If you look in the mirror and see your reflection, you are seeing reality.
If you look in the mirror and see the back of your head, you are seeing a self-referential impossibility. You are seeing a fiction which is questioning your existence—an existence you are suddenly aware of.
Now, what if you are a fiction seeing a fiction which is questioning your existence?
Metafiction is fiction about fiction.
The proliferation of metafiction is part of humanity’s cultural progression. In the past fifty years, it’s ridden the rising wave of societal self-awareness. More recently, the language of recursive programming routines has been filtering into daily life.
Although, nothing about metafiction is new: it is an embodiment of self-consciousness in literature.
I am (aware of) me.
As far as I am concerned that sentence illustrates four tropes, one or all of which occur in any metafiction: symmetry, circularity, branching, and (questioning of) being.
Without delving into ontology or going all Chomsky on you, to make sense of I am me you need two entities that are:
- distinct (if only for a moment, so that you can hold them apart in your head before identifying them),
- connected (via an identification),
- essential to your being (are the essence of you).
The ephemeral distinctness is the branching. The connectedness of you with you is a circular argument. The essence of you is at the heart of being.
Symmetry—in the sense of not-necessarily perfect mirroring, reflection, duality, self-splitting, identification—is both the most fundamental trope of metafiction, and it is contained in the other three:
- the basic, choice-free branching is a symmetrical one,
- the basic circular function is a reflection there and back,
- the basic test of existence (of a degree of self-consciousness) is the mirror.
Infinity and singularity also necessarily occur as limiting instances when any of the four features are taken to some extreme. This is fun to think about: infinite reflections in two parallel mirrors, infinite looping along a circuit, infinite branching of fractals, infinity of being through recursive self-regeneration. (A beautiful, classical miniature example of the latter is Borges’s The Circular Ruins—although not metafiction in a strict sense, it demonstrates the principles.)
Looking through the thirty-five stories in Cortázar’s Bestiary, the two that I discussed in-depth recently, The Faces of the Medal and Blow-Up, are immediately interesting because of their explicit self-referential nature: the narrator discusses the form of the text with the reader.
However, another story stands out as the embodiment of metafiction—at approximately 600 words, Continuity of Parks is fiction about fiction about fiction. And not the way you’d expect. It’s not just us seeing a man who is seeing the back of his head in the mirror like in Magritte’s painting.
Spoiler alert: I will divulge the punchline.
Continuity of Parks starts with a man in a green velvet armchair reading a novel with his back to the door. That novel’s protagonist is preparing to commit murder and is moving through a house and sneaking up on the victim. Here is the last sentence of the story.
The door of the salon, and then the knife in hand, the light from the great windows, the high back of an armchair covered in green velvet, the head of the man in the chair reading a novel.
The victim is the man reading the novel.
In short, the man reading is reading about his own murder being committed. To use the back-of-head metaphor again: Continuity of Parks is about a man who sees the back of his head in the mirror because he is the man in the mirror.
If that’s hard to parse, think of it in terms of fictions: a man is reading a fiction when he realises he is part of that fiction. The principle is akin to the one at work in Esher’s Drawing Hands, only there’s a single hand and it is drawing itself.
The idea takes some getting used to.
So ruthlessly bared, the continuity of narrative from page into reality is mind-warping. At the same time it’s essential to the typical story-induced scare—just read any good horror novel at night. The monster stalking a darkened room…
… is behind you!
It takes two minutes to read the story, four to read it aloud, and here’s an eight-minute dramatisation of Continuity.