Can we be the story and the storyteller? According to The Awful Truth About the Sushing Prize by Marco Ocram, we can be both.
A currently fashionable storytelling device in television and film is for characters, usually while remaining in character, to directly address the audience, often referred to as breaking the fourth wall.
In literature, however, this device is distinctly less common, likely because of the structural challenge it presents to the narrative flow. In short, breaking the fourth wall in a novel has the potential to be enormously confusing for a reader.
But not so in Marco Ocram’s unusual and highly entertaining novel The Awful Truth About the Sushing Prize in which the main character—a writer—is writing himself into his own novel while simultaneously deliberating on the merits of his own writing. Sound dizzying? In lesser hands it certainly could be but Ocram pulls it off with clever and enviable aplomb.
The Awful Truth about the Sushing Prize has two comingled plotlines. One focuses on the character of mega-best-selling celebrity author, Marco Ocram, as he writes the second plotline—think of it like live-action real-time genre-fiction writing—while musing on the unimpressive state of contemporary literature and the publishing industry. Occasionally, the author Ocram is interrupted, both in his writing and his participation in his own plot, by a call from his long-suffering mother or his rapacious agent.
The second plotline—that the fictional author Ocram (who, make note, is also the “real” author of The Awful Truth About the Sushing Prize) is writing and in which he is embedded as a character—is a formulaic police caper with the expected cast of murderous, duplicitous and conniving characters, drawn largely from a publishing world that deeply envies Ocram’s literary success. As he writes, his characters’ words and actions become real.
The comingled storylines race along, with all the expected hardboiled dialogue and action, skirting intentionally close to cliché but then surprising the reader with a fresh plot twist, a sly, self-deprecating swipe at genre fiction or a skewering of a well-known (real) celebrity author.
Here are a few examples of the layering of the two plots:
“We have rule in business,” said the boss, omitting to say ‘a’ before the world ‘rule’ in what I hoped was a convincing east-European accent. “All is private for our workers. We cannot be giving personal details and addresses. Is the law.”
“Wrong buster, I’m the law.” Como grabbed the man’s greasy lapels in one big fist, marched him backwards into the rear office, and threw him against the filing cabinets, while I thanked my lucky stars there was no-one else to witness the brutal tactics I’d just written.
Or this one:
I ordered a cab, which I entered with the hood of my anorak raised to avoid recognition. If I had hoped for contemplative calm in the back of the cab, I should have been more selective in my choice of the character for the driver. The species in front of me was garrulous, loud and opinionated…I withdrew into the sanctity of my mind and tried to think what to do next with the plot line of Como’s disloyalty.
And one more:
Reverting to the past tense, I sat against the wing of the Gran Torino, cloaked in foil and wondering what to write next.
I’ll admit, for the first few chapters, I was a bit set off-kilter by the jarring nature of the prose, but after I let myself fall into the rhythm of this style, I was hooked by not only the audaciousness of the approach but also its intelligent execution. I tore through the book to its satisfying conclusion.
The Awful Truth about the Sushing Prize is the rare novel that manages the dual feat of dishing up a highly entertaining potboiler with all the expected (and desired) flourishes while also provoking readers into a consideration of the writing process itself. Further, Ocram executes on this unusual narrative device so seamlessly that the novel ultimately escapes the confines of its own plotlines to become a broader philosophical reflection on the nature of reality itself, diffusing the line between creator and created. Highly recommended.