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Once I discovered the Moon liked telling stories, I started asking for them, and they became a nightly routine for me.
After saving me from a family that neglected me, my rescuer found me a new family that actually took care of me and gave me lots of pets and love. But the first night I spent with them was scary. I knew they cared about me, but I felt lonely and everything around me was unfamiliar.
“Moon?” I asked after the People fell asleep. She was the only other thing in the world I knew.
“Hello, little Ruby,” she replied.
I could barely see her out the window, but I could see her glow light up the dark outside.
“Would you like to hear another story?”
Somehow her voice floated through the window, even though it was closed and outside smells barely drifted through. I ruffed quietly, glad to have someone, anyone, to talk to.
“Then let me tell you the legend of Corgi-san, the old Japanese dog spirit who was often mistaken for a fox because of her red coat and fox-like markings.”
I sat down by the window, looking out at the moonlight in the People’s yard, even though I couldn’t see the Moon’s face.
“Corgi-san, who loved good food and especially eggs, liked to sneak into a particular inn outside the city of Edo. The inn sat on a main highway, so many travelers stopped in to refresh themselves on their long journeys into the capital.
“For Corgi-san, this meant many new opportunities to steal food each night. On most nights, she waited until the patrons were well and intoxicated, and then she would tip-toe in and use her long tongue to steal fried eggs off the top of all the patrons’ dishes until she’d eaten her fill. Her antics were well known among the inn’s proprietors, but no one had ever been able to catch her.
“One night, a samurai of some skill and renown who lived nearby came to the inn, as he was fond of the egg-topped soba noodles.
“Corgi-san had seen the samurai before and thought it would be a good challenge and good fun to steal food from him. When he’d turned to talk to a particularly pretty waitress, she shot out her long, pink tongue, wrapped it around the samurai’s egg and swallowed it whole.
“She thought she had gotten away with it and was ready to sneak back out, satisfied with the night, but the samurai drew his katana and pointed it right at her corner hiding place.
“‘I see you, Corgi-san, and your thievery is well known in this inn! It’s time you paid for all the eggs you’ve stolen from innocent travelers,’ the samurai declared.
“A wicked grin spread across Corgi-san’s face. Although she was accustomed to an easy life, she was a dog spirit, and rising to a challenge was in her nature.
“‘Only if you can catch me, Samurai-san!’ she barked.”
I’d forgotten all about my new People and strange surroundings. The Moon’s even voice calmed me the same way a Person could by gently petting my back. If I hadn’t been so interested in the story, I might have felt sleepy.
“With that,” the Moon continued, “Corgi-san leapt from the corner, farther than anyone would have guessed possible with her short legs. The samurai gave chase, and the inn’s patrons cheered him on. He deftly untied his horse outside the inn and hurried after the quickly retreating dog spirit.
“The samurai’s horse was strong and quick, and he caught up to the little dog spirit without problem. Looking back, she saw the samurai, now on her heels, draw his bow. She yelped and redoubled her efforts, feeling like she was in real trouble this time, but her best was not good enough.”
My legs twitched as the Moon told her story, I felt like I needed to run from the samurai too.
“The samurai aimed his shot and let his arrow fly. It hit Corgi-san’s back right leg, and she rolled off the road and into the brush. For a few moments, the samurai lost sight of her.
“When she emerged from the brush, she moved even faster than before. The samurai was surprised to see her carrying the arrow in her mouth; she seemed completely unharmed. He urged his horse on, and soon realized the dog spirit was headed straight for his house!
“As she approached the house, the samurai was even more surprised to see the arrow’s feathers burst into flames. He realized what the corgi was doing, but he couldn’t get his horse to run fast enough to catch up with her; she must have been moving with the aid of some magic.
“Corgi-san reached the house a good while before the samurai. She ran around it in a circle, letting the flaming arrow touch the wood, setting it ablaze. The samurai reached the house and stopped, his mouth agape.
“Once the dog spirit had done a full circle around the house, she disappeared back into the brush. As she disappeared, the samurai heard her say, ‘Your punishment didn’t match my crime. I only wanted something good to eat! Maybe you’ll think twice the next time you decide to exact your own judgment.
