Enjoyed reading this essay on how the technique of using footnotes in fiction has evolved over the years. Another example is Book: A Novel by Robert Grudin, a work of pure metafiction in which the footnotes try for a while to dominate and take over the main narrative.
“In fact, what all of these works show—from Nabokov and Wallace to Danielewski and Boully—is that experimentation quickly stops being experimental when it works well, and gives way to progression … Footnotes, once the hallmark of pedantry and pretension, have now entered the realm of craft. More than a trick, footnotes can be technique. We’ve seen how they can be used to comment on a narrative or to create a new one, to overlap separate narratives, to evoke character in new ways, and to dig into difficult parts of who we are. Footnotes, in other words, no longer merely support a story; now, they can be the story.”
Jonathan Russell Clark, ON THE FINE ART OF THE FOOTNOTE
Metapoems are almost as alluring as metafiction. Perhaps even more, considering that poetry is said to be the purest of all art-forms.
“I think you exist only
To tease me into doing it, on your level, and then you aren’t there
Or have adopted a different attitude. And the poem
Has set me softly down beside you. The poem is you.”
John Ashbery, Paradoxes and Oxymorons
“I’ve been in love with you for weeks.’
There’s no such thing,’ she says. ‘It’s a rhetorical device. It’s a bourgeois fallacy.’
Haven’t you ever been in love, then?’
When I was younger,’ she says, ‘I allowed myself to be constructed by the discourse of romantic love for a while, yes.’
What the hell does that mean?’
We aren’t essences, Vic. We aren’t unique individual essences existing prior to language. There is only language.”
― David Lodge, Nice Work
How much more overtly metafictional can a novelist get? Though I enjoyed this snippet of dialogue, I believe that characters in literary fiction are more than constructions of language. They are real, so much more real than most people.
Though these are films on two very different themes, the film Island City reminded me more than once of Party, Govind Nihalani’s brilliant adaptation of Mahesh Elkunchwar’s play which explores the role of the writer as artist and activist in a shallow, self-serving society. Both films constantly make the viewer pause to think and reflect on the questions raised by the premise.
Island City is a thought-provoking exploration of urban loneliness, conveyed through three loosely interconnected stories. The corporate employee in an Orwellian setup who is desensitised to obey any instruction unquestioningly, the suppressed housewife who chooses the lead character in a schmaltzy television soap over the tyrannical man of the house, and the blue collar worker who finds love in an unexpected place which proceeds to render her life bleaker than before, come from very different backgrounds, but their lives are equally affected by the impersonal hollowness of life in a city. Though the stories are set in Mumbai, these are universal tales of present times which could have played out in any city in the world. The boundaries between fiction and reality, as well as technology and human emotions, blur and eventually dissolve at the end of each story, leaving the viewers with a paradox: despite the images of absurdism and black humour, the film comes across as more real than surreal, reemphasising that we now live in a post-postmodern world.
On a cold afternoon at Rewley House, this agent approaches me and my classmate with a broad smile.
‘So, what do you write?’ she asks us warmly.
I give her a thirty-second elevator pitch on something I am working on, and mention that it is metafiction. Accessible metafiction, I want to qualify my statement. Because as a reader and as a writer, I believe in telling a story first and telling it well – ensuring that my characters are beings who breathe in the world inside the pages and who take their own decisions, irrespective of what my plot outlines want them to do. I also believe that the novelist’s pleasure of playing with the form is worth only if it reflects in the reader’s experience of the book. Above all, I believe that any story worth telling must reach out and speak to any kind of reader. All fiction is metafiction, at one level. I want to tell her all this, and more.
But she looks away at the sound of the M-word. I blink and when I open my eyes, she has vanished. I spot her at the bar at the far end of the room and wonder if she had been real.
From within the murky depths of the dating sites there emerged a charming Mangalorean with chocolate eyes and long hair, whose photograph evoked an Indian version of Rupert Brooke. A software guy who quoted Rilke and professed to adore Dostoevsky – in the background, Frank Sinatra began to hum a song that referred among other things, to turtle soup. While pondering virtually over the possibilities of walking through Regent’s Park on one of these Saturdays, he asked, ‘By the way, what do you do write?’
I rediscovered the joy of television for a while, thanks to a long, lingering spell of viral flu and found myself hooked to two particular serials on YouTube on the weekends.
The first was Upanyas, an old serial that I vaguely remembered from childhood. I was too young to watch it when it was first broadcast on Doordarshan many years ago. Watching it for the first time, I was delighted to find that it had a metafictional premise. A woman vacationing in a hill station meets her favourite novelist who is semi-retired and requests him to resume writing. The episodes then take parallel tracks, one following the author as he proceeds to create his story, and the other depicting the story which mirrors the author’s life and the characters around him. The author’s own story is far more interesting than the world that he writes into being.
Mohan Vatsal is by no means the perfect author or even a perfect man. There are hints of a shady past linked to his multiple divorces, which comes out when his partner attempts suicide. His condescending attitude towards everyone including his reader and artistic arrogance which comes out through his reflections on the world around him make him a very complex character, though one who is self-assured of his powers of creation. When the reader Yashodhara points out that his novel was less of a plotted story and more a group of incidents loosely connected together, he acknowledges that he had been inspired to write it that way.
