Wednesday, 3 March 2004
Metafiction and Consciousness
In her 1984 study, Metafiction: The Theory And Practice Of Self-Conscious Fiction, Patricia Waugh defines the term as that given to “fictional writing which self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artefact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality.”
Strictly speaking, the device is as old as the novel itself. In Don Quixote (1604), often cited as ‘the first novel,’ Cervantes mediates his tale through a fictional source and translator, and in Volume Two has his hero tilt at conflicting accounts of his life (several having been written by ‘imposters’ following the publication of Volume One) in a tale-within-tale narrative in which other characters are ‘aware’ of Quixote’s literary status. Sterne makes famous early use of a metafictional conceit in The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy (1760), wherein the eponymous hero agonises over the completion of his life story, while making conspicuously little progress with it.
It might be considered that such a basic device as fictional first person narrative could be construed, to some extent, as ‘metafictional’ inasmuch as it draws attention to its own artifice.
The use of metafiction in its various guises (among them ‘surfiction’ – the intrusion of the narrator into the text; ‘fabulation’ – the overt construction of fantastical text; and the ‘self-begetting novel,’ – in which the genesis and development of fictional character is treated as subject matter) has risen to prominence in recent years, in response to evolving attitudes towards the representation of reality in fiction. Where the conventions of nineteenth-century realist fiction relied upon the assumption of common perspectives and fixed notions of the ‘self’, modernist authors of the early twentieth-century sought more authentic ways to render human subjectivity, the instability of the self and the nature and primacy of consciousness. To this end, novels such as Ulysses (1922) and To The Lighthouse (1927) advanced techniques such as interior monologue, stream of consciousness, defamiliarisation and irresolution in order to explore subjective experience more freely.
Metafiction, as it is commonly understood, is often associated with ‘postmodernist’ fiction , and advances this process still further. Those authors who favour metafiction tend to find in the structures and strategies of literature itself the raw material for more authentic representation of experience and consciousness. In the sense that experience in the modern world is mediated through a vast array of external textual stimuli, it can be argued that fictive emblems and structures play a large part in the shaping of consciousness, the construction of identity, the rationalisation of experience and the mapping of belief systems.
In Muriel Spark’s debut novel, The Comforters (1954), her protagonist Caroline Rose is a recent convert to Roman Catholicism, who is writing a book called ‘Form In The Modern Novel’ and “having difficulty with the chapter on realism.” (P.57) Around her, a gaggle of eccentric characters pursue their own, somewhat solipsistic concerns, which might be said to resemble the “cheap mystery piece[s]” (P.103) to be found in genre fiction. These include her fiancé Laurence Manders, an amiable compulsive snooper; Louisa Jepp, a septuagenarian grandmother who heads a bizarre smuggling operation involving the concealment of diamonds in loaves of bread; and Baron Stock, a Charing Cross bookseller who is obsessed with the occult. Also foregrounded is the loathsome Georgina Hogg, housekeeper at St Philumena’s monastery, where Caroline has recently convalesced. Mrs. Hogg is depicted as a pious busybody whose defining obsession is to win converts through moral blackmail.
A reflexive interaction between Caroline and her ‘author’ is established when she begins to hear a ‘Typing Ghost’ – the sound of a typewriter, accompanied by a mysterious voice which seems to be narrating her existence:
She lay on her divan staring out at the night sky beyond her balcony, too tired to draw the curtains. She was warmed by the knowledge that Laurence was near to hand, wanting to speak to her. She could rely on him to take her side, should there be any difficulty with Helena over her rapid departure from St, Philumena’s. On the whole she did not think there would be any problem with Helena. Just then she heard the sound of a typewriter. It seemed to come through the wall on her left. It stopped, and was immediately followed by a voice remarking her own thoughts. It said: On the whole she did not think there would be any difficulty with Helena. (P.42-3)
Caroline’s first impulse, once she has deduced her fictional status, is to assert her autonomy. “I won’t be involved in this fictional plot if I can help it,” she declares. “In fact, I’d like to spoil it…I intend to stand aside and see if the novel has any real form apart from this artificial plot. I happen to be a Christian.” (P.105)
The statement reflects the duality of the metafiction: it allows Spark to try the potential of the novel as a model of experience within a Christian perception of the universe, by trying the gravitational pull of characters such as Caroline in reflexive interaction with their narrator. When Caroline is sidelined from the plot as a consequence of being hospitalised by a car crash, her narrator is moved to admit she is “not easy to dispense with” and “exerts an undue, unreckoned, influence on the narrative from which she is supposed to be absent for a time.” (P.137)
By contrast, Mrs Hogg – whose faith is expressed through the manipulation of others – fails to truly recognise her creator and is therefore unrealised as a fictional entity. She is shown, by comparison, to be weightless, as Spark demonstrates by having her briefly, literally, disappear when held in abeyance by the plot.
