustrating for readers.
What follows is Personne’s manuscript itself, but with interjections from Noyes. Subsequently, Collis explains that he has included another section in The Red Album, a collection of documents (an essay by Collis himself, a film treatment, segments from the mysterious Gloria Personne’s unfinished autobiography, etc.), which he contends develop a context for Personne’s identity, as well as for questions about where truth lies within historical fact and fiction.
It’s all a kind of puzzle of authorship and authenticity. But the best parts of The Red Album are when Collis is writing in his own voice, or at least in the voice of the character he names Stephen Collis, pondering more earnestly the nature of how verifiable experience can ever really escape its role as part of a greater text or narrative. The danger is that whenever a novel depicts a book within a book, the gamesmanship of it all can easily become exhausting or just boring (like Italo Calvino constantly exclaiming, “Ha! You thought you had the whole story but you don’t!”).
Collis believes writing and reading to be acts of perpetually continuing a text. And of course, the component parts of The Red Album are all there to be put together into a sort of novel. In this, not unlike Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy, or Robert Kroetsch’s The Hornbooks of Rita K., we are reminded that reading is always partly an act of metaphysical detective work. The Red Album isn’t exactly a mystery to be solved, and it isn’t exactly a complete novel. But these contradictions are what let it continue on.
Kyle Buckley is the author of The Laundromat Essay.