“Luckily for the samurai, his family was in the capital, because his house burned to ash. From that day on, he did think before he decided to pass judgment, and often erred on the side of mercy. Whenever he passed a shrine to the local gods, he always left a delicious treat in honor of Corgi-san.”
I laughed at the story and Corgi-san’s revenge. I realized how tense I’d been waiting for the end of the story, and that made me laugh even more. Suddenly, I became sleepy, and to this day I’m not sure if it was because of some Moon magic or if it was only because I used up all my energy listening to the story.
After I thanked the Moon, I curled up on the floor next to my sleeping People. Right before I fell asleep, I thought I heard the Moon say, “Goodnight, Ruby.”
It’s taken me a long time to come to that realization. I first read The Things They Carried five years ago. I’ve read at least parts of it every year since then. Most of my college literature professors taught the namesake short story (which is the first novel chapter).
And although I’ve always said that my fiction writing is influenced by The Chronicles of Narnia or The Sandman or any other important books I’ve read in my life, the truth is that those two sentences from The Things They Carried has influenced my writing more than all those other things combined.
The book is perhaps the most challenging I’ve ever read, or ever will read, both from the perspective of writing craft and from the perspective of subject matter. The images and scenes are vivid and hard to face. They show carnage, destruction, cruelty and disfigurement, all of which are worse than death.
O’Brien’s writing is the same. He tears the craft apart, destroys the genre of fiction and leaves it bleeding and raw with its guts hanging out and its head cut off and posted on a stake at the entrance.
And that is why The Things They Carried is the most beautiful book I’ve ever read.
O’Brien inserts himself into the narrative as a writer character, and all one has to do to know that author-O’Brien actually fought in Vietnam is to read the author bio on the back cover. These two things automatically put the book into the realm of autobiographical fiction.
But then he tells us: “I’m forty-three years old, true, and I’m a writer now, and a long time ago I walked through Quang Ngai Province as a foot soldier.
“Almost everything else is invented.”
We expect fiction to be invented. But going into this book, we expected it to be mostly real, with some of the names and places changed, and more drama added to make it interesting. But that ruins our expectations and leaves us wondering whether or not it’s autobiographical or not.
That’s the wrong question to ask. The real question is, does it matter whether or not any of these things happened? “Story-truth is sometimes truer than happening-truth.”
The next question to ask us what author-O’Brien accomplishes by inserting character-O’Brien into the narrative when he could have invented a new narrator, written the story-truth and had faith in the reader to understand that this work of fiction, like all works of fiction, was meant to impart some small truth about humanity and the world around us. He could have left the fiction pristine and beautiful, but instead he disfigures it, makes it foreign, makes it “other.”
In doing that, he tells us his goal in writing the book. He gives the purpose away. “I want you to feel what I felt.”
And, like character-O’Brien, there are times when I wanted nothing more than to turn away and burn the images from my eyes because they refused to leave, and they left me with a lonely, helpless sick feeling that I couldn’t shake for days.
That is enough to justify giving away the book’s purpose in such a blatant and anti-fiction manner. “Plot” is unimportant. Truth is the only thing that matters here, and truth can only be reached through experience. Knowing the end is not enough. Character-O’Brien tells us the end to most of the stories before he tells them. But the reader must experience the journey in order to discover the truth.
Still, what does character-O’Brien accomplish that a neutral, non-metafictional narrator couldn’t have accomplished? Perhaps the answer is obvious, but by confronting the reader with these strange ideas that fiction is truer than reality, author-O’Brien ensures that we think about it in a way a neutral narrator could not.
By aggressively pursuing the ideas that truth is the ultimate goal of fiction, not plot or character development or anything else, author-O’Brien forces the reader to examine what “truth” even means—is reality true? Are feelings true? Are both? Neither?
Character-O’Brien’s presence inevitably leads the reader to think about author-O’Brien and whether or not the events in the book happened, despite the fact that character-O’Brien tells us they didn’t.
