Reading guide: Loitering with Intent by Muriel Spark
Shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1981, Loitering with Intent is an expertly crafted novel on art and artifice, one which delicately explores the ethical demands and constraints of authorship
Several titles in the Booker archives foreground the craft of writing and present multi-layered narrative experiences which challenge storytelling norms. Here are some of the best…
When is a novel not quite a novel? When it only exists, usually in incomplete form, within the confines of another work of long-form fiction, like a literary Matryoshka doll.
In several novels across the Booker archive, some of fiction’s most celebrated writers have enriched their work with the metafictional device of novels within novels, foregrounding the craft of writing itself and creating a multilayered narrative experience in which the reader is sometimes left wondering what to believe or who is pulling the strings.
Our August Book of the Month, Loitering with Intent, written by twice shortlisted Muriel Spark, is a masterclass in the execution of playful yet thought-provoking writing, and a classic example of a novel within a novel, where fact and fiction, reality and art, all converge.
Here, we’ve compiled a list of eight books from the Booker archive which experiment with the novel-within-a-novel form. These works question the idea of one author or narrator’s singular truth, and by challenging conventional storytelling norms makes a plethora of voices and viewpoints available to readers.
‘One day in the middle of the twentieth century I sat in an old graveyard which had not yet been demolished, in the Kensington area of London, when a young policeman stepped off the path and came over to me.’
And so begins Muriel Spark’s Loitering with Intent, shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1981 – and our Book of the Month for August. The novel follows burgeoning novelist Fleur Talbot as she embarks on a new job with the dubious Autobiographical Association, an organisation that produces memoirs for monied eccentrics. Yet the association’s founder, Sir Quentin Oliver, provides more than just a source of income - he offers a potent source of inspiration for the villain in Fleur’s yet-to-be-finished novel, Warrender Chase. As she works on the manuscript, she notices that life is beginning to imitate art with alarming - and occasionally violent - consequences. The novel within a novel trope interacts with Fleur’s private reminiscences, as she looks back on life in the ‘fullness of her years’. Loitering with Intent is a delightful metafictional rendering of the ethical quandaries any author faces, and is clearly semi-autobiographical. Fleur, Spark said, ‘did the sort of things I did’, though it’s difficult to say quite where Fleur ends and Spark begins.
Shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2004, Cloud Atlas is a time-travelling epic that bends linguistic and genre conventions while probing the human quest for power. Beginning in 1850 with Adam Ewing, an American notary returning from the Chatham Isles to his Californian home, who is befriended by Dr. Goose, a physician who falsely diagnoses him with a rare species of brain parasite in a ploy to steal his money. But just as suddenly as we meet Ewing, we are transported to 1931 Belgium, where struggling musician Robert Frobisher is attempting to squirrel his way into the household of an infirm musical maestro, Vyvyan Ayrs, and who spends his time there writing long letters to his lover, Rufus Sixsmith.
It is in the third part of the book that the novel-within-a-novel form really takes shape. Written to imitate a murder-mystery and set in the fictional city of Buenas Yerbas, California, in 1972, the story follows a young journalist, Luisa Rey, who is investigating the safety of a newly-constructed power plant. Her paths cross with an elderly Rufus Sixsmith who reveals to her that he has complied a report on this very issue, and soon after, he is discovered lifeless in his apartment in what appears to be a suicide.
As a whole, Mitchell’s novel moves boldly and deftly through time and space, allowing narratives to unfold within narratives, connecting seemingly disparate characters in a dizzying patchworked novel of ideas. Each novella or section is presented within the other, leading readers to wonder which is the real or authentic story.
The fourth of Margaret Atwood’s novels to be nominated for the Booker Prize and the first Booker winner of the twenty-first century, The Blind Assassin is a rumination on the art of storytelling itself. Setting the novel in the 1930s and 40s, Atwood replicates the vernacular and common parlance of the age, in the rendering of a brutal accident involving, Laura, the sister of the book’s narrator, Iris, who drives her car off a bridge. After an inquest pronounces Laura’s death to be accidental, Atwood diverts the narrative away from the event and into Laura’s posthumously published novel, also titled The Blind Assassin – a pulpy science fiction story concerning two lovers who have clandestine meetings in grimy backstreet rooms. Afterwards, Atwood returns to Iris’s perspective, recalling her early years and the events leading to Laura’s death.
It’s a terse, multilayered novel in which Atwood explores both the conflicting roles of women in the first half of the twentieth century and the power of storytelling, using them to mould contrasting perceptions of individual characters.
‘Here she was, offering a possibility of absolution. But it was not for him. He had done nothing wrong. It was for herself, for her own crime which her conscience could no longer bear. Was he supposed to feel grateful? And yes, of course, she was a child in 1935. He had told himself, he and Cecilia had told each other, over and again. Yes, she was just a child. But not every child sends a man to prison with a lie. Not every child is so purposeful and malign, so consistent over time, never wavering, never doubted. A child, but that had not stopped him daydreaming in his cell of her humiliation, of a dozen ways he might find revenge.’
