:: Article

The Complicit Reader: N. J. Campbell’s Found Audio

By M. K. Rainey.

N. J. Campbell, Found Audio (Two Dollar Radio, 2017)

My reader’s copy of Found Audio has hot sauce splattered on its edgings. It’s been inked at the corners. Its cover is waterlogged. White innards poke through the cracked casing of its spine. These are the marks of having grappled with a novel, N. J. Campbell’s first, that stretches language, remakes structure, plots boldly, all while having its own peculiar kind of fun. What sets Campbell’s novel apart from most of its postmodern counterparts, though, is the scope of its metafictional component, which goes beyond the author’s merely entering the world of the book and interacting with its characters. Here, the reader is made just as integral to the story as the author himself. In doing so, Campbell casts new light not only on what makes something fiction, but on the role we as readers must play in it.

The novel begins straightforwardly enough, with a stranger showing up at the office of Dr. Amrapali Singh, a historian and highly skilled analyst able to discern and decode the smallest details of any recording. The stranger bears three unusual tapes, all in perfect condition, from a library in Buenos Aires, and offers to pay Singh a great sum to discover everything she can about them.

Singh, though, is explicitly instructed not to reproduce transcripts or contact the library in Buenos Aires. Naturally, she does both. When she receives an unsettling letter from the library in response, explaining that an agent is en route regarding the tapes, she sends the letter, copies of the tapes, and their transcripts (presumably the novel we are holding) to an acquaintance—right before she herself vanishes. We, then, become the latest recipients of the tapes, following a long line of now missing persons.

Through the transcripts and notes, the interviewee, named only as The American, emerges as an adventure journalist traveling from the Louisiana bayou to the walled, gang-ridden city of Kowloon to the Singing Dunes of Mongolia to a chess tournament in Turkey—and to whatever may lie beyond.

The American has an insatiable thirst for odd things, for the world’s offerings that lie just beyond or beneath the surface of his travels. These particular tapes catalog his experience, in his own words, of chasing the mythical City of Dreams. In the process, the nature of dreams, reality and our own humanness in the face of what we want most are all explored in the most visceral, implicating way: in reading this book, I felt The American’s thirst become my own as I feverishly chased behind him (just as he is chasing the dream city).

The novel itself is sometimes as intangible and ephemeral as the dream city that The American pursues. There is a plot, but there’s this other, more weighty thing happening, the unraveling of larger truths that fiction does uncommonly well. Of the City of Dreams, The American says, “The world was climbing inside me and it was desperately intent on taking away from me whatever part of myself I held from it.” I felt this happening to me too as I read, for instance, about the fate of the tapes from Singh’s office, which fall into our very hands; we learn, eventually, that the tapes passed hands several times before making their way into N.J. Campbell’s possession (and then ours). The novel’s richly executed metafictional conceit—that Campbell is merely a messenger, not the author, and that he is only publishing this book under the heading of fiction as a means to get it in front of the public more readily—made me feel complicit in his actions, accountable for what I read, and therefore vulnerable to the same obscure fate the vanished characters have faced. Remarkably, Found Audio manages to make this threat to the reader palpable.

Campbell cites the interviewers sparingly but poignantly throughout the book, interrupting The American with small, cold interludes that leave a pall over the words. (The book’s afterword consummates these notions.) Like The American, I was only able to identify the interviewers through Singh’s analysis of their dialect: “Female, Tri-Accent,” “Male, 48-50, Mandarin,” and so on. But I was always aware of them at the periphery of my mind, and their menace was only intensified by what I couldn’t see or know. The dream-world of this book consumed me:

I understood, for the first time, how I could never, ever understand—how it was impossible, actually, to explain how any part of life could be seen as more than an unexplainable dream—how the events of being awake proceeded and were as strange and marvelous as any of the miracles that occur when we are asleep.

There is a continual back-and-forth in Found Audio between the real and unreal, the imagined and the unimaginable. While there are tangible, concrete events and actions in the foreground, they are always surrounded by a dreamscape bleeding in at the edges. It’s no surprise that ricocheting between the two left me dizzy with questions, but not in an unsatisfying way. Ambiguity is just something the novel wants us to confront head-on: “‘The thing you are most afraid of,’ he said in his thick Eastern European accent, ‘is that there may be more and less to this world than there seems to be.’”

You don’t simply need to suspend disbelief to read Campbell’s novel. You have to conspire with it. What emerges from this act is a permeable membrane between what you can imagine of yourself—what you believe, what you are capable of—and what you in fact are. Found Audio steers readers expertly, and delightfully, between the plot and these larger questions, catapulting us into fascinating new territory for fiction to inhabit.


M. K. Rainey received her MFA in fiction writing from Sarah Lawrence College. She currently teaches writing to the youth of America through Community-Word Project, Wingspan Arts and The Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Cider Press ReviewLitro OnlineEquinoxTeachers & Writers MagazineThe Grief Diaries and more. She co-hosts the Dead Rabbits Reading Series and lives in Harlem with her dog. Sometimes she writes things the dog likes.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, July 5th, 2017.