Thus, Caroline’s search for true faith is portrayed as an inherently solitary endeavour, involving a private discourse with her creator in a world beset with false consciousness – exemplified by Mrs Hogg’s piety and the ‘cheap mystery pieces’ which the other characters’ lives appear to resemble.
By necessity, Spark’s plot proves providential. Mrs. Hogg drowns after falling in a river, forcing Caroline to save herself from being dragged under, after which she is unable to locate Mrs Hogg in the water. The other characters are apportioned fates in keeping with their plotlines (in fact, all are swiftly wound up in a parody of the conventional nineteenth century novel). Louisa Jepp and Mr. Webster, the baker, are married in the manner of romantic fiction, as opposed to being brought to justice for their crimes (perhaps judgement forthem will come later?) Meanwhile, Caroline’s initial unease at her fictive nature ultimately gives way to reconciliation to her role within the design of her creator. Caroline’s relationship with her author thus mirrors her author’s relationship with God. In accepting her role, she proceeds to ‘write’ what we have just read, and so the novel is shown ultimately to beget itself.
In the first part of his critical biography of Vladimir Nabokov (Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years), Brian Boyd argues the primacy of ‘consciousness’ as a defining model within the author’s work. In doing so, he offers the following illuminating observation: “Already as a schoolboy Nabokov had reinterpreted the Hegelian dialectic of history as an opening out of the closed circle into a spiral on which the first arc, the thesis, leads into the ampler arc of the antithesis, and that in turn into the synthesis, thesis of a new series.” (P.294) For Nabokov – as recourse to his novels suggests – the nature of reality is unappraisable without recognising the spiralling weave of interacting consciousnesses of which the world is comprised – including those of a seemingly ‘fictive’ or ‘otherworldly’ origin – so that, as Boyd argues, “to map human consciousness, consciousness in the round, Nabokov feels compelled not only to describe Being from within its three dimensions, but to collapse the world into one or two dimensions or expand it to four or five.” (P.295) Nabokov’s first English novel, The Real Life Of Sebastian Knight (1941) is a mesmerising fabulatory conceit which can be considered in this light.
The subject of the novel is biography. A narrator known to us only as ‘V.,’ attempts to construct a history of his deceased half-brother, Sebastian Knight, a novelist whom he barely knew, and to ascertain the role and identity of his final mistress. In doing so, however, V. appears to be sucked into Sebastian’s world, and gradually take on his identity.
In this way, biography is explored as a kind of reworking of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle – that to observe something is to impact upon its nature – or (as Simon Karlinsky configures it) in accordance with one of Nabokov’s consistent premises: “the hero uses his imagination to devise a reality of his own, which he seeks to impose on a central reality” (Dembo, P.3-4)
At the outset, V. tells us: “What you are told is threefold; shaped by the teller, reshaped by the listener, concealed from both by the dead man of the tale.” (P.44) At the end, he exclaims: “I am Sebastian, or Sebastian is I, or perhaps we both are someone whom neither of us knows.” (P.173) Between these two statements are to be found a literary funhouse ride – bedecked with mirrors, doubles, coincidences, blind alleys, literary allusions, chess imagery and characteristic Nabokovian textual patterning – through which the reader is released through a series of perceptual trapdoors regarding the relationship between – and identity of – V. and Sebastian (as catalogued by Boyd: “V. as mad, V. as Sebastian, V. transmuted into Sebastian via Sebastian’s shade, Sebastian inventing V., Sebastian himself totally invented.” (Boyd, P.500))
The reader is thus, at the close of the novel, delivered to the one solid perception he set out with: that The Real Life Of Sebastian Knight is a novel by Vladimir Nabokov. Armed with a smattering of biographical knowledge of the author, however, he may now be reminded of a further dimension to the spiral of consciousness he has just encountered: that V. and Sebastian are the products of their author having brought to bear his imagination upon the facts of his own life (just as are all characters in all books, ‘fictional’ or otherwise). In this way, we may choose to consider V. ‘a small part of Vladimir Nabokov’ and perceive the merest hint of an underlying ‘God’ analogue.