The dedication, which mentions all of the book characters, casts further doubt on the book’s fiction. “This book is lovingly dedicated to…Jimmy Cross, Norman Bowker, Rat Kiley, Mitchell Sanders, Henry Dobbins, and Kiowa.” All of those men are characters. But were they also real people? Did he change the names?
It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you’re wondering if they were real people and if author-O’Brien changed the names. What matters is that after reading The Things They Carried, you will think about truth. You will think about writing, and what it means to write. You will think about the difference between story-truth and happening-truth, and you will think about each and every book you read afterwards in a completely different way, and you will think about your own world, and your own truth.
Sometimes story-truth is truer than happening-truth.
In fact, only 29 percent of people believe that journalists report news stories accurately, according to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press’s annual Press Accuracy Rating. Worse, only 18 percent of the American population believes that the news media treats all sides fairly.
It’s no wonder no one cares about the demise of print media—no one thinks it’s any good (plus why pay when it’s all free online?). Newspaper circulation continues to fall, and in October the New York Times reported that it fell 10 percent nationally from 2008.
And, as Chris Anderson points out in his book Free: The Future of a Radical Price, ad space in a printed paper is more valuable than it is online simply because there’s only so much physical space, whereas online space is limitless. So online advertising isn’t really working out for newspapers, either. And we already know that print advertising will die with print newspapers.
With all these problems, what is the future of the Fourth Estate? Will poor-quality amateur blogger-journalists take over as the public’s primary source of news, potentially causing panic and the fall of democracy with faulty, poorly-reported stories (as many journalists fear)?
Will a few media moguls rise to the top and slowly squeeze the life out of the majority of unbiased, struggling newspapers? Or will newspapers find a business model that actually works?
As a journalist, I sincerely hope that the industry finds a viable, profitable way to survive that allows us to maintain the integrity we think so highly of. That is why I think journalists need to start a dialogue with their readers.
Journalism about journalism is nothing new, but it’s time to explore its potential as a conversational tool and an avenue for revitalization of a dying industry.
Without readers, journalism is pretty much pointless. And with readers quickly losing interest in the media, journalists need to come off their high horse and talk to the people for whom they write.
This should be fairly easy to do—readers can comment on stories at most online newspapers. But journalists, and by extension, editors and publishers, need to take the first step.
While a good start, the news industry will have to take it a step further to find a new business model that works. So, journalists, talk to your readers. Write about what you do, and let the people that are writing your paychecks give you some ideas. I bet they’ve got some good ones.
When you howl at the moon, the moon howls back.
I learned this after I first became sick and my People refused to give me medical care. There were rumors among my kind that the Moon kept our stories, that she listened when we called, and that she answered, but I’d never thought to test them.
My body burned with sickness and without the right medicine I grew sicker and sicker. I didn’t understand how sick I was, and I hid it because those two little ones needed someone to protect them, and I loved them. I thought that if I ignored the fire it would go away.
After a few moons, a Person came to take me away. Leaving my family hurt, and although my rescuer gave me a comfortable place to sleep and the care I needed, I was feeling sorry for myself.
The sickness should have killed me. But, the Moon told me a story the night my rescuer took me away from my old family, the night I let loose my first howl. That story, along with a new family who adopted me soon after, kept me going, kept me as healthy as I could be with my disease, now a permanent, slow-burning fire inside of me.
When my rescuer took me to her house, she took me out into her yard after the sun had long set. It was summer—June, I think—and the warm air smelled like rabbits and flowers. I wandered away from the Person, and when I crested a hill I noticed for the first time in my young life how big and round the Moon was.
The howl started in my toes as an urge to dig them into the soft dirt and feel it squish between my pads. It rose through my body and when it reached my stomach it became guttural, instinctual, a need. From there it moved into my lungs and grew into something with a mind of its own and tore through my throat and out my lips where it rose to meet the Moon in all her shining glory.
It felt wonderful, like that howl had been growing in me my whole life, like it had been holding me back, like letting to go had cured me. But I knew that it hadn’t.
Then, the Moon spoke to me.
