I am still officially on hiatus, but when I read James Wood’s review of HHhH, a new postmodern historical novel by Laurent Binet, in The New Yorker, I had to post about it. Binet’s novel, which revolves around the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the head of the intelligence service of S.S. in Nazi Germany during WWII.

Binet does not use invented characters, and has asserted that the narrator is not, in fact, a character, but himself. This is significant because throughout the novel, the narrator discusses the fictional techniques the author is using to tell the story. Wood describes this all in much greater detail, and also contrasts Binet’s (ultimately shallow, he contends) use of these techniques with those in W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, another self-aware historical set during WWII.

Basically, it seems to me that HHhH is one of those incredibly pretentious postmodern novels that make me roll my eyes. Like the trashy romance novels of postmodernism. (Not that there’s anything wrong with trashy romance novels–except, wait, yes, there is, because most of them rely on horrible sexist stereotypes and cultural norms that are borderline offensive.)

I love weird writing. And of course postmodernism is a hotbed of weird stuff. But I can’t stand weirdness for the sake of weirdness, weirdness that screams LOOK AT ME, I’M DIFFERENT AND SMART. I love weird writing that actually says something new and important about the world we live in. The reason I love postmodernism and metafiction so much is because they give us a way to fight against those hurtful, painful cultural norms that constrict us and force us to be things other than who we really are, who we really want to be.

Based on Woods’s review, and his quoting of certain glib passages from Binet’s novel, it sounds like HHhH, at best, highlights silly fictional techniques, and at worst, makes light of horrible tragedies to prove how smart he is. I think this is a novel I’ll skip.

 

A painting of Don Quixote reading by Adolf Schroedter

Cervantes has a habit of interrupting his stories at critical moments. For example, in Chapter VIII, Character-Cervantes (as I discuss in my post Don Quixote: Meta-Masterpiece)  interrupts the story of Don Quixote’s battle with the Basque to tell us he doesn’t actually know the ending.

Or, for example, the story of Cardenio, which the unfortunate gentleman relates to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza in Chapter XXIV until Quixote takes offense at Cardenio’s words about Queen Madásima from the novel Amadis of Gaul and sends Cardenio into a mad rage, effectively cutting off the story until later in the book.

Or again, when Quixote and company find themselves at the infamous inn of Sancho’s blanket tossing, where they seek amusement in the story,”The Tale of Ill-Advised Curiosity,” only to have the narrative interrupted by Quixote in the throes of a dream about slaying a giant but really destroying some of the innkeepers wine skins. The moment the story stops, is of course, the moment after we learn that one of the tale’s main characters will die.

This technique not only builds suspense and tension, but says something about readers, too: They are not passive audience members, but participants in the story.

Keep in mind that Quixote himself is a reader-turned-participant in the extremest sense. He has read all the books of chivalry he can find and has decided to take up the sword himself to do great deeds in the name of his Lady Dulcinea del Toboso. And we are, as Cervantes points out on many occasions, reading a book about his exploits. This makes Quixote the ultimate reader participant.

It’s worth noting too, that often, it is Quixote who causes the interruption in the telling of a story, be it on purpose or on accident. In the third example, that of “The Tale of Ill-Advised Curiosity,” the characters reading the tale are Cardenio, Dorotea, the curate and the barber. Cardenio and Dorotea are caught up in a love tangle (not triangle) somewhat similar to that in “The Tale of Ill-Advised Curiosity,” and all four of them have created a story in which Dorotea plays Princess Micomicona, who needs Quixote to slay a giant for her, in order to get Quixote home. They, too, have become participants in Quixote’s story, and it is only fitting that he should interrupt their entertainment to continue the story they’ve created.

Although Cervantes was ultimately parodying Spain’s complete obsession with chivalrous novels, I also read Don Quixote as a parody of the extreme inaction and passivity of those same readers. I doubt Cervantes wants us to put on armor and take up swords and wander around the country slaying wine skins, but interact with the books you read. Think about them critically. Talk about them. Write about them.

 

I am still technically on hiatus because of grad school, but I’ve just finished my first semester and I have some time while I’m on winter break. I hope to get a few posts up before the spring semester starts in January, but I’m not promising anything!

