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The Strange Mysteries of Meta-Fiction Part 2

Meta-fiction is that type of fiction which draws attention to itself as a piece of fiction. As we saw last time, it has become more popular in these post-modern times with books like Life of Pi or films like The Usual Suspects which twist in on themselves and make you question the simple act of immersion which we normally undertake when we enter into a world of fiction.

That normal action goes like this: we pick up a book or start to watch a film, knowing that what we read on the page or see on the screen is not ‘real' — in other words, we knowingly ‘buy into’ that fact that what we are doing is partaking of an experience which is ‘unreal’, made up, not part of the so-called real world in which we sit while reading or watching. We ‘suspend our disbelief’ — a term coined by poet and aesthetic philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1817 which suggested that if a writer could create ‘a semblance of truth’ in a piece of fiction, the reader would suspend judgement regarding any implausible elements.

But a major part of our expectation in beginning such an action is that the created world into which we are entering will be very much like our own, will have such a ‘semblance of truth’. This expectation occurs subconsciously, but is composed of several sub-sets:

1. The work we are entering into will communicate to us using recognisable words and symbols — i.e. our language, our alphabet, understandable syntax and so on. If we picked up a book which was written in a language unknown to any human, using an unrecognisable alphabet, our experience of sharing that book’s offered experience would be short-lived. (This is also, by the way, why it’s important to minimise any technical errors in a book, as each time the reader notices a typo or other basic mistake, he or she is jolted out of the reading trance a little.)

2. The work will utilise particular patterns, mechanisms and character archetypes with which we are subconsciously familiar from storytelling as a whole, and which, if absent, will mean that the story will lack appeal and will be rejected on some level before very many pages are read or scenes are watched. (For much more detail on what those patterns, mechanisms and character archetypes are exactly and how to use them, please see my book How Stories Really Work.)

3. The work will not point out that it is a work — in other words, we will be lulled into the illusion that what is taking place is ‘true’ or is happening in some world which bears some kind of ‘realistic’ relationship to our own. In the case of literary fiction which supposedly takes place in a contemporary setting, this is simple enough, as is most historical fiction; in the cases of science fiction or fantasy, this becomes more tenuous. Authors in those genres usually depend on a trope-based reaction from genre-loving readers: some effort is made to connect the sci-fi or fantasy world to our own through vague history or geography, but then the author relies on the audience ‘suspending disbelief’ and taking the rest on trust, as it were. But it’s a sort of explicit bond between writer and reader, in normal circumstances, that the act of entering into a fictitious world is a sacrosanct thing — the reader or viewer doesn’t normally want to have it pointed out to him or her that anything strange is happening. The audience, in effect, wants to be left alone as an audience to enjoy what is in fact an intimate act, the act of opening up the innermost imagination to the machinations of another being: the author steps in and begins, using words (or pictures, in a movie), to create images and emotional connections inside the reader/viewer’s mind.

They are the conventional expectations. Meta-fiction messes with them.

Take Finnegans Wake, for example. Irish writer James Joyce’s final work, it has been called by Patrick Parrinder ‘a work of fiction which combines a body of fables ... with the work of analysis and deconstruction’. Regarded as one of the most difficult works in Western literature, it was written in Paris over a period of seventeen years and published in 1939. The entire book is written in an idiosyncratic language, blending standard English lexical items, portmanteau words and neologistic multilingual puns in what many believe was Joyce's attempt to recreate the experience of sleep and dreams. The combination of linguistic experiments, literary allusions, abandonment of narrative conventions, stream of consciousness writing style, and free dream associations, mean that Finnegans Wake remains largely unread by the general public and one might even say unreadable to the average reader. Thus it defies the first expectation above and, as far as can be determined, the other expectations as well, mainly because almost every word draws attention to itself as a word, as this excerpt shows:

Sir Tristram, violer d'amores, fr'over the short sea, had passen-core rearrived from North Armorica on this side the scraggy isthmus of Europe Minor to wielderfight his penisolate war: nor had topsawyer's rocks by the stream Oconee exaggerated themselse to Laurens County's gorgios while they went doublin their mumper all the time: nor avoice from afire bellowsed mishe mishe to tauftauf thuartpeatrick: not yet, though venissoon after, had a kidscad buttended a bland old isaac: not yet, though all's fair in vanessy, were sosie sesthers wroth with twone nathandjoe. Rot a peck of pa's malt had Jhem or Shen brewed by arclight and rory end to the regginbrow was to be seen ringsome on the aquaface.

