A Story within a Story
‘Books are the blessed chloroform of the mind.’ Robert W. Chambers
To help understand the complexities of metafiction it is important to explore its origins and highlight how it has been used to inform literature and theoretical studies. In ancient Greek the term ‘Meta’ translates to ‘with’, ‘after’, ‘between’ and, in true Lovecraftian fashion, ‘beyond’. It was during the late 20th century that the philosophy of ‘Metatheology’ aided in our persistence to see within, after, between and beyond; often setting the individual on a quest to look for the answers to, ‘What makes us human?’ ‘How and why do we study God?’ Philosophical questions that mankind have reflected upon in an attempt to understand their own place within the universe
Although often associated with Modernist movements; particular tropes of metafiction can be linked as far back as Homer’s Odyssey, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales from the 14th century and the later work of Laurence Stern’s Tristram Shandy in 1756 where all these stories contained elements of self-reflexive devices. It was therefore here, within the narrative, that characters became aware of their own existence and forged a literary device that first attempted to break the fourth wall. This device has been used to delve much deeper into the narrative and, from an analytical point of view, this self-conscious method is primarily used to help highlight the work’s significance as an artefact in itself that primarily provokes a number of questions about the relationship between fiction and reality. As a clear analogy; the method could be compared to theatre where it becomes more difficult for an audience to separate themselves from the performance and it is within the words on the page that metafiction reminds the reader they are aware of reading a fictional account.
In Miguel de Cervantes’ seminal masterpiece, Don Quixote the use of metafiction was written to great effect through its use of realism and became a benchmark for any novelist who used this more self-conscious process in their writing. It could be argued that realism and metafiction are one in the same and simply another technique in parody to help highlight the zeitgeist of the time and force the reader to reflect on the world around them and, in turn, themselves. Don Quixote is metafiction because the central story highlights the nature behind the method of fiction through its own procedures and assumptions; yet Cervantes still managed to build a world that balances the fantastical element by delivering it as a state of mind and therefore is accepted more by the reader.
In 1970 the writer and philosopher, William H. Gass first coined the term ‘metafiction’ in an essay; later collected in Fiction and the Figures of Life (1983). Gass’ interpretation can simply be summarised as ‘fiction about fiction’ and therefore it would be easier to label Don Quixote as a ‘book about books’. Within Cervantes’ novel the multiple use of authors develops an awareness in how the name and image of the original creator influences the meaning behind the story. It is only in the opening prologue that Cervantes’ friend advises him on how to make the book, Don Quixote, resemble other tales of chivalry and then later, during further inquisition of Don Quixote’s own tomes, they discover Cervantes’ first novella, La Galatea and deem it worthy of existence. All the while, various other characters and authors within the text discuss processes, attitudes, history and social circumstances and even Cervantes himself; and as Quixote continues through the story it becomes more and more clear that the books are the very crux of his madness.
There is a genuine sense that when reading such fiction the reader himself begins to delve into the very mindset the central character is possessed by. In Ronald B. Richardson’s Metablog on Metafiction (2014), the author states:
The madness is that most people think ‘realism’ is realer than other forms of fiction. These people are confused by the name of the genre. They take it literally. They suppose that only tragedy is honest, only violence is authentic, and only the downtrodden are ‘real people.’ When a French student of mine was leaving on a trip to Los Angeles, I warned him that Hollywood was not as glamorous as he might imagine. When he came back, he told me he was not disappointed since the dirtiness made Hollywood seem more realistic. But dirt is no realer than glitter and diamonds. And what tortuous logic induces an intelligent man to look for realism in Hollywood? ronosaurusrex.com
In 1895, Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow delivered a series of short stories centred around a forbidden play which induces despair and madness in those who read it. Although the central characters are not self-aware there is a fabricated myth of a story within a story that would go on to inspire the delirious works of H.P. Lovecraft. With his Cthulhu mythos, Lovecraft had created a cosmic deity that had become a nightmarish source of anxiety for all humanity and in the context of its own mythos, had become the subject of worship by a number of religions around the world. This malevolent entity was depicted as the amalgamation of a giant octopus, a man and a dragon; hundreds of meters tall with human appendages and a pair of crude, wings on its back – a nightmarish leviathan that harkened back to creatures of ancient legend. Here, Lovecraft was building his own world to explore where, often, it could be difficult to separate the writer from his own fiction. John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness (1994) is a direct homage to Lovecraft and a prime example of metaphysical horror.
From Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story to Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series, readers have witnessed central characters pulled into the very worlds they read about and, in King’s instance, even write themselves into their own fantasy. However dark or enlightening seminal literature has been; it is clear that the greatest works transcend time because they have resonance. If there is nothing entertaining at its core then it will not last and in a day and age where the internet its digital content seems to rule; now, more than ever, a metafictional state is the perfect platform to engage new readers and build on intellectual properties.
Comics and the use of sequential storytelling have often been frowned upon by the literary circle yet the 21st century has embraced this medium more than ever. Since the mid ‘80s the comic book has attempted to reinvent the medium, particularly the perception of how the superhero functions within a modern world. Although Frank Miller was to break new boundaries with The Dark Knight Returns, both Batman and Superman were able to paint a very clear picture of Regan era America that helped to connect with a wider audience. However, it was in the pages of DC’s more obscure title, Swamp Thing that Alan Moore had already been setting the precedence in how to delve much deeper into a fictional world. In true, gothic fashion, Moore’s stories were rich in texture and romanticism and it was shortly after the title’s success that DC sought a similar approach in Grant Morrison’s treatment for Animal Man that began to set the foundations for DC’s imprint, Vertigo.