ImageOver the summer I learned that consuming too much metafiction, as with chocolate, wine, margaritas, cheese, berries of any kind, coffee, tea, cake, cookies, candy or anything else delicious and edible, can lead to headaches, indigestion and temporary loss of taste for that food.

I’m not saying Jack of Fables is a bad series. In fact, it does something completely brilliant by making the writing/illustrating process a kind of character in the books. I’m just saying that it’s a very bad idea to read eight volumes of it right in a row. This comic by Bill Willingham is a spinoff of one of my all-time favorite comics, ever, Fables. The books follow all our favorite fairytale characters in their lives in New York City after they were run out of their homelands by the adversary. And then other stuff happens. Jack of Fables spins off fairly early in the series, and follows a separate timeline.

The best way for me to describe the metafiction contained within is this:

Image

Photo by Celeste Hutchins. Used under Creative Commons.

Many jokes are made about the authors creating the characters (and Jack actually turns fat and ugly and then into a dragon for making fun of the authors–see, the writing/illustrating process has agency in this text! Fracking brilliant!). Literary terms, genres and plot devices like science fiction, fantasy, literary, the fourth wall, the other three walls, deus ex machina, etc. become characters. In every issue (so several times a volume), Babe the Blue Ox gets a page or two to look out at the audience and make jokes.

For the first few volumes the story revolves around the Literals, a family of powerful individuals who created all the Fables. One of them tries to write the Fables and all magic out of existence, and so the Fables must prevent this from happening. The Literals are another way Willingham has characterized the writing process, and made it both hero and villain as certain members of the family fight for the Fables, and others against.

All of it is brilliant, and delicious, and if you read it all at once, thoroughly nauseating. Most of the devices and techniques Willingham uses here are fairly obvious, though the effects of those techniques are varied and as I said earlier, brilliant. My first reaction to this was to roll my eyes and say something to the effect of, “Cervantes was never THIS obvioius,” but I was missing the point.

Jack is a self-absorbed prick. Under normal circumstances, only other self-absorbed pricks would have any interest in reading an entire comic book series about such a douche bag. So by making the writing process itself a character, I could stomach Jack’s self absorption and laugh about it. It was especially funny to me as a writer, because sometimes your characters turn into assholes when you want them to be nice, and you’ve got to do horrible things like turn them into dragons in order to make them nice again.

Willingham obviously has a lot of fun with this series, and it’s a lot of fun to read.

That being said, don’t read it all at once.

As much as it makes me sad to do so, I’m afraid I must go on an indefinite hiatus from The Narrative in the Blog. I am starting my MFA in creative writing in a few months, and will be working part time in addition. Unfortunately I only have the time for one blog, and I’d like to focus on my personal one at this point in time. I may pop in here every now and then, and Ruby and the Moon will continue on my personal blog. I will still respond to comments.

Don’t worry, I’ll still talk about metafiction… it just won’t be the ONLY thing I talk about.

Join me at http://kellylynnthomas.com!

I’m not going to name names here, but recently I’ve seen a slew of people calling metafiction and breaking the fourth wall synonyms.

Let’s get one thing straight right now. They are not synonyms. They are not the same thing.

It’s like this: Breaking the fourth wall, most frequently used in visual mediums like theater, cinema and comic books, occurs when a character turns to the audience (the fourth wall) and makes some kind of remark only to the audience that the other characters do not hear or are unaware of.

Metafiction, as you well know if you’ve ever read this blog before, occurs when the author of a work, generally one with words, makes the reader aware of the fact that she is in fact reading a fictional story. Examples of metafictional technique include the author including him or herself as a character who is writing the book (Slaughterhouse-Five, The Things They Carried), a book within a book (Don Quijote) or when the characters know they are characters and then let you, the reader, know they are characters.

But but but, you ask, doesn’t a character breaking the fourth wall know she is a character if she is able to break the fourth wall?!

Yes! Yes she does! Therefore, it follows that breaking the fourth wall is a metafictional technique, yes! So it cannot be synonymous with metafiction!

To sum up: Breaking the fourth wall is always metafiction. Metafiction is not always breaking the fourth wall.

Easy, yes/yes? I’m glad we cleared that up! Stay tuned for Thursday’s post on “Masturbatory Metafiction in Jack of Fables”. It’s going to be a mess good one.

…I will start posting regularly again.

Consider June my summer vacation, even though I’ve been doing anything but relaxing.

