Recently I read Watchmen by Alan Moore (after watching and loving the HBO series) and Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu (out 1/28 from Pantheon). I loved and adored both of these books, and they’re both exceptional works of metafiction. I’m always interested in a good piece of metafiction. Slightly different from other books about books, metafiction includes character asides, an author as a character, or other form-bending that requires readers to question what is real and what is story. In doing so, metafiction allows us to reflect on why we tell stories and if stories can get at a higher “Truth” than fact can. I loved Watchmen and Interior Chinatown so much that they should probably appear on this favorites list, but I also wanted to share five older works of metafiction that initially ignited my love for this genre.
The Princess Bride by William Goldman. Watching this movie as a kid was probably the first time I encountered a work of metafiction. That’s definitely not what made me originally fall in love with this movie, but I do think my obsession with the film probably inspired some proclivity for stories within stories. What a lot of fans of the movie version may not know, is that the book is built with much the same structure and includes the same asides and interruptions seen in the Fred Savage and Peter Falk scenes. The Princess Bride book is written as an annotated and abridged version of a fictional work of the same name by fictional author S. Morgenstern. Goldman takes on the role of “editor” and throughout the book he explains why he edited or removed various textual elements from the “original text.” It’s a fascinating project and just as much fun as the movie.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard. This play is probably one of the only books from my high school English curriculum that I actually read. Stoppard is a brilliant playwright whose witty and sharp dialogue belies the darker themes that permeate his work. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead follows two minor characters from Hamlet as they debate life and death, and try to figure out just where (and when) they are. R & G also spend much of their play watching and commenting on the events of Hamlet as it plays out. The scene where Hamlet orders a play to be performed at court is a mindbender as readers of R & G are treated to a play within a play within a play.
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. A friend loaned me this collection of short stories in college and at first I was very resistant to reading it. I’ve never been a fan of war stories and I just couldn’t imagine myself enjoying this one. I’m so glad I got over that initial impression because The Things They Carried remains one of the most beautiful books about truth and storytelling that I have ever read. This collection follows a platoon of young men serving in the Vietnam War. O’Brien himself served in Vietnam and he appears as a character in the book both during the war and after when he is pursuing a career as a writer. This device and stories like “How to Tell a True War Story” force readers to confront the discrepancy between our image of war and its realities. O’Brien also suggests that, “story truth is truer, sometimes, than happening truth,” an idea that will ring true for any avid reader.
The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood. This is a book I need to reread soon because while the details are a little fuzzy, I can still tap into the awe I felt when I first discovered it. The protagonist is Iris Chase, whose sister Laura was the author of a scandalous science fiction romance novel that’s gained a cult following since Laura’s mysterious death. Structurally, The Blind Assassin alternates between Iris revealing the glamor and horror of her and Laura’s childhood and excerpts from Laura’s novel, also called "The Blind Assassin." This work is drastically different from Atwood’s most famous novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, but it contains the same nuance, depth of relationship, and critical focus that her readers love. And just wait for the twist...
Atonement by Ian McEwan. I read this book after watching the movie. While that’s not the ideal order of events, I highly recommend picking up this novel even if you’ve already seen the film. Atonement is a more subtle form of metafiction. There aren’t stories within stories and the structure of the book is that of a traditional novel. Briony, the narrator of Atonement, however, is an aspiring writer. This lens gives her a heightened attention to detail along with an overactive imagination. Throughout the book, readers have to question whether this combination of traits leads to a faithful rendering of events or something else entirely.
Bonus Duo: Fangirl and Carry On by Rainbow Rowell. I enjoyed Fangirl when I read it a couple years ago, but I actually didn’t really enjoy the metafictional component of it. The book follows Cath, a college freshman, who writes Simon Snow fanfiction (Simon Snow is a very Harry Potter like fictional series about a teen wizard). Cath’s fanfic is called Carry On and I really disliked the Carry On chapters sprinkled throughout Fangirl. However, when a student told me that I had to read the book Carry On (Rowell’s go at creating this new wizarding world), I took her word for it and totally fell in love with the book. Carry On riffs on Harry Potter and other “chosen one” stories, but also tackles a lot of issues in HP and other YA fantasy. There’s a much more diverse cast of characters and a queer love story to root for. It’s absolutely brilliant and a must for fans of Harry who take issue with some of the more problematic aspects of the beloved series.
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