Robert Chafe’s new book Two Man Tent isn’t a short story collection, a novel, or a work of non-fiction, but it borrows from all of these genres.
The book weaves fictional stories around a series of edited chat records from conversations between Chafe and a man he met online. This inventive structure is an exciting experiment in blurring the divide between truth and fiction.
“Here I was writing these stories about loneliness and disconnect, and I was actually manifesting aspects of that in my real life by reaching out to this person across the country, across geographic and political divides,” Chafe says, explaining his decision to include the chats in the book.
In the chat sections, Chafe tells the man (who asks to remain anonymous) that he is a well-known playwright from Newfoundland, working on his first collection of short stories. If the reader didn’t know this about Chafe before picking up the book, they could quickly confirm it was true by flipping to the back and reading his bio.
“It’s actually my name and I am a playwright and I really do live in Newfoundland, those details are in there to make what’s true and not true fuzzier,” Chafe says.
Reflections on loneliness show up in all the stories and chat log chapters, creating cohesion across the book’s different genres. Despite this quiet, sombre theme Two Man Ten is propulsive. The book’s momentum comes from our desire to see how Chafe’s new online relationship will play out and from our desire to understand the book’s narrative structure.
Although the characters and plots of the fictional stories seem unrelated to the chats, details from the stories sometimes appear in the chats and vice versa. We hope that a pattern will emerge that allows us decode what parts of the book are fiction and what parts are autobiographical.
“You hear me take ideas from him and spin them into these purely fictional stories that surround the work. I wanted the tension of, ‘is he doing the same thing with the chats?’” Chafe says.
It is unclear if Chafe’s relationship with the man in The States will be able to develop spite of the distance between them, and their stark political differences. Chafe admits he craves the security of a serious, long-term relationship and is met with ambivalence.
Chafe is often unable to tell if the man is joking or not and attributes the confusion to the fact that they can’t speak face to face. This mirrors the reader’s limited access to Chafe; we would love to be able to pin him down and find out which parts of the book are true and why, but we only have the ambiguous text he’s chosen to share with us.
Chafe is frustrated by his inability to understand how the man imagines the trajectory of their relationship. However, he continues chatting because it is pleasurable. Even if it is an imperfect, potentially dishonest relationship it’s a meaningful one. Similarly, Chafe’s prose makes navigating the porous border he’s built between truth and fiction extremely gratifying.