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T.C. Boyle’s ‘Water Music’ and the Meta-Fictional Reconstruction of the Past

Peter Freese

Pages 43 - 94

T. C. Boyle’s debut novel ‘Water Music’ (1981), which was greeted by mixed reviews and has not yet received the critical attention it deserves, is a historiographical metafiction that combines, in a daringly anachronistic way, historical facts about Mungo Park’s expeditions into West Africa with fictional inventions. This essay examines the history of the novel’s reception, reviews its sources, and shows how Boyle juxtaposes the historical Mungo Mark with his fictional alter ego Ned Rise. It traces how the novel subverts the traditional ‘Africanist discourse’ and plays with what a character dubs “the power of the written word.” The essay then unravels the complex narrative structures behind a seemingly simple surface and shows how Boyle mixes realistic narration with magical touches in the style of his model Gabriel Garcíá Márquez. It then deciphers Boyle’s narrator’s obsessive play with rare polysyllabic words and identifies his erudite intertextual allusions to a wide range of literary texts and cultural events. The essay concludes that ‘Water Music’ is an accomplished tour de force which ingeniously uses the self-reflexive strategies of metafiction to transpose the picaresque tradition into a postmodern context.


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