Do You Like the Story So Far?: Metafiction in Barthelme’s Snow White

snowwhite1When Donald Barthelme took popular characters (Batman and the Joker) and placed them in unusual, postmodern situations in his short story “The Joker’s Greatest Triumph” (1967), he was doing something new: taking an old, familiar story and turning it inside out. He did something as daring when he reinvented the story of Snow White in his 1967 novel of the same name.

The importance of these literary experiments can be seen in the influence they have had on generations of writers. Now reinventions of popular stories (such as the inversion of the superhero comic in Alan Moore’s Watchmen) and retellings of fairy tales (like Gregory Maguire’s Wicked) are as common as a cold, but when my paperback edition of Snow White was reprinted in 1971, the experiment was unusual enough to warrant this statement on the back: “Donald Barthelme’s Snow White is not the fairy tale you remember. But it’s the one you will never forget.”

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Hisstory Repleats Herself: James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake

One of the most metafictional books: a story about a story that is repeated endlessly, the one story that is all stories at once, the cyclical story of the rise and fall of humanity.

Joyce essentially invented his own mishmash of languages, making the book notoriously difficult to read, but if you drink several glasses of Irish whiskey, smoke a few bowls and squint a lot the book becomes more readable . . . even funny! You should think of the novel as a great collection of puns.

Here is the first line: “riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.” Joyce packs in meaning by using puns and allusions (which are themselves a kind of pun). On a cursory count I find at least fourteen. “Past,” for example, is the preposition as in “the river flows past the church.” It also refers to the past, a central theme of the work. It can also be a homonym for the past tense of the verb “to pass”: passed. A Reader’s Guide to Finnegan’s Wake by William York Tindall explains some of the allusions: “‘Riverrun,’ the first word is the central word of the book; for Anna Livia’s Liffey, the feminine creative principle, is the river of time and life. The Liffey flows past the church of Adam and Eve (reversed here to imply temptation, fall, and renewal) and into Dublin Bay, where . . . it circulates up to Howth, the northern extremity of the bay. ‘Eve and Adam’s’ unites Dublin with Eden and one time with another” (Tindall 30).

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Watchmen: A Metacomic

watchmen-coverWatchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons is a metacomic, a comic about comics, in several ways. First of all, the book challenges our understanding of comics because it includes sections of straight text between every colorful chapter: excerpts from an autobiography, a police file, an article from an Ornithological journal, an editorial from a right-wing magazine, pages from a scrapbook, business correspondence, and so on. Watchmen is, in fact, a postmodern compendium of texts, yet it is still principally a comic (or a graphic novel if you prefer).

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Message or Madness?: Thomas Pychon’s “The Crying of Lot 49”

Does Pynchon’s novel mean something or am I crazy?

230px-Lot-49-coverThe heroine, Oedipa Maas, has a similar question. A former lover, Pierce Inverarity named her the executor of his considerable estate. Rather than bequeathing her money or property, he has saddled her with a long, legal process that she does not understand. As she is not a lawyer and has had little contact with Inverarity for many years, the naming of her Executor is puzzling. Was Inverarity trying to tell her something, or was it just one of his bizarre whims? Was he playing a practical joke on her, or was he hinting at a secret society?

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A Walking Assembly of Man: Many Voices Crying Lot 49

230px-Lot-49-coverIn the metafictional novel The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon, Oedipa Maas escapes from a shootout and hostage situation. Among the crowds, journalists, police and searchlights, she spots the mobile unit of her husband’s radio station, KCUF. Wendell “Mucho” Maas, whom she hasn’t seen for some time, is reporting on the event. She walks up to the van, sticks her head through the window, and says, “Hi.” He presses the cough button and smiles, which she thinks is strange since the listeners can’t hear a smile. Her reaction shows that she expects him to consider his audience before her, which he does.

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A Nightmare Reading of Harold and the Purple Crayon

Harold scribbles across the cover, flyleaves and title page with his purple crayon, but then pauses in thought, looking at his squiggles, realizing, perhaps, that they are meaningless. The next page is also a jumble, but the line flattens out, trailing behind Harold, who has begun to walk from left to right. Harold pauses, staring into the blankness of the upper right hand corner. The first text of the story appears under his feet: “One evening, after thinking it over for some time, Harold decided to go for a walk in the moonlight.” The decision to go for a walk, rather than rambling, is what makes the crooked line straight. The first change in Harold’s artistic development is purpose.


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The Mirror in the Text: The Mirror in the Text

Andre Gide adopts the heraldic term mise en abyme, or a shield shown in the center of a shield, to describe a work within a work, like The Mousetrap in Hamlet, but Gide ultimately rejects such examples because The Mousetrap does not represent Hamlet as a whole, but only the actions of the characters within the play (as I discuss in Into the Abyss: The Mise en Abyme, the Art Work Within the Art Work). In turn Lucien Dällenbach challenges Gide’s metaphor of a shield within a shield, the heraldic device mise en abyme because the smaller shield does not represent the larger shield, but presents a new device. Dällenbach prefers the metaphor of a mirror, a metaphor Gide also use: “although Gide initially rejects the image of the mirror in favor of the one from heraldry, he later reverses this decision and enjoins us, if not purely and simply to substitute the idea of mirror reflection for that of the mise en abyme, at least to see the two terms as equivalent” (Dällenbach 34).

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Into the Abyss: The Mise en Abyme, the Art Work Within the Art Work

Mise en abymeA book within a book, a play inside a play, a picture in a picture, these are examples of mise en abyme, a literary term the French writer André Gide borrowed from heraldry. Pronounced “meez en a-beem,” it literally means “placed in the abyss,” or, more simply, “placed in the middle,” and it was used to describe a shield in the middle of a shield, as in this coat of arms of the United Kingdom from 1816-1837. (Image from Wikipedia.)

Lost WormholeYou’ll notice that the shield inside the shield has another shield inside of it. You can imagine yet another inside that one and so on and so on, forever and ever, so I like to think of “mise en abyme” as “into the abyss.” The eye travels down the rabbit hole to infinity, as in this photo of a “Lost Wormhole” from Illuminaughty Boutique’s post “38 Mise en Abyme GIFs that Will Make Your Brain Bleed… OR WORSE.

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A Book Within a Book in The Counterfeiters: The Mise en Abyme

CounterfeitersMakers of false coins are not the counterfeiters that most concern André Gide in his novel The Counterfeiters (Les Faux-Monnayeurs). The counterfeiters that matter most are the writers: the character Édouard, the narrator who speaks for Gide, and even Gide himself. The fictional Édouard writes at length in his journal about a book he is planning to write, a book called The Counterfeiters, which shares not only the same title as Gide’s novel, but also its subject and themes. Nevertheless, The Counterfeiters is not a book within a book as many critics claim because the reader is never allowed to read Édouard’s novel, only his notes.
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