Writing Metafiction: When You See the Back of Your Head

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?

Magritte Not to be reproduced https://www.wikiart.org/en/rene-magritte/not-to-be-reproduced-1937

René Magritte’s Not to be Reproduced (1937)

 

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.

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Narrator-Slant and Pronoun Games

john-noonan https://unsplash.com/photos/otdBpgxHm2E

It’s all about the point of view (and the viewpoint).

 

It’ll never be known how this has to be told, in the first person or in the second, using the third person plural or continually inventing modes that will serve for nothing. If one might say: I will see the moon rose, or: we hurt me at the back of my eyes, and especially: you the blond woman was the clouds that race before my your his our yours their faces. What the hell.

—Julio Cortázar, Blow-up (translated from the Spanish by Paul Blackburn in Bestiary)

As introductory paragraphs go, explicit indecision about point of view comes high on my list of attention-grabbing gimmicks. Especially when stated so honestly. The last thing a narrator wants to do from the onset is state their own ineptitude.

Unless.

Unless the clumsiness, the cluelessness, the fracturing of character is a game of deception relevant to the message. And boy do I want to hear that message! It’s likely to be bold, deep, and disruptive—otherwise it wouldn’t survive the bruising journey through opaque linguistic waters.

It screams metafiction.

But before you get all outraged about this ludicrous pronoun game, consider the dilemma all writers face occasionally.

But before we get all outraged about this ludicrous pronoun game, let us consider the dilemma all writers face occasionally.

But before one gets all outraged about this ludicrous pronoun game, one should consider the dilemma all writers face occasionally.

The pronoun game is real even for the puny blogger.

Each version slants the statement differently: you addresses you, dear reader; we puts me, the author, and you, the reader, on the same side; one tries for neutral and formal.

If blogs have the freedom of choice, other specialised areas have accepted norms. For example, scientific texts mostly eschew I, as too personal and biasing, and often resort to we, which can mean we, the author(s) of the text, or we, as in me, the author, and you, the reader.

Of course, an ocean or two separate Cortázar’s we hurt me at the back of my eyes and the convenient swapping of you-we-one-I every few paragraphs, but it’s worth remembering that even prosaic texts have to resolve this issue (and often do so unsatisfactorily).

Before moving on, I’d like to sort out a possible confusion in terminology: point of view, shortened to POV, and viewpoint (character) are not the same thing to a writer.

(Sloppiness, or editing for elegance and word count, often equates the terms. I’m as guilty as the next person.)

It’s easiest to demonstrate the difference.

Situation: a mother is buying her young son a treat at an ice cream stall.

anton-darius-thesollers https://unsplash.com/photos/jjCWRxTlATc

You can write in first person (a point of view) from at least four different viewpoints:

  • Mother: I think he’s been a good boy, he deserves an ice cream.
  • Son: I’ve been a good boy, I deserve an ice cream.
  • Vendor: I’m glad the strawberry ice cream is selling so well, the new recipe is definitely an improvement.
  • Ice cream: Why was I so lovingly made, only to be torn to scoops repeatedly? Oh, Food Gods spare me!

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Cortázar in First-Person Plural

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean_Metzinger#/media/File:Jean_Metzinger,_1910-11,_Deux_Nus_(Two_Nudes,_Two_Women),_oil_on_canvas,_92_x_66_cm,_Gothenburg_Museum_of_Art,_Sweden.jpg

Jean Metzinger, Two Nudes (1910-11)—she, she, we? The soul-splitting of a narrator in first-person plural.

Stories are usually written in first-person singular (I vomited a rabbit) or in third-person singular (He vomited a rabbit), where I and he are the protagonists.

Occasionally, the disconcerting second-person singular makes a showing, like in Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, or more popularly, in confessions where the reader is requisitioned as judge or jury, like in Albert Camus’s The Fall (here there’s an overarching narrator I, and a second, quasi point of view: you).

If you haven’t thought about how a story in second person would sound, try writing You vomited a rabbit and spinning a narrative therefrom. Then try getting someone to read it; it’s an intrusive, and often grindingly repulsive, experience.

(If you’re wondering why anyone would think of cuddly rabbits in such emetic terms, see Cortázar: Where Bunnies Come From.)

What remains? There’s the first-person plural (we), the second-person plural (you), and the third-person plural (they).