“Little Ruby, since you have told me your story, I will tell you a new one.”
I cocked my head sideways and looked up at her. “Moon?” I asked. Her smooth voice surprised me. I knew I’d heard her speak, but the words floated by me like a breeze. Once they passed, they were gone, and nothing moved in to fill the space they’d left, because they hadn’t left any. It was as if they’d never been there.
I stared up at her, but the glowing orb in the sky didn’t change, and she still looked impossibly far away. I gave another short howl and then the midsummer wind plucked her words from the sky and carried them to me.
“Once, there was a Welsh Corgi dog who had no tail. She never had one, and did not know the difference until a child exclaimed, ‘He doesn’t have a tail yet!’ Aside from the indignity of being addressed as a boy, she was not sure what the child meant. Was she supposed to have a tail? She was still young herself, but she’d gotten along without a tail for this long.
“From then on she noticed that all the dogs she passed did have tails, even the new-born puppies. She felt self-conscious about her lack of tail now, and hoped the other dogs wouldn’t notice. But they did notice, perhaps because she made such an effort to hide it. A large bulldog asked her what happened to her tail, but rather than respond she hung her head and walked away.
“The Corgi grew shy and reserved, and kept to herself. She tried all she could think of to make her tail grow. She pulled on the spot where her tail should have been to see if it was stuck inside, but all she did was pull her hair out and give the other dogs cause to laugh at her bald spots. Then she tried attaching some bushy reeds to act as a surrogate tail, but that made the other dogs laugh even more.”
I stood rapt, looking up at the Moon as her sweet voice blew by my ears. Her words came at an even pace, but I knew that the story so far had taken less than a minute to tell. And all the while she told me the story, her visage didn’t change. I could see her face, but I wasn’t looking at anything more than a glowing white ball. But her words continued.
“A few weeks went by without the Corgi leaving her yard, and she grew more and more miserable. Now, if you have never met a Corgi, they are not the kind of dog to sit around and mope, and she finally couldn’t take her self-pity anymore. So one day, she sought out an old, wise sheepdog at the dog park.
“‘Sir?’ she asked. ‘Do you happen to know why I don’t have a tail?’ She looked away from him while she spoke.
“‘You don’t need a tail,’ the sheepdog said.
“‘But all the other dogs have tails. Is there someway I can get one?’ If dogs could blush, the little Corgi’s face would have been bright red.
“The sheepdog laughed. ‘No. You don’t need a silly tail. They get all tangled and give children something to pull on. Your ancestors herded cattle. The People removed your tails so that the cattle wouldn’t step on them and so you wouldn’t get burs caught in them. I don’t know if you’ve ever lain on a bur, but it hurts like a—well, it hurts.’
“His eyes sparkled with mischief, but the Corgi knew he told her the truth. Even so, she had it in her mind that she wanted a tail.
“‘That’s still not fair,’ she said. ‘All the other dogs make fun of me. And I do not herd cows. Or anything else.
“‘Fair doesn’t mean everyone gets the same,’ the sheepdog responded. ‘It means everyone gets what she needs.
“The Corgi wasn’t happy, but the sheepdog’s tone implied that he would not be coaxed into saying anything else on the matter. She thanked him and went back to her People. On their way home, she lost herself so thoroughly thinking about the sheepdog’s advice she didn’t notice another dog walking toward her until she bumped into him.
“‘Hey, shrimp, watch where you’re going!’ he said. His People pulled him back, but he continued looking down at the Corgi with disdain. ‘What happened to your tail?’ he snickered.
“The Corgi’s first reaction was to look away from the dog in shame, but she recalled the sheepdog’s words about her ancestors. ‘I don’t need a tail,’ she scoffed. ‘It would only get in my way.’
“She walked away from the bully with her nose in the air. If she would have looked back, she would have seen shock on his face. Once she was sure she was out of sight and sound, she let a wild grin spread across her muzzle.
“After that, she took pride in not having a tail and in the history of her ancestors. Her attitude surprised the other dogs, and they never bothered her about her tail again.”