It is, of course, metafiction which facilitates Nabokov’s strategies, navigating the tale: Sebastian’s own works of fiction can be seen as the portals through which V. is dragged into Sebastian’s world. Addressing the subject of Sebastian’s own novels, Charles Nicol finds embedded in the first, ‘The Prismatic Bezel,’ a schemata for Nabokov’s novel as a whole. As V. notes,
The Prismatic Bezel can be thoroughly enjoyed once it is understood that the heroes of the book are what can loosely be called “methods of composition.” It is as if a painter said: Look, here I’m going to show you not the painting of a landscape, but the painting of different ways of painting a certain landscape, and I trust their harmonious fusion will disclose the landscape as I intend you to see it. (P.79)
Nicol proceeds to argue that the synopses of Sebastian’s successive works (The Prismatic Bezel, Success, The Funny Mountain, Lost Property, The Doubtful Asphodel) highlight different approaches to the practice of biographical appraisal (structure, fate, literary evidence, autobiography, identity), and that by pursuing these increasingly autobiographical readings, V. becomes subsumed into Sebastian’s world (Nicol compares this process to an argument advanced by Jorge Luis Borges in his essay A New Refutation Of Time: “Do not the fervent readers who surrender themselves to Shakespeare become, literally, Shakespeare?”).
An accommodating interpretation of The Real Life Of Sebastian Knight is that it presents the unfolding of such a synthesis. The text appears to support contradictory readings because we are relentlessly tantalised by intrusions into V’s consciousness which we are unable to explain, and yet at the same time purposefully given insufficient evidence to deduce how they occur – how it is, for example, that V. appears to encounter characters from Sebastian’s fiction (Alexandov argues that Mr. Siller, for example, who seems so closely to resemble the character Mr. Silberman from Sebastian’s story, ‘The Back Of The Moon,’ is an agent guided by Sebastian’s otherworldly hand, which might seem un-Nabokovian, were he not able to supply a wealth of textual evidence to support a such ghostly reading; equally, it could be argued to be coincidence, or mania, or invention on V.’s part, or the function of an alternative perspective on the author-character configuration).
Whichever the reading, it would appear to be impossible for our narrator, V., to gain sufficient perspective to enable him to inform us of the objective truth; and whoever is the creator of V. – whether we consider that to be, directly, Nabokov, or, by attribution, ‘Sebastian’ – clearly prefers that information to remain elusive, presumably in order to more authentically analogue reality as it is mediated to us.
Thus, The Real Life Of Sebastian Knight can be considered as a model of the construction of identity in human consciousness – reflecting both the rational and unexplainable forces which influence that construction – presented in the form of a fictional biography. As much as it is a satire on the futility of biography, it is a perfect demonstration of the form.
Underscoring the sense of a grand design in Nabokov’s universe is a mesh of coincidence and textual patterning, which has been perceived as a kind of ‘watermark’ – evidence of the role of a higher consciousness or posturonnost (‘other side’) – to be discerned running through fate and reality. From the numerous references to the colour violet and the number 36, to the naming of characters after chess pieces, Nabokov deftly exploits the sense of cosmic synchronicity which can chime so readily within human consciousness, in order to reinforce his model of reality: his archly conceived fabulation appeals to the reader’s own consciousness for recognition of a metaphysical dimension.
Self-conscious narrative has been a central concern of Martin Amis’s fiction since the publication of his first novel, The Rachel Papers (1973). The novel offers a metafictional spin on the coming of age drama, concerning Charles Highway, a budding literary critic whose attempts to seduce the eponymous ‘older woman’ of the novel’s title and gain entry to Oxford are the subject of a slew of notes, diaries, and memoranda which Charles has amassed. Over the course of the last five hours of his nineteenth year, Charles attempts to construct a model of his adult self, by revisiting his recent past (or more precisely, his own literary rendering of it). The novel’s twelve chapters – beginning with ‘Seven o’clock: Oxford’ and ending with ‘Midnight: coming of age’ – are rooted in a contemplative present, while entailing complex flashbacks reaching back in time from a few days to several years.
