Metafiction

A non-negligible number of books I’ve read of late have shared a common conceit: a chapter that holds the key to unlock the mystery of the whole. Granted, a climax or conclusion is pretty standard fair in any standard text, but that’s not what I’ve been reading. In ‘Camera Lucida,’ we have the clean break along the middle of the spine; in ‘Devil House,’ a whole number of a-ha moments, but only one chapter that literally fractured the narrative (read: act of narrating) in faux-Fraktur; in ‘Immortality,’ it’s part 6.

Kundera tells us ahead of time what he’s going to do in part 6. Or, at least, a character who happens to be called Kundera & happens to be writing a novel tells us that. In chapter 8 of part 5, he writes: “A novel shouldn’t be like a bicycle race but a feast of many courses. I’m really looking forward to Part Six. A completely new character will enter the novel. And at the end of that part he will disappear without a trace. He causes nothing and leaves no effects. That is precisely what I like about him. Part Six will be a novel within a novel, as well as the saddest erotic story I have ever written. It will make you sad, too.”

I don’t know enough about the real Kundera to know this for sure, but something about part 6 and the completely new character strikes me as a confession, or a cypher for decoding the whole multidimensional book. In it, he introduces the concept of “the episode,” which, he tells us, Aristotle didn’t like, because it was “the worst possible type of event.” But the completely new character—or is it Kundera? or is it the character who just happens to be called Kundera?—argues that “no episode is a priori condemned to remain an episode forever, for every event, no matter how trivial, conceals within itself the possibility of sooner or later becoming the cause of other events.”

He goes on to say: “Episodes are like land mines. The majority of them never explode, but the most unremarkable of them may someday turn into the story that will prove fateful to you.”

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That’s a lovely sentiment that recall Kundera’s thoughts on “fortunate fortuities” in his earlier book, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, but the crux of the problem in Immortality’s part 6 is that this completely new character who may or may not be the real Kundera lives his life almost completely episodically, chasing one amorous rendezvous after another, until he’s left at the very end of this novel within a novel unspooling the reel of his life only to discover it to be a roll of negatives instead:

“[He] discovered a peculiar thing: memory does not make films, it makes photographs. What he recalled from any of the women were at most a few mental photographs. He didn’t recall their coherent motions; he visualized even their short gestures not in all their fluent fullness, but only in the rigidity of a single second.”

Very soon we realize with the character that his whole life could, sadly, be summed up in seven or eight photographs. Is this why Kundera wrote about Kundera writing? This was his sixth novel, after all.

I wrote earlier about how Kundera’s books transcend fiction & nonfiction. Let me now introduce the concept of “metafiction,” which is how some scholars have defined his writing. Here’s how Soňa Šnircová defines it:

“Metafiction has been defined as «a term 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. In providing a critique of their own methods of construction, such writings not only examine the fundamental structures of narrative fiction, they also explore the possible fictionality of the world outside the literary fictional text» …Unlike traditional realistic narratives which are fictions that seem to offer a mirror-like representation of «things as they were or are», metafiction appears primarily as a fiction about Fiction.”

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Šnircová goes on to show how this comes to play in Immortality:

“At first, the author-figure, as a self-conscious narrator, stresses the fictional nature of Agnes. He reveals to us the moment of the creative process when he pictures the heroine of his novel and imagines the first scene from her life. However, only a few lines later he writes about his seeing her naked, his inability to take his eyes off her and even the possibility that Agnes senses his gaze. At the beginning of the passage the author-figure and Agnes appear to exist, respectively, on two separate levels … Kundera’s later use of verbs signifying sensory experience produces the effect of blending.”

I’ve recently been thinking about how magic realism is a tautology of sorts; how any realism that isn’t magical is reductive & ultimately unrealistic. Could the same be said about metafiction? Is all reality metafictional?

Šnircová hints at this too: “The term «Fiction» should not be understood here only in the sense of imaginative writing but in the broadest possible sense as the general mode of communicating human experiences of the world. In drawing our attention to the process of literary production … metafictional writers encourage us to recognize the constructed nature of their texts, and also to discern the constructed textual nature of reality that we all share—the reality of various social & cultural discourses into which we are all born & which we become aware of with the acquisition of language.”

Kundera’s writing feels realer than real precisely because reality is always already self-conscious narration & collage. The episodic explodes with meaning, for sure, but not always as a landmine. That seems to me like it’s mostly true for characters who lead their lives like a battlefield full of conquests & defeats. The episodic can hum with meaning like electrodes coming in contact; it can sizzle like a metal in an acid bath; it can also speak more softly like a silent letter in a homonym.

It is with metafictions like these that we find hope: the episodes can be rearranged; significance can be augmented.

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