Remarkably, Cortázar’s Bestiary runs the gauntlet of viewpoints (and points of view) and their tangled variations, but his story The Faces of the Medal is consistent: it is written in first-person plural.

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Where Bunnies Come From

gary-bendig https://unsplash.com/photos/e7A-8mxRXJg

I wouldn’t confess my secret either.

I have never described this to you before, not so much, I don’t think, from the lack of truthfulness as that, just naturally, one is not going to explain to people at large that from time to time one vomits up a small rabbit.

—Julio Cortázar, Letter of a Young Lady in Paris (translated from the Spanish by Paul Blackburn)

If Jorge Luis Borges is the literary scientist who excels at exhibiting impossible geometries in miniature, Julio Cortázar is the long-winded, mussy-haired standup act with something direly unsettling about each of his stories, something you really want to pin down, but—no matter how closely you listen—you never will.

When I feel that I’m going to bring up a rabbit, I put two fingers in my mouth like an open pincer, and I wait to feel the lukewarm fluff rise in my throat …

noah-silliman https://unsplash.com/photos/BzHNKFUGHh0

For those unfamiliar with Borges, perhaps I should be playing on a comparison with another short-piece writer closer to the Western ear who was also Cortázar’s contemporary: E. B. White.

Surprised?

Julio Cortázar (1914–1984) was an Argentine writer, and part of the flourishing Latin American literary scene of the 50s and 60s.

E. B. White (1899–1985) was na American writer, known for his contributions to the The New Yorker all of which are firmly grounded in reality. (Although, of course, there’s his fiction for children, such as Charlotte’s Web.) My literary-minded readers will know him for the Strunk & White writing manual that contains such classical advice as Omit needless words, Be clear, and Place yourself in the background.

Now for the comparison.

Within the bastion of brilliant writing, Cortázar is the polar opposite of White.

Let me spell that out:

  1. Cortázar does not omit needless words,
  2. Cortázar is not clear,
  3. Cortázar does not place himself (or, rather, the narrator) in the background.

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Judging a Book by its Quirk Words

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As much as speed-reading is in vogue, speed-learning unfamiliar words is still a rather less flaunted ability. Perhaps because it is harder to define.

Does learning a word mean acquainting yourself with its first meaning, with all its meanings, with its pronunciation, its origins, its examples and seeing its effect as you apply it in an appropriate setting? Learning has some degree of knowing as its goal. Can it be said that you know a word if, after having supposedly learned it, you have never again thought of it? (If your answer is yes, you haven’t ever attempted to learn a foreign language, and failed.)

Some words we get for free as we grow up; some we get for cheap by osmosis.

The setting often aids us: if I tell you of a milky-white small roundish object called X, and say it’s on a necklace, you might think it’s a type of pearl; if I say it’s on a plate, you might think it’s type of rice. But it could have been ivory in the first instance, and salt in the second. You can’t be sure, unless you’re sure of the word’s meaning.

Life is too short and language too multitudinous for us to know every word in every book we pick up. In fact, I am disappointed if I have failed to find a single interesting word in a text: unknown, referential, inventively used, made-up, altered—I am open to being surprised. Banal word-strings leave me with a sense of wasted time.

(In the strictest sense this can hardly occur, so I’ve set some minimum requirements for interesting words.)

In most cases, after having marked up my reading, I am left with numerous circled words which might merit investigation—and only a fraction of which will. That fraction is what I call the quirk words of a book.

Taken as a list, the quirk words can say a lot about a book: they cluster around the subject matter, they gravitate towards borrowings from the language in which the book was written (if not English), they’re dated to match the described era or the era in which the book was written.

This is not particularly surprising. A quirk list of a book varies from person to person, exhibiting the vocabulary deficiency of the reader with respect to that particular book. However, assuming we’re referring to fairly well-rounded readers, most of the words on each quirk list will be relatively rare in English overall (Frequency Bands 1–4 in the OED). These are the subject-related, the regional, the colloquial or the technical words—and each implies a specific application and context, narrowing down the kind of text it may be sensibly found in.

How about an example?

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The Dinosaur: Quirks and Perks

andrea-reiman https://unsplash.com/photos/AEVAMhago-s

To hold a dinosaur descendant in the palm of your hand

 

In the 1950s, Hondouran writer Augusto Monterroso (1921–2003) produced an itsy-bitsy story called The Dinosaur. He could hardly have been the first to attempt radical brevity for the sake of memorable storytelling, but his seven words seem to have captured the world’s imagination. In the era of twitterature, his story might be fun to recall and—perhaps, possibly, at a stretch, in the fullness of time—to memorise.