Thus, like Caroline in The Comforters, Charles wrestles with a textual representation of his own life (in this case, written in his own hand). Amis reinforces this self-reflexivity by presenting Charles as very much aware of the artifice of the exercise (“I will not be placed at the mercy of my spontaneous self…” (P.176)) and exploits this self-awareness to mount a dazzling first person cadenza, brim full of arresting encapsulations, outrageous conceits and ironically purloined literary allusions. Amis’s model of the self – as represented by Charles’s vigorously aspirant youth – is thereby presented as the result of enforced, knowing, self-deconstruction.
Amis’s expressed view that modern life is now so mediated that “authentic experience is much harder to find” [than in the pre-media age] (Tredell, P.16) is a theme which is shot through his work. For Amis, the unseen process at play in the world is the appropriation of consciousness by external media – both textual and visual – rendering experience necessarily self-conscious, identity necessarily inter-reflexive. Consciousness is frequently characterised as being under near occupation by these forces – a cacophony rendering its most unfortunate victims near-automatons in its grasp. Amis’s metaliterary tussle with this notion reaches its apogee in the 1984 novel, Money.
Money is a coruscating satire on the Western mind, a kind of literary toy theatre in which artifice is exposed at every turn. Protagonist John Self – a maker of gaudy film commercials – shuttles in perpetual limbo between New York and London, lovers Martina Twain and Selina Street, the conflicting demands of four leading actors and the competing claims of alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, pornography and junk food (all of which he consumes with relentless, self-gratifying gluttony, and which clearly ravage his interior life) – while in the pre-production stages of making a feature film which bears similarities to his own life.
For Self, all human experience is a floating currency tied to the dollar, a promise to repay the bearer in return for purchasing it. “Without money,” he reflects. “you’re one day old and one inch tall” (P.383); recounting a sexual encounter with femme fatale girlfriend Selina Street he marvels at “the thrilling proof, so rich in pornography, that she does all this not for passion, not for comfort, far less for love…she does all this for money” (P.37); and in one of the novel’s most savage comic moments, he receives a bill for his upbringing from his father.
Though sensing his disempowerment (“I sometimes think I am controlled by someone. Some space invader is invading my inner space, some fucking joker. But he’s not from out there. He’s from in here…” (P.330)) he is helpless to liberate himself. Ultimately, he is upended by the oil spill in his Deus Ex Machina – money – when falling victim to a con perpetrated by film producer Fielding Goodney.
Self’s first person narrative takes Amis’s renowned verbal dexterity to a new levels – to the extent that it can almost be considered a character in its own right. Essentially ‘skaz’ in style (referring to the Russian vernacular tradition), it is ‘double-voiced’ in the sense that it serves to draw attention to the interrelationship between the attitudes of author and character.
Self’s vernacular is, moreover, purposefully kept at a remove from echt ‘street-level’ authenticity and is implausibly inexhaustible in both its dexterity and range of vocabulary. (“I once got bopped by a mad guy and it was like no blow I have ever felt – qualitatively different, full of an atrocious, a limitless rectitude. Their internal motors are all souped up.” (P.38))
By unshackling himself from any commitment to vernacular realism (which might normally be expected in a novel dealing with such environment-specific subject matter) Amis affords himself the freedom to introduce a freewheeling poetics to his portrait of the ‘postmodern condition’, while at the same time highlighting the role of language and interior monologue in the construction of identity.