Ian McEwan’s sultry, metafictional masterpiece – which was shortlisted for the Booker in 2001 – explores the life-altering power of a young girl’s restless imagination. When 13-year-old Briony glimpses the flirtation between her older sister, Cecilia, and her childhood friend, Robbie, she forges her own troubling interpretation and makes a decision that will irrevocably change all their lives. Briony’s reading of the events that transpired between the two illustrates the catastrophic damage that words can do and the long-lasting impact they can have on a life.
The novel’s central drama unfolds alongside the death and destruction of the Second World War and concludes towards the end of the 20th century, with the revelation that the book is the sixth draft of a novel by the much-older Briony, now a novelist. This shocking denouement causes readers to question once more Briony’s reliability as a narrator and author of events.
Hernan Diaz’s 2022 Booker-longlisted novel is a giant literary jigsaw puzzle. Diaz sets out to document the effects of exorbitant wealth and the ways in which money manipulates reality, but the novel itself offers even more than its thematic highlights. On the surface, Trust is presented as a series of manuscripts, all recounting different versions of the story of a secretive wealthy couple, a Wall Street businessman and his aristocratic wife, in the years before the Great Depression.
One narrative, titled ‘Bonds’, is presented as a bestselling novel by Harold Vanner, in which a financier makes a huge profit during the 1929 stock market crash, and his wife suffers from an obscure mental illness in Switzerland. In the following section, we read from ‘My Life’, the incomplete autobiography of Andrew Bevel – the inspiration for the lead character in ‘Bonds’. The book closes with a memoir by Ida Partenza, the ghostwriter of Bevel’s book.
Despite the book’s title, Diaz denies the reader of the ability to trust the various narrators or the verifiability of the work they are reading. In doing so, he elegantly challenges any attempts at a singular interpretation, urging the reader to interrogate the concept of truth, and the extent to which descriptions historical events should be taken at face value.
In his 2016 Booker Prize-longlisted novel, David Means burrows into the minds of traumatised Vietnam War veterans. The book is largely presented as an unearthed novel by Eugene Allen, himself a Vietnam veteran (now deceased), who returned from his tour of duty and set out to write a war story inspired by classics such as Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse-Five. In Allen’s story, which exists in an alternate reality where John F. Kennedy had survived an assassination attempt, veterans undergo a process to have their worst battlefield memories ‘enfolded’ – wiped from their minds through a combination of drugs and therapy (in itself, a harrowing process which involves reliving their most disturbing experiences). However, the veterans whose memories cannot be ‘enfolded’ commit atrocities against the civilian population, and are pursued by agents of by Psych Corps, a government agency whose job it is to protect the mental hygiene of the nation by any means necessary. The book asks big questions about how we process trauma, collectively and individually, and what happens when we face it head on.
Marina Warner’s 1988 Booker Prize-shortlisted The Lost Father is set in southern Italy in the first half of the twentieth century and is described by Lucy Scholes elsewhere on the Booker website as ‘a lush and densely-drawn inter-generational saga about the mythology and mystery that defines an Italian family’.
The book follows London-based archivist Anna Collouthar, who sets out to research and tell her family’s story, which pivots on the fate of its patriarch Davide Pittagora – Anna’s grandfather – who, according to the family legend, died from a bullet wound while defending his sister’s honour. Davide is lost both in the literal sense – his life cut short by a violent act – and in that he embodied the old ways of life and aspects of Italian society that have disappeared.
Anna’s potrait of her grandfather is brought to life in the form of a novel she writes from the fragments she uncovers, titled The Duel, and which takes up a siginificant portion of The Lost Father. In writing the novel, Anna utilises her skills as an archivist, assembling diary extracts, her mother’s recollections and letters, as well as filling in gaps with her own imagination.
‘Normal is unreal people, mostly rich unreal people, having sex with rappers and basketball players and thinking of their unreal family as a real-world brand, like Pepsi or Drano or Ford. Zap. News channels. Normal is guns and the normal America that really wants to be great again. “Then there’s another normal if your skin color is the wrong color and another if you’re educated and another if you think education is brainwashing and there’s an America that believes in vaccines for kids and another that says that’s a con trick and everything one normal believes is a lie to another normal and they’re all on TV depending where you look, so, yeah, it’s confusing.’
Salman Rushdie’s 14th novel, shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2019, is inspired by the Cervantes classic Don Quixote. Rushdie’s homage tells the story of Sam DuChamp, an averagely successful writer of spy thrillers. Sam obsesses over a beautiful TV star named Salma R, and invents the character of Quichotte, a courtly love-struck salesman, whose name he uses to send love letters to Salma. Accompanied by his imaginary son Sancho, Sam embarks on a picaresque quest, driving in a Chevrolet cruise across America to win Salma’s hand. Gradually, the real lives of Sam and his creation begin to converge, on a cross-country adventure where the unlikely duo meet angry Trump voters, get a taste of American racism, and somehow find themselves tangled up in the opioid crisis.