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Some of the novels we chatted about last week reminded me of another with an arch, strong narrative voice. This one was the voice of a woman.

When we first meet Octavia Frost, Dear Reader, she comes across as a smug, knowledgeable woman more proud of her novels than her estranged rock star son. But, as with other things going on in Carolyn Parkhurst's The Nobodies Album, don't come to a hasty conclusion. There's a reason why Octavia and Milo haven't spoken in years.

Octavia is in Times Square, going to her publishers to drop off her latest project. It's called The Nobodies Album, a name that came from her son, and is made up of new endings of her earlier works. The new endings matter to Octavia, she says, not because she is interested in "what if" but because she enjoys the power of how she thinks she affects the life of every reader of her works, how she puts ideas in their heads that were not there before. When she sees on the Times Square newscrawl that her son has been arrested in San Francisco for the murder of his lover, she's on the next plane. Readers be damned. What she really wants is a second chance, the opportunity to rewrite her own life.

In between the segments of the main storyline of what happens when Octavia flies across the country to see if her son will let her back in, and what she can do to help him, are interspersed the original and revised endings of her novels. These are stunning pieces of metafiction that add so much knowledge to what happened to this family, and a solid understanding of how those who survived a horrific accident have been shaped.

There is a lot going on in this novel, but it's all paced perfectly. As Octavia meets the people now most important in her son's life, she also shows how people find out about celebrities in today's online world. She's nearly a cyber stalker. Later, the tables are momentarily turned on her. It's another layer to the main story of how people who love want a second chance when things go wrong. They just want to know what's going on, to do a better job, brush the mistakes away, make the connections stronger.

Parkhurst, whose Dogs of Babel was so appreciated, has much to say about writing itself and what it demands of a writer. She also has commentary dropped in here and there about what readers may think they discern about the writer herself based on the works. Parkhurst even has Octavia do the same thing about a fellow writer. And not by interpreting that writer's books, but by watching a movie based on a bestselling novel. We all know how faithful those adaptations are.

It's this kind of human foible presentations that keep The Nobodies Album, well, human. Parkhurst has tremendous ideas about ficiton and the process of writing, about second chances in life and how parents mess things up without meaning to hurt. She also has kept this novel firmly grounded in realistic characters who are not perfect and who are viewed through a lens of compassion. Finding out about the murder makes for a pretty zippy story, too.

Although The Nobodies Album was a case of meta fiction that worked for me, the first novel I came that was described this way I didn't finish. It was Charles Palliser's Quincunx in 1990. All I saw was a rewrite of the quintessential poor Victorian mother and child, but without the sly names and wicked success at tugging at heartstrings. I gave up. Someone said, "Well, you know it's metafiction, right." My interior reaction: So?

Over the years, I've seen such oohs and aaahs over the idea someone was writing reflectively about writing and its artificiality that it's tempting (at least, when sleep-deprived), to be contrary about it. But that's just playing a game. That's not why I read, nor why I read about what I read. "Only connect" is what E.M. Forster wrote in Howards End, and it fits my heart:

Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.
Patricia Waugh, in Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction (NY: Routledge, 1984), describes metafiction as: elastic term which cover(s) a wide range of fictions. There are those novels at one end of the spectrum which take fictionality as a theme to be explored . .. whose formal self-consciousness is limited. At the center of this spectrum are those texts that manifest the symptoms of formal and ontological insecurity but allow their deconstructions to be finally recontextualized or 'naturalized' and given a total interpretation . . .Finally, at the furthest extreme that, in rejecting realism more thoroughly, posit the world as a fabrication of competing semiotic systems which never correspond to material conditions
When it comes to that extreme, Paul Auster comes to mind, as do Haruki Murakami (and yes, I'm still reading 1Q84 in fragments) and Kurt Vonnegut. My favorite metafiction is Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children. That snot-nosed Saleem and his travails, from childhood on, that mirror the birth and youth of the modern state of India, is a glorious piece of metafiction:
I have been only the humblest of jugglers-with-facts; and that, in a country where the truth is what it is instructed to be, reality quite literally ceases to exist, so that everything becomes possible except what we are told is the case.
And, really, when a novelist decides to make fiction of fact, what else can a story be?

Does this kind of writing appeal to you? What are some of your favorite examples? Which ones couldn't keep the disbelief suspended?

Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Tue Apr 17, 2012 at 07:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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  •  . (14+ / 0-)

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  •  hi (12+ / 0-)

    Great diary.  I don't do well with this kind of story, I don't think.