I listened on my seat there. Owing to this fresh disease I have called tinnitus, my ears have started hearing things recently, things that aren’t strictly auditory. Jet take-offs, breaking glass, ice scratched from the tray…(P.1) The people ahead of me are all Venusians, pterodactyls, men and women from an alternative timestream. They all have to be vivisected and bodybagged by the unsmiling 300-pounder in his lit glass box… (P.2) These people aren’t just mixed-up berks and babbling bagladies, bug-eyed barristers and smart-bombed bureaucrats. Before (and I wish I knew more about that time – before. I don’t suppose I’ll ever find out much about it now), before, these tribes of spacefaced conquered would brood about God, Hell, the Father of Lies, the fate of the spirit, with the soul imagined as an inner being, all V-signs, bad rugs and handjobs. But now the invader is a graph shadow swathed in spools and printouts, and he wears an alien face. (P.330)
With an overt ‘doubling’ of characters (hinted at in the nomenclature of Self’s more culturally enlightened New York squeeze Martina Twain – ‘twain’ literally means ‘two’) Amis encourages his reader to consider them as aspects of the same occupying consciousness; it is with Twain’s counterpart, and the introduction of a character called ‘Martin Amis,’ that the novel introduces its most notorious metafictional device.
By deploying this surfictional tactic (Self turns for help to ‘Martin Amis,’ – a London-based writer who has been lurking in Self’s penumbra rather in the manner of one of Nabokov’s anagramised alter egos – when unable to satisfy the conflicting script demands of his cast) the real Amis draws attention to an aspect of the fictional universe in which we are immersed: underlying it are to be found the very same forces which are being satirised within it. The real Martin Amis’s skill and imagination are also in hoc to a ‘supply and demand’ interrelationship with reader, publisher and manuscript, each of which, in turn, have interrelated, economically-impacted needs. The author is thus complicit in the construction of Self’s own self; the ravages of Self’s world were forged in the real Martin Amis’s own.
Through a series of arch jokes and conceits (“Bet that made it easier,” says Self, upon learning that his script doctor’s father was also a writer. “Oh, sure. It’s just like taking over the family pub”) ‘Martin Amis’ is established as a loosely-sketched parody of Amis’s public persona (and agrees to forego his preferences for modernistic irresolution when working on Self’s script, in return for the agreed price.) Far from establishing a moral interface à la Muriel Spark, then, the reflexive interaction between author and character is here presented merely as one of precedence, as illustrated when the two play a game of chess (thereby settling for good the question of Self’s autonomy.) Though Self proves to be a (surprisingly) strong player, he is undone by the mere fact of his existential subordination – a subordination which, it may be argued, mirrors our own in the face of the forces squatting our consciousness.
As Self recounts the endgame:
‘Come on, there’s nothing doing.’ I gestured airily at the board. And saw that he was right. My only moves were king moves, and they were suicide. He could capture, and keep his own pawn in range.
‘What the fuck does that mean?’
my turn now, you’d win. But it’s yours. And you lose.’ (P.378-9)
In the aftermath of the chess game, Self – beaten and now bankrupted by Fielding Goodney – attempts suicide (the novel is subtitled ‘A Suicide Note’) but appears to be thwarted by his creator, despite the extreme toxic measures taken to effect his own demise. An epilogue, in which he ruefully recounts the aftermath of his fall and the enforced modesty of his new position, is presented in italicised typeface. Thus, Amis’s corrective, cod-corny, more ‘satisfying’ resolution to the tale – carrying as it does the strong inference of it’s own artifice – offers a sheepish note of redemption.
And then I felt a light and sudden plop on the loose covers of my groin. I looked down: among the soiled prisms of the lining, a tenpenny piece nestled in my cap. I looked up: a compact lady moved beyond me with a brief and lively smile. Well, you’ve got to laugh. You’ve got to. There isn’t any choice. I’m not proud. Don’t hold back on my account. Now here’s Georgina at last, moving clear of the crowd; her smile is touching and ridiculous – delighted yet austere, and powerfully confident – as she ticks towards me on her heels. (P.394)
In certain nondualist traditions consciousness is less a construct than an illusion. We are the aggregate of so many component parts that the experience of self-knowledge is akin to a crude snapshot within whose frame we imprison our identity. From such illusions as spring the ‘anxiety of individuation,’ whereby we falsely perceive ourselves to be cut off from the rest of the universe, in permanent hoc to mortality, whereas in fact we are part of a whole, and existence more continuous than we commonly perceive. The short stories of the Japanese writer, Kikuo Itaya collected in Tengu Child (Transl. 1983) reflect these beliefs.
