Meta-fiction might be the handmaiden or second cousin of science fiction and fantasy, but meta-fiction that is about meta-fiction might actually cause a paradox that destroys the universe. The Thieves of Manhattan is just such a book, and if it is destroying the universe, it’s also creating a new one at the same time. In his bio, author Adam Langer calls this either his fourth novel or second memoir. Lauded by the ever-fantastic Nicholas Meyer, this is a novel for people who like reading about reading. If you’re remotely interested in the magic fakery and contradictory reality of all fictional narratives, then this book will feel like candy. Or drugs. Depending on what you’re into.
Like several works of meta-fiction, The Thieves of Manhattan’s main character is a writer. Ian is a young-ish guy who writes a bunch of short stories in which not much happens, and can’t seem to catch a break in getting any of them noticed in a way that truly matters. He’s dating another writer, a woman whose career is beginning to blossom, owing primarily to her tragic past growing up in Bucharest. Anya is charming and beautiful and her heartwarming stories of her miserable childhood in Romania are getting her more attention than Ian is able to really process. Meanwhile, the biggest bestselling novel in this fictional world is a memoir called Blade by Blade written a former gang-banger named Blade Markham, a hilarious character that comes across as a sort of Ali-G pastiche. (Blade wears a crucifix which he claims is a “t” for “truth.”) Many characters, including Ian, assume Blade’s memoir is exaggerated, to the point of it being totally fake. And yet, Blade has a lot of celebrity in the literary circles Ian runs in with Anya. Soon, Blade manages to steel Anya away from Ian, but not before the novel’s real plot kicks in.
A mysterious con artist presents Ian with a complicated confidence scheme: Ian will write a fictional memoir based on an older fictional manuscript. After receiving praise from the literary community, and obtaining a book deal for a collection of short stories, Ian will then reveal to the world that the memoir is a fabrication. His celebrity will be in place, ensuring some kind of career, but the publishing industry will be embarrassed. That’s the plan anyway. The con-artist, Roth, has some sort of ax to grind with various publishing people, and as such, doesn’t tell Ian his complete motivations, only that the story he wants Ian to present as a memoir is totally fictional. (That story involves a priceless manuscript, murder, a mystery and thieves.)
But because this is a work of meta-fiction, not everyone is what they seem, and fairly quickly a lot of revelations about the true identities of many of these writers are revealed to be the opposite of what we’ve assumed. I don’t really want to spell out exactly what happens, because some of the twists are part of why the book is so enjoyable. All I will say is that learning who is telling the truth and who is lying is part of the genius of the novel. The fantastical, almost magical realism qualities of the book are embedded in some of those twists as certain “characters” from the fake-memoir suddenly come to life and speak exactly like the fictional characters Ian had believed he had invented for the purposes of the page. There’s almost a Dickens A Christmas Carol quality to the last third of the novel insofar as many of these fictional/real characters appear to be teaching Ian an important lesson. About what though? Life? Being a good writer? Knowing the difference between fictional and real life? Langer doesn’t make it totally clear, which is part of what makes the novel so great.
Throughout the book, Langer also heightens the meta-fictional aspects of this universe by inventing and implementing a lot of literary slang terms. A cigarette is called a “vonnegut” (Kurt Vonnegut) a certain type of curly hairstyle an “atwood” (for Margaret Atwood), stylish eyeglasses a “franzen” (like the glasses worn by Jonathan Franzen) a merciless edit of a manuscript “lishing” (a reference to the editor Gordon Lish.) This touch helps transports the book into a bizarre alternate universe where fiction is memoir, memoir is a scheme, and characters, which you think you created, are actually walking the streets. The Thieves of Manhattan isn’t science fiction, but the way uses meta-fiction so aggressively causes it to approach the gates of fantasy. And this is fantasy universe that’s highly recognizable and charmingly familiar. If you’re someone who enjoys pastiches, or stories folding back on themselves like the films of Charlie Kaufman, or the writing of Paul Park, then you’ll love The Thieves of Manhattan.
Ryan Britt is a staff writer for Tor.com.