An example of a book which is readable in terms of basic language but defies the second expectation above is Naked Lunch (sometimes The Naked Lunch), a 1959 novel by American writer William S. Burroughs. It is structured as a series of loosely connected vignettes, intended to be read in any order, based on the narration of junkie William Lee, who takes on various aliases, as he journeys from the U.S. to Mexico, and eventually to Tangiers and the dreamlike Interzone. These vignettes were drawn from Burroughs' own experiences and his addiction to drugs. Though the novel was included in Time 's ‘100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005’, its defiance of traditional structure makes it very obscure. And it’s the continual departure from traditional patterns of fiction which place it in a ‘meta-fiction’ category — it’s hard to read without continually being aware that one is reading a created work of fiction.

With the third expectation, though — the notion that the reader/viewer should be ‘left alone’ to experience the act of entering a world of fiction — it’s possible to play. Most of the time, and in the vast majority of fictional works, the author and the reader/viewer partake in an unspoken agreement: watching a character say ‘Bond, James Bond’ in a film will not prompt other characters to laugh out loud; having Benedict Cumberbatch play Sherlock Holmes in a contemporary setting will not lead to other characters in the stories questioning the connections to Conan Doyle’s original creation, and so on. Part of our ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ is this turning a blind eye to anything which disrupts the trance of participating in a created world.

However, authors of meta-fiction can use this self-awareness to create different effects from those of conventional fiction. John Fowles has himself appear as a character in his novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman and then adjust his watch, turning back time in the novel so that the ending can be different. In doing so, he calls the reader’s attention to the fact that they have been reading a novel along Victorian lines which first ends in a more-or-less conventional way, and then, by changing the ending to a more ‘modern’ one, he throws into question in the reader’s mind some of those conventions.

In a different way, in the film The Usual Suspects, we share the movie narrative as described by a character in a police station, entering into the story as a created thing, only to find out in the last few minutes of the film that everything we have seen has been a fabrication of a different kind, made up by the narrator on the spot. Personally, I felt a kind of betrayal in watching that film — I’d paid money to see a made-up character make up a story. It was like a trust had been violated and my time wasted. But then, all movies and all works of fiction are, by definition, ‘made up’. The difference is that, in normal fiction, there’s an unspoken agreement not to mention or highlight that fact.

Interesting questions are thrown up by all this. To what degree is the relationship between creator and reader malleable? What actually happens when a work of fiction explicitly refers to itself? Does any of this have any bearing on how we experience ‘real life’?

For example, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, the debut 2004 novel by British writer Susanna Clarke conveys an alternative history set in 19th-century England around the time of the Napoleonic Wars. According to the novel, magic once existed in England and has returned with two men: Gilbert Norrell and Jonathan Strange. the story investigates the nature of ‘Englishness ‘, the boundaries between reason and unreason, and other cultural tropes, and has been described as a fantasy novel, an alternative history, and a historical novel. Apart from drawing upon various literary traditions, such as the comedy of manners, the Gothic tale, and the Byronic hero, the novel's language is a pastiche of 19th-century writing styles. But Clarke supplements the text with almost 200 footnotes, outlining a complex backstory and an entire fictional backdrop of magical scholarship and specific historical events which never happened in the ‘real world’ but are convincingly presented as completely true. The footnotes in particular highlight this point about meta-fiction: it’s possible to ‘jump’ the reader right out of the conventional narrative and have him or her take on board parallel meta-narratives contiguously, without spoiling — indeed, instead enhancing — the overall fictive experience. By the time the reader emerges from the novel, an entire world in which magic once existed has been conjured into place, parallel to our own.

Meta-fiction, in other words, can play with the reading or viewing experience in different ways. We, as an audience, can be encouraged to question, to see through, to reassess what our imaginations are presenting to us in ways which transcend the usual ‘sitting down and reading a story’ model.

Stay tuned.


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