The Dinosaur

When he awoke, the dinosaur was still there.

The Dinosaur is relatively well-known. However, there are two other (marginally longer) stories in Monterroso’s Complete Works and Other Stories, that aren’t cited as much, but that struck me as having deeper content per word printed.

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The Writer Who Never Writes

max-conrad https://unsplash.com/photos/H1rvxkzq8A0

If you want to write, you should write. Otherwise you might become one of those people who are brimming with ideas, while perennially on the verge of penning a story.

Oh, but the writer’s block!

Oh, but I’m not ready!

Oh, but …

I fear the verge more than I fear the blank page. However, I do acknowledge there is an inherent resistance present at the beginning of any project. The mind, like the body, prefers stasis. That is why getting started with an activity is often a challenge, but also why once on a roll it becomes easier to stay on a roll. 

When you’re writing a piece in a single sitting, getting yourself into that chair is harder than staying there. When you’re writing a larger body of work that requires many sittings, getting into that chair is hardest the first time, but still an achievement every other time.

The question is: what if you’ve been planning to write, planning and plotting and note-taking for days and weeks and even years, but it’s come to nothing because you haven’t thrown down that first word?

Augusto Monterroso wrote a short story exploring that situation. His thirty-four-year-old protagonist, Leopoldo, has been devoted to literature for half of his life, but seems unable to surmount that crucial first hurdle. In the Quote, Leopoldo is considering writing a story about the pecking order in corporate society.

Quote: He made a note that he needed to take notes, and he wrote in his notebook: “THE PECKING STORY. Visit two or three large department stores. Make observations, take notes. If possible, talk with a manager. Get into his psychology and compare it to a chicken’s.”

—from Leopoldo (His Labors), translation from the Spanish by Edith Grossman.

What makes the Quote quiver?

The psychology of a chicken. (Specificity.)

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Describing the Ineffable

Ancient temple by Piranesi … nothing to fear here.

 

Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–1778) was an Italian artist known for his etchings of Rome and a series of plates titled Carceri d’invenzione, or Imaginary Prisons. His Prisons are filled with high vaults, beams, machinery, and even a piece of impossible architecture à la M. C. Escher. (Bruno Ernst identifies it here; the link also provides a fun introduction into impossible geometry.)

 

Find the point of impossibility

 

 

With these pictures in mind, read the following Quote.

Quote: That night I couldn’t sleep. Toward sunrise I dreamed of an engraving in the style of Piranesi, one I’d never seen before or perhaps seen and forgotten—an engraving of a kind of labyrinth. It was a stone amphitheater with a border of cypresses but its walls stood taller than the tops of the trees. There were no doors or windows, but it was pierced by an infinite series of narrow vertical slits. I was using a magnifying glass to try to find the Minotaur. It was the monster of a monster; it looked less like a bull than like a buffalo, and its human body was lying on the ground. It seemed to be asleep, and dreaming—but dreaming of what, or of whom?

—Jorge Luis Borges, There are more things (Translation by Andrew Hurley)

A nightmare emerges. Where else to lock a Minotaur then in a Piranesi prison, to lend it an additional grotesque aspect?

 

Can you spot all the people walking up the stairs in the background? (click on the picture to enlarge)

 

In Symbols as Quotes, I discuss the various other references to people and places that  Borges weaves into his story. I saved Piranesi for last because of the strong visual effect his etchings could have on any interpretation of Borges’s story.

However, the magic of a story emerges not only from the elements that have been included, but also from how they have been linked. In There are more things, Borges’s goal is to create an atmosphere of ineffability: he is guiding us to imagine the unimaginable—a paradox. To achieve this he uses two strategies:

  1. figures of speech,
  2. extreme skewing of Freytag’s pyramid (or dramatic arc).

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Symbols as Quotes

 

Borges is a master forger of the complex connection. But it is only complex because the elements he brings together are sufficiently disparate that few people understand them immediately. As he himself says: In order truly to see a thing, one must first understand it.

Therefore, to truly see the complexity of his stories, you first must understand its elements, which often come in the form of proper nouns. With one word he quotes a whole body of work.

This is the most distilled form of testimony and of context creation. Borges is known for brevity.