The Moon looked the same, of course, but I thought she must be smiling.
“Did you like my story, Ruby?” she asked in her wind-voice.
I howled my thanks, and this time I was sure I heard her laugh.
Before either of us could say anything else, my rescuer ushered me inside for bed. It wasn’t fair that I’d gotten sick, but I certainly had everything I needed right here. I barked once more to let the Moon know I understood before my rescuer closed the door behind me.
When thinking about meta, music probably isn’t the first stop your brain makes. Fall Out Boy is probably even farther off the tracks of your meta-thought train.
I didn’t realize until about my 200th listen that half of the band’s 2007 album Infinity on High is a running commentary on the emo scene and the band’s role in it—probably because I could only understand every other word.
This song is my favorite example of meta-Fall Out Boy because not only is it a fun song, the band clearly pokes fun at the throngs of fans who hang on its every lyric, and that cracks me up.
“Hum Hallelujah” is basically about transient teen romance (as explained in the chorus): “I thought I loved you / It was just how you looked in the light / A teenage vow in a parking lot / ‘Till tonight do us part.’”
The main character of the song is this person who thought he’d fallen in love with this other person, but realizes later that he actually hasn’t. The character is looking back on that particular romance with disdain, and maybe even a little regret. (I never assume that any character in a song is actually meant to be one of the musicians, even though the song may be based off of a real-life experience.)
Around the chorus, though, the author inserts himself into the song and comments on the actions of the characters (and in the process makes fun of his listeners). “You are the dreamer and we are the dream / I could write it better than you ever felt it.”
Even though that line appears before the chorus in which we meet the teen character, he only ever refers to himself as “I,” never “we.” So, the “we” must refer to the actual band and not to the character. The introduction to the first song on the album, which is addressed directly to fans, supports this.
With “I could write it better than you ever felt it,” the band draws attention to the fact that fans (either serious or casual) often use band lyrics in their instant messenger away messages or as their statuses on social networking sites. or just in general to express how they’re feeling. That statement isn’t direct criticism of this practice, but the band is poking fun at those people by saying their words are truer than any emotion fans might experience.
That line also speaks to the character in the chorus, who looks at his teen romance with some disdain like, “What was I thinking?” Fall Out Boy is telling him what he was thinking—they can write it better than he felt it (perhaps better than they felt it when they were teenagers), and they have in previous songs.
The rest of the song dances between the obvious chorus character and more band interjection. It’s often difficult to tell if the author or the character is speaking. It is also difficult to tell to whom the speaker speaks. You could argue that it’s all the author, only speaking to the ex-lover, but that feels wrong.
If all the “I”s in the song are the same speaker, it seems logical that all the “you”s would be the same person as well, and what would the speaker have to gain by telling his ex-lover that he could write her feelings better than she felt them? Especially since the speaker in the chorus is focused on the way he felt, not the way his lover felt.
The middle two stanzas are mostly authorial interjection, but two lines sound more like the character than the band. “I love you in the same way there’s a chapel in a hospital / One foot in your bedroom and one foot out the door.”
The last time I checked, no members of Fall Out Boy were anywhere near my house, let alone halfway into my bedroom. By the logic I’ve set up here, the line immediately following, “Sometimes we take chances, sometimes we take pills” has to be authorial interjection because of its use of “we.”
And while the line between character and author is incredibly blurred, I can, and will, argue that the “we” in that stanza includes the audience as well as the band members. Making your listeners a part of the song necessitates that they exit any sort of musical immersion they may have been feeling and think about themselves in relation to the song—and that’s just another form of meta.
So the real question is, has Fall Out Boy made the pronouns in this song confusing on purpose, or was it an accident? There’s no doubt in my mind that some of the lines intend to make fun of listeners for listening to emo music, I do wonder if the band meant to include the audience and simultaneously alienate them by making fun of them.
“Thriller,” “The Take Over, The Break’s Over,” “This Ain’t a Scene, It’s an Arms Race”
Although not nearly as meta as “Hum Hallelujah,” the first three songs on Infinity on High do involve Fall Out Boy singing about Fall Out Boy. “Thriller” comments on the band’s status as emo music kings, and goes on to imply that while fans might label the band, they aren’t going to label themselves.
