Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Meta-Fiction considered in 1512 words (or 1510 if you don't include the title)

Bertolt Brecht and other playwrights aimed to break down the fourth wall of theatre that was the audience's perspective of events on stage. He didn't want them to suspend their disbelief and get sucked into the drama as 'real'. Rather he wanted them to retain their critical faculties at all time and be fully aware that what they were watching was a representation and to be able to reflect on its issues accordingly, remaining detached and analytical.

Rene Magritte's painting "The Treachery Of Images" depicting a smoker's pipe with the caption "This isn't a pipe" also challenged the viewer's way of seeing. Not only was this not the object we call a pipe, given that it was a painting of it, but the concept of 'pipe' is a lexigraphical unit applied to signify the symbol of what we understand to stand for all pipes (the word itself could also stand for some plumbing or a blow-dart delivery system). For Magritte, any symbolisation be it in paint or word, could neither approach nor appropriate the essence of a material object.

Literature's take on trying to change its audience's way of seeing it, is meta-fiction. Of course like any label, it does not represent a homogeneous group of authors all typing away with the theory tucked into their belts, but more the various and diverse outpourings of writers ploughing their individual furrows, banded together as a group by external commentators.

I think there is great value in exploring the nature of fiction itself, just what it the nature of the interaction between reader and author foisting a made up story them. On a personal level, I'm less struck by books about books, or revealing the process by which authors write those books, or that they appear in them as one of the characters or a commentator, or even writing about someone reading a book. These do not seem to me to get to the heart of the issue of fiction. These are little more than a hall of reflecting (and distorting) mirrors. Rather than stripping the veil of what fiction is doing, they seem to me to add a further level of obfuscation.

To me, an inquiry into fiction much stem from literature's primary tool: language. As with Magritte, the illusional nature of all literature starts with language purporting to be able to carry meaning. Story is structured through words. Character is fleshed out in words. It is these words that more directly should be held up to reflective scrutiny, rather than the secondary armatures of story and character.

Clearly on one level words do convey meaning, else how would an author be able to communicate and be understood by a reader? "That fruitful miracle of a communication in the midst of solitude" as Proust describes reading. But words are approximations. As above, the word 'pipe' has several meanings for different material objects lumped together through the single word label. Individual words further have several shades of meaning tincturing the interpretation. "Fast" can have two contradictory readings, being either swiftness, or held fast and therefore immobile. This is exacerbated when you put words together, sometimes in unexpected ways. I recently peer reviewed a piece which had the phrase "leering ugly host of reasons", all the words individually being correctly utilised and yet together, the effect takes an unintended direction, as once you employ 'leering', it pushes the sense of the word 'host' away from a multitude or army and more towards a person acting hospitably.

Words are slippery, imprecise. It amazes me that they ever manage to convey meaning at all, but accounts for why there are a myriad of misreadings and misunderstandings in any conversation between two people, unless they are blessed by a sort of telepathy born from long practice and exposure to one other. (The old married couple). Nor are words neutral, since any reader brings their preconceptions with them to any book. Neither are they random. They have origins, they stem from etymological roots. Some words have stayed true to these origins, others have diverged wildly from them, yet still they may retain a faint echo of their original meaning. "Presently" formerly meant immediately, now it means in a little while or soon. But the undertow still sounds the word 'present' in our heads. This is the resonance I want to tap into in my interrogation of just what fiction is.

To me, as with Brecht, I want the book to interact with the reader. By this I don't just mean for them to trace the plot, or have various emotional responses and even catharsis by the novel's end. I want my book to engage in a dialogue with the reader while they progress through it. I write in a conversational tone, chatty even. However, the words I use may not be conversational themselves. It is merely how direct is the voice of the book in addressing the reader, seeking to engage them as if the narrator was in the room (or more pertinently whispering inside their head). The voice at different stages of the narrative wheedles, browbeats, bats its lashes, apologises, reasons, negotiates in a whole gamut of entreaties. But the conscious choice of language, of heightened metaphor, (which is not how anyone 'speaks' in reality) plunging between high language and low vernacular sometimes within the same sentence, all of this is intended to pull the reader up to the fact that this is fiction. I'm addressing the reader, I may even be telling them a story, but what I'm telling them and how, demands constant reflection and assessment by the reader as to what level it is pitched at. What level of reality is the book operating on? A fictional one of course. Buttressed by words that don't do quite what they claim - they are unable to bear up 'reality' to any decent scrutiny and I aim to show them up in their false claims, within a fiction I openly acknowledge as fictitious. The words may bear my story up in that it communicates itself to the reader, but my story is a self-confessed fiction and tugs on the reader's sleeve constantly to remember this. From such a reflexive position, then the reader may go on to weigh up how my fictional world bears in relationship to the world he takes as 'real'.

In my novel "A,B&E" a woman is sat at various beach bars, spinning tales in return for free drinks from her audience. She is a Scheherazade figure, in that she has opened up with her life being in danger from her gangster husband; telling tales to eke out a subsistence in this hiding place where she has no other means. ("1001 Nights" might even be considered a very early meta-fictional work in its narrative structure of passing on the baton of story-tellers within it). But is this framing fact of her life being under threat even true? What impact does that have on each and every one of her tales? What is fact and what is fantasy, in her mind (and be osmosis in the reader's mind?) Yet this is more than just an issue of whether she is an unreliable narrator or not. This is about how all knowledge is transmitted to us in our contemporary culture, trying to separate out fact from fiction, the culturally produced from the individually experienced. Our personal relationship to the language we employ and how much of that is pre-structured for us. Ultimately it is about how we construct our own identity.

She is ostensibly recounting her life story in pint size gobbets (cocktails actually) and her audience isn't specified, so she is ultimately addressing the reader. She has a highfalutin vocabulary, she is a Classics scholar, she uses Greek myths to allude to her own situation. She uses them archly. She is essaying to manipulate the audience. As much as she uses high end words, she also dives down into the vulgate, especially when remarking on her fellow British tourists around her in this holiday resort on Corfu. But as seemingly confident about language as she appears, she also butchers it and misuses it. Just like Shakespeare's yeoman characters who are mastered by language rather than mastering it, she too is tripped up because language will not be pinned down to exactitude. No matter her proficiencies with words, she too will come a cropper at some unseen juncture. The same could possibly be said about the author who gives her these words? Is he 100% in control of the meaning of his material? I'm going to let the readers adjudge that for themselves, because that is part of the fictional game. Did the author intend that? Is my reading of this correct?

Why am I telling you a tale in the form of a novel? I want to humbly entreat you with some insights on the world. By constantly reminding you that this is fiction, I would hope to also underscore that this is only my opinion on these matters. I'd love to hear yours.

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