This post contains mild spoilers about some of the books mentioned.
One type of metafiction is that in which the protagonist seeking to escape the real world, consciously imagines a world into being and lives within this fictional universe of their creation.The real and fictional worlds of the character overlap and blur. The existence of the character is rooted in two distinct and yet reconciled realities.
A prime example of this kind of novel is Atonement by Ian McEwan. As an imaginative fifteen year old. Briony Tallis witnesses an encounter between her sister and a young man which leads her to accuse the latter of a crime that he had never committed. She spends the rest of her life seeking redemption for her impulsive action that had unwittingly destroyed two young lives. Briony comes across as a typical unreliable narrator and we are never completely sure which parts of her narrative are real and which come from within her imagination, as she tries to expiate her sin over the next six decades by writing several alternative happy endings to the tragic love story.
The Poor Relation’s story by Charles Dickens from the collection Christmas Stories has a similar theme. At a Christmas dinner, the guests at the table take turns in telling stories. A timid elderly gentleman who admits that he lives off a small allowance from the host goes on to say that he lives in a comfortable home which he calls his castle. He mentions that though it appears to the world that he had been cheated by his clerk who ruined his business and jilted by the girl he loved, he did neverthless prosper in his trade and went on to marry his girlfriend. He narrates charming scenes of a contented family life, talks about his delight in hearing his wife play on the piano a beloved tune which still reminds him of their courtship and rejoices in his children and grandchildren who visit him often in his beautiful castle. Which he says as he finishes his story, is in the air.
Another example is the unnamed protagonist of The Sensualist by Ruskin Bond. A novella that is very different from Bond’s gentle stories of life in the hills, the sensualist is about the sexual desires of a rich young man who is seduced by his maid as a teenager and grows up into a hedonist, relentlessly seeking the pleasures of the flesh. One day he is trapped by a hill woman who holds him captive and drains him ruthlessly every night. When he escapes from her, he finds that he has become impotent and soon renounces the world. He retreats to a cave, where he continues to seek pleasure of the senses through his imagination.
Yet another example is the richly imagined story of Pi Patel in Yann Martel‘s Life of Pi, on how he survived a shipwreck with a royal bengal tiger for company, contrasted with the stark reality of the alternate version that he offers towards the end with an interesting hypothesis on the concept of God.
This kind of metafiction is then, about using fiction as a drug to ease the aches and pains inflicted by life. In each of the above stories, the protagonists are keenly aware of their failures, sorrows and personal trauma and seek solace in stories, creating for themselves an alternate version of reality that only they can see. They close their eyes to reality and choose to play make-believe through their lives, escaping through their imaginations into fictional worlds which they find far more fulfilling.
Coming soon! The Reengineers (HarperCollins) A walk through the boundaries between fiction and reality