“Make us poster boys for your scene / But we are not making an acceptance speech … Crowds are won and lost and won again / But our hearts beat for the diehards.”
Quite simply, they are examining and commenting on their own music with their own music. And, I might add, it’s pretty ballsy to basically tell off half the people who bought your album.
In “The Take Over, The Break’s Over,” the band talks about its fame: “People will dissect us till / This doesn’t mean a thing anymore / Don’t pretend you ever forgot about me.” It’s safe to say that this song criticizes the emo scene rather harshly, but that’s neither here nor there.
Fall Out Boy continues its emo criticism with “This Ain’t a Scene, It’s an Arms Race,” although this song is funnier and more tongue-in-cheek—I’m sure they know who’s paying their bills, and they wouldn’t want to completely alienate their fans. “I am an arms dealer / Fitting you with weapons in the form of words / And I don’t really care which side wins / As long as the room keeps singing / That’s just the business I’m in.”
The band is also making quite a statement by comparing the emo scene to an arms race. I’m not sure if that’s simple narcissism or if they’re trying to comment on the current state of music—or on the current state of arms races.
Regardless of the band’s opinion on arms races, if you enjoy laughing at emo kids, you should consider purchasing this album on Amazon.com or at iTunes, or at least listening to some live versions over at last.fm (I’ll keep my opinion of how Patrick Stump sounds live to myself).
Miguel de Cervantes may not have invented metafiction, but he did take it to the next level when he wrote The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote of La Mancha, one of the first—and still one of the best—modern novels. Cervantes published part one in 1605 and part two in 1615.
I was forunate enough to read this book for the first time in Alcalá de Henares, the town in which Cervantes was born, and where all of his contemporaries studied. I went into my reading expecting to be bored to tears, but having the book put in its proper historic and social context made me realize that the Quixote is about much, much more than a lunatic chasing windmills. Not only is it a story within a story, but a story within a story within a story, and Cervantes uses that story within a story within a story to make one of the most hilarious social commentaries this world will ever see.
Cervantes begins the book with who we eventually learn is Character-Cervantes, the narrator. He writes as if he’s telling the story directly to you, as if it’s a legend. In fact, he’s not even sure what the main character’s real name originally was. Quexana? Quesada? Accounts differ (Chapter I). He sets it up to be a grand tale akin to a Greek epic poem, but in Chapter VIII, when Don Quixote is in the middle of a battle to the death, the story stops.
“But it spoils all, that at this point and crisis the author of the history leaves this battle impending, giving as excuse that he could find nothing more written about these achievements of Don Quixote than what has been already set forth.”
In Chapter IX, Character-Cervantes relates how he discovered the rest of the legend of our brave knight in a marketplace, written in Arabic on some old papers. He tells us the papers were written by the Arab historian Cide Hamete Benengeli, and that a friend translated them into Spanish. So now, it is Benengeli who tells the story, although Character-Cervantes interjects every so often.
In 1614, someone writing under the pseudonym Avellaneda put out a second Don Quixote book that heavily criticized Cervantes and the world he’d created. While Don Quixote is certainly farcical, it is, at its core, an intelligent and hilarious commentary on the Spanish obsession with novellas caballerscas—adventure novels about knights.
The false Quixote is anything but intelligent and hilarious. Of course, it is possible, even probable, that Cervantes would have never finished part two without the Avellaneda book.
After his first (mis)adventure, Don Quixote’s niece and housekeeper lock him up in the house so he can’t wander off again. But one day Sancho comes over and informs his master that Samson Carrasco has just returned from his studies with a book entitled The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote of La Mancha—and most of Spain has read it, and loved it (Chapters II and III).
“…Some swear by the adventure of the windmills that your worship took to be Briareuses and giants; others by that of the fulling mills; one cries up the description of the two armies that afterwards took the appearance of two droves of sheep; another that of the dead body
on its way to be buried at Segovia…” says Samson.