There is an introduction to the volume by the academic John Gardner in which he compares the familiar modes of Western literature with those of ‘Eastern meditational fiction.’ Noting how Western symbolism familiarly suggests relationships between the particular and the general, the temporal and the eternal – connecting, for instance, the story of the moment with some abiding, culturally-loaded myth (as in the Homeric structuring of Ulysses); or characters, settings and events with abstract ideas and institutions (as when Edmund Spenser’s Red-Cross knight comes to represent the idea of holiness); or, indeed, the plight of characters with universally felt hopes, needs, and fears (such as when one woman’s fear of mice and mouse holes is connected with universal anxieties about sex and death)…he argues that in the Eastern meditational model, such connections – though inevitably sometimes to be discerned – are subordinated by a quite different symbolic formula. “Whereas Western symbolism tells us X is like Y, Eastern symbolism tells us, in effect, X is this end of Y.”
Another aspect of meditational fiction to be examined by Gardner is the role of suspense. Whereas in the traditional Western model, suspense focuses the reader’s mind on the moral choices of the various characters (and encourages us to read on), in meditational fiction, suspense, once established, is frequently turned on its head. A central conflict is suddenly revealed to be a harmony. The value judgements we pursue regarding “good” and “bad” characters are shown ultimately to be aspects of a false dilemma.
In Itaya’s story, The Pilgrimage Of The Curse, we are led to sympathise with one of two witnesses to the casting of a curse, who, having chanced upon it, believes himself, with tradition, to have fallen under it. We are then led by the narrative to sympathize no less strongly with the woman driven by her husband’s infidelity to perform the ritual in the first place. In turn we discover that the faithless husband against whom the curse was invoked was the second witness, who has fled. However, we hear no more about the curse. The story ends with the first witness returning from the East to find Kyoto cramped and busy, his house surprisingly small; and in it, in a patch of sunlight, water trickling in a thin trembling stream from a rock basin, and at precisely the point where the water and light meet, “a small branch of hydrangea, swaying to and fro almost imperceptibly.” (P.27)
As Gardner is quick to point out, to the Western reader such an elusively symbolic ending is likely to be perceived as “arch, intellectual, self-conscious, ultimately mean-spirited.” (P.XVIII) He goes on to argue, however, that this conclusion is elusive in the way that the world is – or indeed in the way that ‘enlightenment’ is. Successive readings of the tale reveal the reader’s initial entrapment in a false consciousness, his identification with the characters’ own anxiety of individuation, and the similarity between plot suspense and the misdirecting surfaces of reality. He may, Gardner suggests, come to reflect that a blessing is as misdirecting as a curse.
While ‘The Pilgrimage Of The Curse’ demonstrates the role of suspense in meditational fiction, ‘The Robber And The Flute’ illustrates the false perception of individuation. The story concerns a master thief, Hyozo, whose rule is never to steal from the same house twice. The source of his mastery is that, with his ear to the wall, Hyozo can determine the location of every occupant of a house by listening to their breath. Driven by his code into poorer and more remote regions, he one night hears the arresting sound of a flute, which has a profoundly disconcerting effect on him, and after several nights he decides to steal the flute in order to silence it. After the owner has left his house, Hyozo enters it, but finds no sign of the flute, so elects to follow the owner and attack him. Beside the river, he again hears the flute, as if it is playing a duet with the river itself. Disoriented, he falls into the water, and is helped out by the flute player – who thanks him for having taught him a new musical sound. The flute player invites Hyozo to become his student, and the former thief proves an excellent player. When he goes on to play for the Emperor himself, no one is more proud than his teacher, for, as the last line reveals, “he was none other than Toyohara Tokinaga, the best-known flute-player of the period.” (P.8)
Those difficult endings… Gardner’s argument, in this respect, is that though we may imagine a central difference between the two characters to be that Hyozo is an egoist and the flute player a selfless lover of beauty, the comic irony of the last line corrects that impression. Certainly, the story ultimately shows that the characters are not the opposites we first imagined them to be. Each tunes in to the “vibration” or “breath” of the universe, becomes one with it and uses it to his own ends (Hyozo to the breathing of the householders, the flute player to the sound of the river). The difference is that Hyozo, who gives nothing back, is forced to travel further and further away from himself into unrewarding territories. The flute player, on the other hand, gives something back to the universe and is more enlightened. Through repeated readings, we may appreciate more and more the many false perceptions of our initial reading, and better perceive the true nature of things.
Here, there would seem to be a starting point for an approach to the construction of story.