A bit on metafiction
Posted May 19, 2007on:
Cross-posted at Tilting at Windmills.
I entered this ongoing life stage of literary plenitude a year into my sojourn in Canada. I became a serious book buyer because of my dive into litblogs, 5 or so local new and used book stores and access to cheap books on-line . This vibrant literary conversation introduced me to a lot of authors and a lot of words with which I was not familiar, one of these being “metafiction”. At first my eyes glazed over the term, or I’d forget it five minutes after a dictionary check, but eventually I got it. Sort of. Without having knowingly read any fiction that deserved the word, the concept never quite coalesced. This did not bother me at the time because I had already decided to dislike it. It seemed to be one of those masturbatory post-modernist techniques that would be used by authors enamoured with their clever ideas.
My opinion was an extension of my instinctively bored reaction to any novel advertised as being about…well novels. For many book readers such story lines are nirvana in a cup, double scoop sundaes with everything you adore poured and sprinkled on twice. To me it was a sign than an author had lost all of her creative juice and had resorted to the one thing she had left to get excited about, which was oh so conveniently seen as the sure-fire path to book lovers hearts. (Shadow of the Wind was probably the only book highly touted as a tale for “book lovers” that sneaked past my guard.)As I began to read more and wider, and paid closer attention to the contexts in which it was used I realised it wasn’t such an off-putting technique after all, that I’d been coming across it in fictions old and new for quite a while and that it truly could be used to interesting worthwhile aesthetic and thematic effect. Borges was the one who proved it to me and David Treuer’s The Translation of Dr. Apelles: a Love Story is probably the first novel I’ve read in which its metafictional element is explicit and robustly developed. It is the novel most prominent in my mind when I read Don Quixote because it appears to have been a major influence on Treuer’s novel, from the way both writers introduce their work (Treuer in his “Translator’s introduction”, Cervantes with his “Prologue), to how chapters run on into each other, to both of the main character’s obsession with literature and its effect on them. I’ve picked up on all of this and have yet to reach 200 pages into DQ.
I’m grateful for the metafictional bits in DQ because it’s not only stimulating but humorous, the kind of humour that’s a welcome relief from the ridiculous and scatological (fine in small doses but…). Cervantes yanks us out of the narrative when referring to the “first” narrator of this story, Cide Hamete Benengeli; or Don Quixote addresses the future chronicler of his tales about what precisely he should write; or even Cervantes merely calling attention to the fact that he is relaying a tell third-hand with a line or two. I enjoy it because I like the distance it creates between the reader and the text. The artificiality it reveals effectively highlights and conceptualises the reading experience, the act of reading, to me much better than any fun tale about book auctioneers haunted by the ghost of an author could. (Or so I imagine.) It explicitly asks the reader, ever so nicely, to consider the book as a creative entity, as an art form. And while doing this we are still encapsulated in the world of wandering, mad aristocrats, giants, sheep and chivalry.
I can’t really ask for anything more.