Why Metafiction Matters

Metafiction is an attempt through stories to understand what stories are. Why do stories matter?

Because we are stories.

(Book-shaped urns at the Chapel of the Chimes, designed by Julia Morgan, with Gary Boren)

Whenever you — or anyone else — says you are woman or heterosexual or suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or lucky or afraid of needles or good with children, you are choosing words that tell a story about yourself and the stories you tell about yourself strongly affect, if not determine, the lives you’ll lead.

The moment the ultrasound detects your sexual organs, even before you are squeezed into the world, the theater begins. When the doctor says, “It’s a boy,” colors are picked for your room, costumes are bought, props are chosen. Bedroom, toys and clothes decide, for most of us, what roles we will rehearse as a child: football hero or princess, adventurer or bride, superman or supermom. Even those brave kids who realize they have been cast in the wrong role are shaped by the story of their gender, a story they must constantly rewrite.

Words are magic. They create reality. What is usually considered the defining act of sex? Penetration. And who penetrates? The man. This makes sex into something men do actively and women receive passively, thereby creating a social order that echoes the sexual act. But what if the word were not “penetration,” but “engulfment”? Imagine then how our views of gender would change, how society itself would change.

Call yourself gay, you may ignore some attraction to the opposite sex. You say you are obsessive compulsive, then you are more likely to be obsessive than the obsessive people who don’t know they are obsessive, but the label may give you the freedom to change. Unlucky? You won’t have any more bad events in your life on average, but you will notice them more and have a pessimistic outlook. If you say you hate to cut your fingernails, you will continue to hate it for the rest of your life. If you claim you are bad with children, you are writing the interaction you will have with the young folk around you.

Most of our stories we pick up not at the beginning, but in the middle. We enter the epic in media res, in the thick of the action. If you are white that generally means you will have better education, better job opportunities, and better housing. Say you are Puerto Rican and you will belong to a country that, for the most part, doesn’t know that you are a part of their country, a country which has written you out of their story. If we do not understand the stories we have entered, we cannot understand who we are in relation to those stories. Thus, we are characters playing out roles assigned to us, but if we know our stories, then we can alter them, we can become the authors of ourselves.

When a tale tries to catch its own tail in its mouth, it makes something bigger than itself, something eternal, like the ouroboros, the snake that eats its own tail, or, as Carl Jung describes it, “the dragon that devours, fertilizes, begets, and slays itself and brings itself to life again” (Jung 357).

Metafiction devours itself because it takes itself apart, reduces itself to the conventions of fiction. Metafiction fertilizes itself because it reintroduces these dissected pieces of itself back into itself. Metafiction begets itself because it creates something new, a story about stories. Metafiction slays itself because it breaks the realism, the naturalism, the illusion of the story. Metafiction brings itself to life again because it shows the magic of the story transcends its own destruction.

Don Quixote, for instance, devours itself by examining the effect fiction has on the human mind and by analyzing the conventions of romantic tales of a knight errant. It fertilizes itself because it puts these pieces of fiction and romance back into itself. It begets itself because it creates something totally new: the first realistic novel and the first truly metafictional work. It slays itself because it reveals that it is just a story, as when Don Quixote and Sancho learn about the first part of the book and discuss it with a reader. Yet Don Quixote brings itself to life again, because the characters of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, even though we are reminded again and again that they are fiction, leap from the page fully alive, passionate, complex and familiar.

We can do the same for ourselves. We can devour ourselves by examining the labels and stories that make us who we are. We can fertilize ourselves by funneling these pieces back into ourselves in new arrangements. We can beget ourselves by creating new selves. We can slay ourselves by saying we are not the story about ourselves and we can bring ourselves to life again by saying, “I am a story that knows it is a story and therefore I am more than a story.” Understanding stories means understanding ourselves.

Meta happens whenever we look at ourselves in a mirror, or in our art, or in our music, or in our writing, and ask, “Who the hell am I? What am I? How am I what I am?”

Even, “Am I?”

How have humans solved the problem of existence? Through meta. Buddhism says, “Non-existence is the ultimate existence.” In other words, if you can step outside your labels and your roles and your stories, then you can truly be.

In the west, we solved the problem of existence with, “I think; therefore, I am.” Descartes’ meta-statement has often been criticized for founding human existence on logical thought processes, but this dismissal overlooks the genius of Des Cartes’ realization. He recognized that wondering whether or not he existed proved his existence. If something was wondering about its being, then something must exist in order to wonder about itself.

The good news: I am! The “I” may be just a fraction of my whole being and history, a fictional speaker I invent in order to discuss myself. The “am” may contain certain assumptions about being and existence in relation to the invented speaker and the universe that contains it. The story “I am” may be a piece of fiction, an artificial creation about a person and his existence, but when I take the fiction apart and recognize it is just a tale, I also realize that I exist outside of that story. And in spite of that story. And because of that story.

In more biblical terms, meta allows us to say, “I am that I am,” thereby creating ourselves and our world through language. Or as Carl Sagan puts it, “We are a way for the universe to know itself.” Meta makes us God.

Before you get too excited, however, even a rat knows that it is thinking, even a rat is capable of meta-cognition.

(Read more about these theories in my book Narrative Madness, available at narrativemadness.com or on Amazon.)

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