If metafiction has taught us anything (so the thinking goes), it’s that fictional characters are, well, fictional. Constructs. Names with a certain number of attributes attached, modifiers and noun phrases and predicates, to be manipulated for the author’s (and—perhaps?—the reader’s) enjoyment. We think of the big reveal at the end of David Foster Wallace’s The Broom of the System (1987). We think of the protagonist Augusto at the end of Miguel de Unamuno’s Niebla (1914), arguing with the author about whether he, as a fictional character, can decide to commit suicide against the author’s will.
Oh God, we might think, turning to Section Zero of Book of Knut: this again. Another book of fiction designed to remind us that fiction is fictional.
The narrator and ostensible author of Section Zero is a mathematician and former professor, unnamed, whose lover, Knut Knudson, has drowned, leaving her with the manuscript of a novel titled simply Book. In the sections that follow, we are given the text of Book, annotated, often scornfully, by the mathematician. In Book, the mathematician acquires a name—two of them, in fact, her (fictional) birth name Bisera, and Claire, the (likewise fictional) name that she has taken for herself after cutting off contact with her alcoholic mess of a father. Much of what we know, or presume to know, about the mathematician comes from Knut’s semi-autobiographical Book. But there’s a fight going on between the mathematician and the dead Knut—she leaves out sections of Book that she tells us are tedious or unnecessary, she “corrects” the fiction where it strays from fact, she struggles with implications of Knut’s fictionalization of her and their life together. The father whom Claire has cut out of her life is actually the mathematician’s mother; the father’s benign tumor was, in the mathematician’s life, her mother’s terminal cancer. Book ends with a murder, but the mathematician ends with doubt. She must insist, and insist again, on the literal truth: She did not kill her mother. She could not have saved Knut.
Book of Knut is less concerned with establishing the fictitiousness of its fictional characters than with questioning the sort of violence that fiction can do to our lived experience. It’s invested, in other words, in a reversal of the key metafictional moment in which the fictional is revealed to be fictional. Whereas Unamuno’s Augusto accepts his fictional status but questions the constructed nature of Unamuno’s life, Aakhus’s mathematician writes furiously to the dead Knut: “I’m a real person, not some fucking character for you to manipulate.” Of course, she’s wrong. But the point is not simply to unmask her as fictional; rather, Aakhus wants to examine the ways that fiction, by outliving us, can come to replace us.
Book and its annotations both contain an impressive amount of technical mathematics and musical theory, which makes sense: many of the characters in Knut’s Book are mathematicians or musicians of one sort or another, as is, of course, the unnamed annotator. Aakhus studied both composition and mathematics prior to earning his M.F.A. at the University of Florida. I will admit my own background in mathematics is not robust enough to allow me to follow most of the formulas and technical explanations, and I’d imagine that many readers might at first find such things daunting. But Aakhus deploys his jargon well. While it’s possible that more mathematically inclined readers might get nuances that others miss, the formulas are always tied to the fabric of the fiction in such a way that readers like myself can get the point of the discussion, even if we can’t do the calculations. The mathematician-annotator is often at pains to...