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American literature has a great tradition of metafictional fuckery (Robert Coover, Gilbert Sorrentino, Richard Brautigan) that has lately produced a lot of not-so-great inheritors (McSweeney’s Books). So Nathaniel Rich’s beguiling debut novel, The Mayor’s Tongue, is a welcome reminder that experimental fiction can have a sense of play and emotional depth without becoming a stage for showoff-y acrobatics. To be sure, the story is a tangle: Rich balances a pair of narratives, one centered on Eugene, a scholar of the absurdly prolific author Constance Eakins, the other on Mr. Schmitz, who’s caring for his dying wife while his journalist friend Rutherford seems to be slipping off the deep end. Nothing clearly connects these two threads, but as Rich details them in alternating chapters, they accrue an eerie and engaging call-and-response vibe; Eugene’s trip to Italy to locate the daughter of an eccentric Eakins biographer mirrors Schmitz’s Italian trip to figure out what happened to his friend. The line between fact and fiction gets exceedingly blurry as the story moves along, and Rich’s tone remains steadily deadpan even while all sorts of absurdness ensues, as if he were a chipper TV weatherman oblivious to a hurricane swirling around him. But though the reality of Eakins’ existence becomes an increasingly open question, Rich makes him a full character, never goes in for ironic joshing, and securely nails down the thematic tent poles of his story—the difficulty of locating what we love most, the role of storytelling in our lives, and the way language confuses as much as it connects. Rich discusses and signs copies of his work at 7 p.m. Monday, April 28, at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW. Free. (202) 364-1919.