That’s okay. I’ll get to do lots of that this weekend.

Happy Independence Day! Go read the most awesome web comic ever, The Dreamer, by Lora Innes, to celebrate!!!!

I have been busy spending time with my family, going to baseball games, traveling, and generally enjoying summer, so I’m cheating this week by linking to today’s post from my website, kellylynnthomas.com.  I wrote about why parents shouldn’t try to get books booted from libraries or schools because of “objectionable” content in response to Meghan Cox Gurdon’s column on the Wall Street Journal essentially endorsing book banning.

Please read the whole thing here!

Neil Gaiman’s novel-length fairytale Stardust employs an omniscient narrator and occasional authorial interjection–both play a crucial role in not only the telling of the story, but also in the reading of the story.

The omniscient narrator was common in ye olde Literature (think Austen, Bronte, etc.), but is actually kind of frowned upon in modern writing classes.

Instead, fledgling authors are encouraged to use first person or limited third to allow the reader to get close to the character.  There’s nothing wrong with getting inside a character’s head, but sometimes it’s nice to not have to deal with someone else’s neuroses (I don’t know about you, but I have enough of my own, thank you).

Authorial interjection, also known as breaking the fourth wall (although that’s more of a stage term, the first three walls being the right, left and back sides of the stage, the fourth being the invisible one between actors and audience), is much more common, but sadly almost always relegated to a comedic special effect in contemporary literature.

Gaiman’s use of these techniques serves to make the story feel more old-timey, more like a fairytale that our grandparents might have told us when we demanded they tell us a story before bedtime.

But more than putting us into the proper frame of mind, the use of the omniscient narrator creates suspense and tension, and is perhaps the most important device in the story (it’s a device because it’s used to present the story in a particular way, and it comes with certain expectations, like the main characters falling in love and living happily ever after).

Without an omniscient narrator, we would know only as much as Tristan, the main character, and half of the suspense would evaporate before it had a chance to even condense in our minds, since the forces wishing Tristan evil often do themselves in before they have a chance to do Tristan any harm.

Since we know more than Tristan, we often get the urge to yell at him for being stupid, or for not following advice or directions.  Plus, it makes us feel nice and smart and quite good about ourselves for being so smart.

While the few instances of authorial interjection are used in situations where the characters are not in any grave danger, they don’t fall into the category of comedy for comedy’s sake.  These instances serve to pull the reader more fully into the world of the narrator, and by extension, the characters the narrator brings to life for us.

Any emotional distance we may have felt from the characters because of the narrative filter is replaced by a closeness with the narrator.  By speaking to us directly, he’s made us a part of the story.  And how can you feel distant from a story of which you’re apart?

Take note that while I call this “fiction” I don’t call it a “story.”  Is it one?  What do you think?

(Also, please take the time to visit kellylynnthomas.com and let me know what you think of the new design!)

And without further ado,a nonstory:

A short list of strange things that I have seen during my job as an interior designer:

1. A giant squid vase. The glass made it look like it was moving when you looked at it out of the corner of your eyes, and it made me nervous. Everything else in the house was entirely normal, except for that vase.

2. Pantyhose wrapped around the base of a lamp. I wanted to ask why they were there, but decided my imagination did a better job explaining their presence than any truth could. At first I thought the owner might have a thing for erotic asphyxiation or wearing pantyhose on his head, but I didn’t get any erotic or sexy vibes from the rest of the house, so I decided that he had a secret lover who would come over when his wife was at DAR meetings and they would make love on the couch, and she wrapped them around the lamp so his wife would see, and he never noticed because he wasn’t attentive like that. I don’t even know if he had a wife, but I hope so. She would be the jealous kind, but he’s the kind of guy who doesn’t care, he just floats through life and waits for her to bring him a beer, and the only reason he took a lover in the first place was because she came to him and he was bored, so he thought why not?

3. An entire house covered in the letter Y. There were Ys in picture frames, wooden Ys, metal Ys, lamps in the shape of Y, other objects arranged into Ys, even a music stand that was an upside-down Y. The person’s name was Melissa Bracken, she didn’t even have a Y in her name. I did ask her why all the Ys and she shrugged, like maybe she didn’t have an answer, or she didn’t want to answer. I’m not sure why she even hired me, she didn’t want me to change anything, and every time I told her she needed to cool it with the Ys she rolled her eyes at me and put her hands on her hips like I didn’t know what I was talking about. In the end she asked me if I thought there were too many Ys, and when I told her I felt like I was drowning in alphabet soup with all the letters, she looked at me and smiled like a shark, like I had confirmed everything she ever thought.