The character of the Vatsal’s partner Prabhavati is reminiscent of Mohini in Mahesh Elkunchwar’s play Party. Both women fall in love with artists on account of their art and later find themselves unwanted, alone, bereft of their identity, perhaps hinting that relationships between authors and readers are best when they stay on either side of the page. A victim of domestic violence, Prabhavati seeks solace from her troubled marriage in Vatsal’s books and gets into a relationship with him. Short flashbacks reveal her own artistic temperament with flashes of inspiration that are comparable, even superior to Vatsal’s imagination. When he becomes uncomfortable with her creative expressions, she is happy to remain in his shadow, cooking and keeping house for him until he tires of her presence, and she grows frustrated and insecure as their relationship does not have a future. Vatsal admits to himself that Prabhavati’s dependence strengthens him as he feeds off her need for him. After an unsuccessful suicide attempt, Prabhavati makes a dignified exit from Vatsal’s life. In a poignant scene, she tells the writer that she was leaving for a place where all her needs would be met – food, clothing and most importantly, books to read.
A number of literary references and philosophical reflections are woven into the dialogue. To cite just two examples, Vatsal talks about the joys of intertextuality, his admiration of Tolstoy and how he hopes to write a character like Kino from Steinbeck’s The Pearl into one of his novels someday. His character Chalakha writes to her cousin that the ego needs unhappiness to reinforce itself for absolute joy dissolves the sense of the self, which seems to reflect this quote by Greene:
“The sense of unhappiness is so much easier to convey than that of happiness. In misery we seem aware of our own existence, even though it may be in the form of a monstrous egotism: this pain of mine is individual, this nerve that winces belongs to me and to no other. But happiness annihilates us: we lose our identity.”
Graham Greene, The End of the Affair
The serial is set in a period when time was richer: when people took pleasure in unhurried walks, wrote long letters by hand to each other, and had endless leisurely conversations about life and art.
Just as I thought that it was a pity that no one makes such fine programs anymore, a cousin sent me a link to a relatively recent serial called Upanishad Ganga, a 52 part series which presented the wisdom of the Upanishads in one hour long fictionalised episodes.
I was not surprised to discover that the program had been broadcast by Doordarshan, which remains the gold standard for quality television content in the minds of millions of Indian viewers. Dramatizing stories from the Upanishads which are considered to be the essence of Indian philosophy in the form of short capsules is a huge challenge and the producers have been successful in their vision. The concepts, the settings, the costumes, the actors and above all, the screenplay blend together beautifully. Employing the structure of stories within a story, the series is portrayed as stage dramas presented by a group of artists who question the relevance of Sanskrit and the scriptures in present times. The episodes raise profound philosophical questions, suggest possible answers and leave the watching seeker both enriched and inspired.
How does one determine the genre of a novel? When I finished writing The Reengineers, I mentally categorised it as Literary Fiction. Also, Metafiction which it is, naturally, as it explores the relationship between an author and the main character of his novel. Early readers and reviewers categorised it under Young Adult, Coming of Age, Magic Realism and Inspirational Fiction among others.
The Reengineers could be classified under Young Adult Fiction as it is the coming of age story of a fifteen year old boy, and as it was plotted based on the hero’s journey. It could be placed under Magic Realism for it is the story of a surreal adventure which, though it happens in a parallel universe, is firmly rooted in its own reality. It could also fit into the labels of Inspirational Fiction and Spiritual Fiction, as it talks about the hero’s self-empowerment and the triumph of free will over destiny.
On the Amazon website, The Reengineers is categorised under Literature & Fiction, Spiritual Fiction and Philosophical fiction, all of which sound good, though the book only contains a dollop of philosophy in Chapter 7. For some reason, it is also shown under History and Religion & Spirituality. My publishers say that these last two categories would be removed shortly. Applying this logic, it could also belong under the umbrella of Self-help as besides the theme of self-empowerment, it also contains an excerpt of a fictional self help-book narrated in the form of corporate fables within Chapter 5.
But if I were to choose a single, specific genre for The Reengineers, I believe that it would be the Coming of age novel with existential overtones. Novels I love in this genre include J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of being a wallflower, Ned Vizzini’s It’s kind of a funny story and the wonderful The Elegance of the hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. Each of these books have touched my heart with their wisdom, they have spoken to me in a way that I hope The Reengineers would speak to each reader.
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
“Metafiction is a term given to fictional writing which self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artifact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality. In proving a critique of their own methods of construction, such writings not only examine the fundamental structures of narrative fiction, they also explore the possible fictionality of the world outside the literary fictional text.”
Most articles of metafiction analyse the genre from a scholarly perspective. I write this from the perspective of a reader who loves books which have anything to do about books.
Metafiction is commonly associated with postmodern literature, but as wikipedia says it has been around since perhaps the beginning of the written word, with examples of books across various time periods such as Homer’s Odyssey, The Canterbury Tales and Don Quixote. The two great epics of Indian literature, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are wrapped in metafictional plots with the poets Valmiki and Vyasa who composed these works appearing within the respective stories as key characters. The collection Kathasaritsagar or the ocean of stories is likewise a labyrinth of fantastic tales within tales, all of which are supposed to be sourced from the ancient epic Brihatkatha which literally means ‘The Great Story’.
As a reader, I find it all the more interesting to read a novel with metafictional elements set in more recent times. Metafiction is more than a book or an author self consciously referring to themselves. In many books it brings out the attachment between the author and her work, a coming together of the art and the artist so deeply that they seem to be one single entity, which extends to the reader who opens the pages and finds themselves to be a part of this absolute union, an intense experience which goes beyond the illusion of the fictional universe.
Some of my favourite books in the genre include Loitering with Intent, Fahrenheit 451, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, 84 Charing Cross Road, The Name of The Rose, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, The Thirteenth Tale, Angel’s Game, The Help, The Neverending Story, Sophie’s World, Atonement, The Inkheart trilogy…and more. Sometimes I feel that this genre is the only one worth reading as it (usually) covers everything else.
In the next few weeks, I will write a series of posts analysing metafiction, on what it means to me as a reader, why I turned to it as a writer, and why I believe like many that metafiction is a way of understanding the nature of reality.