Now, there’s the story of Don Quixote within the second part of Don Quixote, which was already framed inside Benengeli’s history told by Character-Cervantes. To top it all off, in Chapter LIX, Don Quixote and Sancho encounter some characters who are reading the false Quixote. Cervantes takes the opportunity to tear the novel apart. That adds another layer to the structure, making it two stories within a story within a story.
Cervantes didn’t use the stories-within-a-story-within-a-story structure for the hell of it, either. This structure (to say very little about the content itself) accomplishes several goals:
1. It creates at least three layers for Author-Cervantes to work with in commenting on and criticizing knight adventure novels, the people who read them, Spanish society and other authors who criticized Cervantes.
2. It creates a dialogue between what’s fiction and what’s real. Character-Cervantes tells us that Benengeli wrote a true history, but he also tells us that all Arabs are liars. Since Benengeli is Arab, he must be a liar, so how could he write a true story?
Samson then brings up a point about the difference between historians and storytellers: “The poet may describe or sing things, not as they were, but as they ought to have been; but the historian has to write them down, not as they ought to have been, but as they were, without adding anything to the truth or taking anything from it” (Part II, Chapter III).
There’s a poet (Cervantes) writing the book that is supposed to be the history of a knight-errant recorded by a lying Arab historian (Benengeli), which creates even more truth-fiction tension. Cervantes, as the poet, should be the liar, but instead it’s the historian. Who’s a poor reader to trust?!
3. It gives Cervantes a clever—and reasonable within the framework of the book—way to correct some of the errors he made in the first part of the novel that Avellaneda pointed out in the false Quixote and address the criticisms Avellaneda made. Cervantes was not always so great about keeping his details straight, but of course, for each knight adventure story there were ten novels with ten different endings, so it’s possible this was a conscious choice that wound up looking sloppy.
Brilliant, isn’t it?
December 17, 2009 in Administrative, Metafiction, Metanonfiction | Tags: fiction, literary criticism, Margaret Atwood, Metafiction, novels, short stories, Tim O'Brien | by Kelly Lynn Thomas | Comments closed
Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, and sometimes fiction is truer than truth. And sometimes, in order to tell a story the right way, you need to let the story know it’s a story.
Metafiction allows the reader to pull back the curtain on the author and see the nuts and bolts of the story laid bare. And there are times that seeing how the fiction works makes it all the more true, such as in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.
O’Brien inserts himself into the story as a character, and proceeds to continually remind the reader that none of this happened, but all of it is true. He creates tension between Author-O’Brien, who wrote a book as a Vietnam War Vet, and Character-O’Brien, who is trying to write a book about being a Vietnam War Vet.
Seeing Character-O’Brien struggle to tell a coherent story—seeing how the story is put together and taken apart—makes the book all the more powerful. It forces us to see events from several different perspectives, and it forces us to think about the difference between truth, reality and fiction. And then it asks us to decide what is more important: truth or reality?
In Margaret Atwood’s short story “Happy Endings,” she tells several versions of a story about Mary and John. The structure draws attention to the way writers write short stories and the way readers read them. She starts off with scenario A, then moves on to scenario B, then C, etc. We know next to nothing about this couple, only that Atwood can’t seem to find the right ending to fit their story. At the end, she simply states:
“So much for endings. Beginnings are always more fun. True connoisseurs, however, are known to favor the stretch in between, since it’s the hardest to do anything with.
“That’s about all that can be said for plots, which anyway are just one thing after another, a what and a what and a what.
“Now try How and Why.”
This story forces us to look at structure, plot and motivation. Here we have a plot in front of us, but we find it’s actually not very interesting. So we learn—we literally see in front of us—that without the “how” and “why” the story is meaningless. Not only that, but it asks us why we read.
So why do we read?
We read to be entertained, to learn more about the world around us, to relax. But more than that, we read to learn more about ourselves—even if we don’t realize that is what we are doing. And when we read fiction that knows it’s fiction, we not only are forced to think more deeply about the text itself, but about ourselves as readers.