4. A completely straight, single man in his 30s who had furniture shaped like human reproductive organs. There was a vagina arm chair, a penis couch, end tables that were shaped like the naked backs of muscular men and breast lamps where the nipples are the lights. I guess human shaped furniture shouldn’t weird me out, but it does. Especially the vagina armchair. I sat in it when he went to the bathroom and you sink so low into it, and the colors seem so realistic, and it’s made out of a slippery soft leather, that you really do feel like you’re sinking into a vagina. The penis couch isn’t very comfortable, in my opinion, because it’s so firm, and I had to keep reminding myself not to stare at the lamps so the guy didn’t think I was a lesbian or something. I’ve seen plenty of human shaped furniture and art, but having so much of it in one living room seems gratuitous.

5. Stuffed monkey heads in a bedroom. This woman had like 50 stuffed monkey heads, taxidermy, not stuffed animals, all different kinds of monkeys. They were mounted in groups on each wall, like a honeycomb but instead of bees and honey, monkey heads. I don’t know how she slept at night, with hundredss of dead monkey eyes staring down at her. I wondered why she didn’t have all the monkey bodies too, maybe in the basement or the attic, and maybe with a metal pole that she could screw the heads onto. Each monkey head was labeled, with its Latin name and all kinds of information, country of origin, preferred food, size, weight, everything. The stranger thing was, there wasn’t a single monkey anywhere else in the house, not even a figurine or a stuffed animal or a picture or even a book about monkeys. Just the monkey heads in the bedroom.

When I visit a house like that, no matter why they hired me, I seriously question my decision to enter this field in the first place. People are fucked up.

I’m taking a break from the metafiction this week to once again speak out about a cause I believe in (if I had more time I would have written a metafictional short story about this, since metafiction is so often used for social critique, but alas).

Many of you don’t live in Pennsylvania, but that’s okay.  Rather than focusing on jobs and the economy like they said they would, legislators are attacking the LGBTQ community by proposing a marriage amendment that would outlaw any marriage or civil union not between a man and a woman.  This is not the first time Pa officials have tried this, hence my post for Blog for Equality Day 2010.

Part of me feels like I should keep politics out of my blog.  A bigger part of me feels that any art worth a damn is somewhat political, social or religious in nature, and the “issue” of equal rights for the LGBTQ crowd is a mix of all of those.

So, metafiction fans, please take the time to sign this petition for Equality Pennsylvania, especially if you actually live in Pennsylvania, and tell your own state and federal representatives that you support equal rights for ALL people in this country, regardless of gender, religion or sexual orientation.

Speaking of equal rights, Pa lawmakers are also trying to pass a law that would force many abortion clinics in the state to close.  There’s a somewhat complex background behind this law that I won’t bore you with, but suffice it to say that a white man has decided what is best for the medical community to do with abortion clinics against the advice of actual medical professionals… but that’s somewhat of an over-simplification.

My point is this: If you are not gay, lesbian, transgendered, transsexual, bisexual or queer, if you have the full rights that this country affords, how can you possibly justify walking around telling these people they are wrong?  If you do not have a uterus and will never, ever have to worry about an unwanted pregnancy, a pregnancy with complications, or needing an abortion, how can you possibly tell women that abortion is wrong and make it almost impossible for low-income women to get the services they need?  If you are one of those people, you should be ashamed of yourself.

I suggest the following tactic: Select an organization that either advocates for LGBTQ rights (like Equality Pennsylvania) or the rights of women (like Planned Parenthood), make a donation, even a token donation, in “honor” of the reps who sponsor these bills (Daryl Metcalf and Matt Baker, respectively), and have the notification sent to their Harrisburg offices.

P.S. check out Blog for Equality Day’s sponsor, Pittsburgh Lesbian Correspondents.

Kelly Lynn Thomas


The Narrative in the Blog explores metafiction, narrative form and storytelling. It is currently on indefinite hiatus, but I believe there's plenty here to read about and learn from. Enjoy the archives!

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