Today’s post is symbol and sign-guide to Borges’s eight-page story There are more things from the collection The Book of Sand (1975). Think of it as a treasure hunt, where there’s no point claiming that you’ve followed the trail until you know what most of the the names mean. Some critics label this particular story’s climax as truly spine-chilling, only to accuse Borges of wasting words beforehand. But a climax makes no sense if there is no build-up, and a build-up only makes sense if you understand its symbols. And the symbols are truly

Well, judge for yourself.

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The World in the Mirror: Quirks and Perks

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Narcissus_(mythology)

Narcissus by Caravaggio (1599)

 

Mirrors enlarge spaces, they double and reflect, and at night they reveal eerie shadows standing behind you. Mirrors achieve what paintings have been struggling to achieve since the discovery of perspective: their images are a planar phenomenon that revels in realistic depth.

There ought to be something more to the silvery surfaces than physics; they ought to be a gateway to another world.

Our imagination obliges.

Narcissus dies in love with his image, unable to reach it, unable to hold it—the cost of hubris.

Snow White imbues Mirror, Mirror with the power of taking an instantaneous beauty census and reporting it, but no cross-over occurs.

Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass (1871), however, goes all the way and sends Alice into the Looking-glass House. Moments before she steps through, she stands on the mantlepiece in front of the huge wall-mirror gazing inside:

You can just see a little peep of the passage in Looking-glass House, if you leave the door of our drawing-room wide open: and it’s very like our passage as far as you can see, only you know it may be quite different on beyond.

A question indeed: is the World of the Mirror the same beyond the bits you can see? Which has a similar paradoxical feeling to it like, Does a falling tree make a sound if there’s no one around to hear it, or, What is the sound of one hand clapping? 

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The Unnatural Act

Reading is an unnatural act. Unlike the appreciation of aural and visual arts, reading requires conscious effort even before deep interpretations are sought. Children see, smell, touch, hear, and learn to speak, before they master the written word. It’s the hardest form of basic communication. Harder still if it courts the edge of the expected by riding upside down on the underbelly of unnatural beings while holding onto its senses by the seams of its straightjacket. Hardest of all, possibly, if it’s …

… surrealism.

Dali flashes before the mind. But, that’s not what I mean: the visual mind sees, then interprets or doesn’t. Reading surrealist literature, however, is an act of spike-studded iron will (and no little amount of curiosity for the quaint that you hope no one else ever finds out about).

Forget drinking from a firehose—firehoses gush at you, and it’s just water. Think instead: a fountain spouting body parts, balloons, beetles, bronze tables and acid blue jackets floating between the blessings and the bronchitis, and you roll up your trousers, step over the rim into this bizarre potpourri, get dragged down by something slithering in the water, but continue sitting in there with water up to your chin, collecting random floating objects and putting them together like legos—creating your very own Frankenstein. Occasionally you pluck up a memory or a scar. Occasionally you cut yourself.

Who said that exploring the unexplored within the safety of a book was good practice?

I’m not trying to be off-putting.

Actually, I am: if you’re not the kind to throw yourself into the aforementioned fountain out of curiosity (or spite, or kink, or whichever particular personal quirk), I would recommend fishing out only choice morsels and grappling with them on dry land.

You might discover you’re developing some odd tastes.

Today’s rather tame Quote comes from The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington. She died in 2011 at the age of 94, and was one of the last surviving participants in the Surrealist movement of the 1930s. This is how she opens her short story called The Royal Summons. 

Quote: 

I had received a royal summons to pay a call on the sovereigns of my country.
The invitation was made of lace, framing embossed letters of gold. There were also roses and swallows.
I went to fetch my car, but my chauffeur, who has no practical sense at all, had just buried it.
“I did it to grow mushrooms,” he told me. “There’s no better way of growing mushrooms.”
“Brady,” I said to him, “You’re a complete idiot. You have ruined my car.”
So, since my car was indeed completely out of action, I was obliged to hire a horse and a cart.

(Translated from the French by Kathrine Talbot with Marina Warner)

According to the information you have, where is the car? Take a guess.

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The Softness of the Pillows: Quirks and Perks

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Imaginary beings live on the thin strip of fancy between sobriety and nonsense—the one we all walk at least twice a day on most days, just before and just after sleep (the hypnagogic and hypnopompic states). To complete the previous two posts on imaginary beings, Hamlet and the n-dimensional Hyperplane and The Goofus Bird Flies Backwards, today I offer two quotes, from two very different authors, describing this creative threshold of consciousness.

The first is from Bruno Schulz’s short story Mr Charles, included in his collection The Street of Crocodiles (translated by Celina Wieniewska). He’s the only European I’ve come across who writes magical realism with a panache to match South American authors (I touch on this in Between Infinite and a Sneeze and Charged With Eternity). Note the richness of metaphor and simile.

Groping blindly in the darkness, he sank between the white mounds of cool feathers and slept as he fell, across the bed or with his head downward, pushing deep into the softness of the pillows, as if in sleep he wanted to drill through, to explore completely, that powerful massif of feather bedding rising out of the night. He fought in his sleep against the bed like a bather swimming against the current, he kneaded it and molded it with his body like an enormous bowl of dough, and woke up at dawn panting, covered in sweat, thrown up on the shores of that pile of bedding which he could not master in the nightly struggle. Half-landed from the depths of unconsciousness, he still hung on to the verge of night, grasping for breath, while the bedding grew around him, swelled and fermented—and again engulfed him in a mountain of heavy, whitish dough.

He slept thus until late morning, while the pillows arranged themselves into a larger flat plain on which his now quieter sleep would wander. On these white roads, he slowly returned to his senses, to daylight, to reality—and at last he opened his eyes as does a sleeping passenger when the train stops at a station.

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Inspired by the Ordinary: Quirks and Perks

 

Everyone likes a good myth. The Metamorphoses by Ovid comprises a couple hundred. Being a narrative poem from around 8 AD, it’s not exactly all the rage nowadays, but its influences have trickled down through much of Western literature.

In particular, I grew up on a children’s version of Gustav Schwab’s Gods and Heroes of Ancient Greece, and I still fondly recall wondering what one would do with a golden fleece or how the cattle in the Augean stables could live in such filth. Recently, I decided to investigate some of the older sources like Homer, Sophocles, and Ovid.

The Greek and Roman mythologies are closely related, but translating between them requires a basic dictionary of terms. For example, Jove (or Jupiter) is Zeus, Juno is Hera, Mars is Ares, Minerva is Athena, and so on. It’s interesting how the names conflate in your mind, and yet they never quite do.

Today’s Quote is from the beginning of the The Metamorphoses describing the formation of the world (taken from Mandelbaum’s translation).

Quote:    
He ordered fog and clouds to gather there—
in air—and thunder, which would terrify
the human mind; there, too, the god assigned
the winds that, from colliding clouds, breed lightning.
(Lines 54–57)

Nothing special about it? Perhaps, not, but even ordinary quotes can inspire fiction. Here’s a short story I wrote to illustrate the point (1250 words).

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Charged With Eternity: Quirks and Perks

fabian-struwe https://unsplash.com/photos/4cloovdyuvw

Quote: The car came to a halt by the side of the road. I opened the door and got out. It wasn’t yet completely dark, but it was no longer day. The land all around us and the hills into which the highway went winding were a deep, intense shade of yellow that I have never seen anywhere else. As if the light (though it seemed to me not so much light as pure colour) were charged with something, I didn’t know what, but it could well have been eternity.

— Roberto Bolaño, Last Evenings on Earth (translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews)

Such colloquial equivocating in that final sentence of the Quote, such seemingly disinterested prose until the final word, where—of all things that could have charged the light—Bolaño sees eternity. It is as natural in Bolaño’s prose, as it would be in another writer’s poetry.

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A Bukowski, on the Rocks

Photo by Sérgio Alves Santos https://unsplash.com/search/bar?photo=OxKFC5u0980

Here is Charles Bukowski in his short story collection Hot Water MusicIf you naturally skim-read, I recommend slowing down and reading the following dialogue at as close to speech-speed as you can (out loud would be even better).

Quote:

Back at the Red Peacock Louie went to his favourite stool and sat down. The barkeep walked up.
“Well, Louie, how did you make out?
“Make out?”
“With the lady.”
“With the lady?”
“You left together, man. Did you get her?”
“No, not really …”
“What went wrong?”
“What went wrong?”
“Yes, what went wrong?”
“Give me a whiskey sour, Billy.”

Did you notice a difference between how you pronounced the two versions of What went wrong?

What makes the Quote quiver?

Repetition with different emphasis and raw dialogue, unencumbered by sophisticated descriptions.

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