    That is why I enjoy reading your explanation.  :)

    I did read Midnight's Children, but it was a long time ago.  

    Join us at Bookflurries-Bookchat on Wednesday nights 8:00 PM EST

    by cfk on Tue Apr 17, 2012 at 07:20:15 PM PDT

  •  The Nobodies Album sounds good. (8+ / 0-)

    I'm going to see if I can find it.

    "We are all New Orleans now."--Barbara O'Brien So many books--so little time. Economic Left/Right -7.88 Social Libertarian/Authoritarian -6.97

    by Louisiana 1976 on Tue Apr 17, 2012 at 07:34:33 PM PDT

  •  I never understood the term metafiction (4+ / 0-)

    and still don't simply because, by that definition, all fiction is metafictional. I've yet to meet anyone who can explain narrative voice to me in any logical fashion, as anything other than a construct. When a writer creates any sort of narrative or any sort of voice, a form of consciousness rises up that seems unlocatable to me, and this is why I tend to avoid these debates.

    There are two kinds of people in this world. The kind who divide the world into two kinds of people, and the kind who don't.

    by upstate NY on Wed Apr 18, 2012 at 07:07:13 AM PDT

    •  It's about drawing your attention to it. (5+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      upstate NY, papa monzano, ferg, bookgirl, jolux

      All fiction is construct, but there's a difference between those works which try to disguise it (or "immerse" you) and those that underline it.  We usually call the latter metafiction, because they're "laying bare the device", which is the old critical term the formalists used to describe it.  If I start my story with "Once upon a time..." I'm engaged in a whole literary tradition that, you're right, is a construct like any other.  But if I start my story with "Once upon a... Nope, I'm not going to start my story that way...."  I'm both engaging with the tradition and drawing your attention to the fact that I'm engaging with that tradition, so: meta!

      Me: I love good metafiction more than anything, although if it's done poorly it can be pretty awful.

      Some great examples:

      Cortázar's Hopscotch, which asks you to "create" the narrative sequence while it comments on that act of creation.  

      The ending of Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, which I won't spoil, but is a perfect example of how this works.

      Danielewski's House of Leaves, which includes critical analysis of the text that you yourself are reading as you read it.

      My favorite book ever, Perec's Life a User's Manual, for a whole host of reasons.

      The opening of Collodi's Pinocchio, which is similar to my example above:

      Centuries ago there lived--
      "A king!" my little readers will say immediately.
      No, children, you are mistaken. Once upon a time there was a piece of wood.

      Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

      by pico on Wed Apr 18, 2012 at 11:33:17 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  I've heard it described differently (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        pico, papa monzano

        Many people apply it to the Thomas Mann even, say Magic Mountain, in which the voice tends to go from simply expository to outright declarations from Mann that are not self-referential to the construction of the text.

        But, I would also say that perhaps this disagreement (if indeed there is one) is based on what you wrote in your initial line. "All fiction is a construct." The next step is to say all reality is a construct, since there's a semblance of consciousness in any narrative voice, and of course, reality is a construct that is similarly produced by human consciousness. It's a tangle, I admit, but it seems any invocation of voice is troubled by the origin of its location, and in that sense, any narrative voice seems to exist in many different places at once. Calvino's "If on a Winter's Night..." does this well since the voice that speaks appears stable and then dissembles into various unlocatable voices, and Lautreamont" "Maldoror" as well has similar qualities.

        There are two kinds of people in this world. The kind who divide the world into two kinds of people, and the kind who don't.

        by upstate NY on Wed Apr 18, 2012 at 12:16:45 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  I'm not sure I agree with that, (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          papa monzano, ferg

          because for me the line is drawn more or less where Shklovsky lays it.  There are certainly ambiguities due to the fact that, as you say, "any invocation of voice is troubled by the origin of its location", but we tend to reserve "meta" (at least in non-scholarly contexts) for circumstances when that question of origin is addressed explicitly and/or directly, though it doesn't have to be both.  In that we do recognize a quality of conscious reflexivity, despite the post-structuralist free-for-all that suggests any kind of statement does that to some degree.  I don't think we have to go all Derridean and question the nature of the simple declarative statement or anything: readers sense a difference, and that's why the category exists, theory notwithstanding.  

          I'm not familiar enough with the scholarship around Mann to comment on it.   Are people making that argument without pointing to self-reflexivity?  I'm just curious what the basis for calling it metafiction might be.

          Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

          by pico on Wed Apr 18, 2012 at 12:39:24 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  Just to clarify (2+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            papa monzano, pico

            For me, the distinctions are problematic not because I want to send everything into the realm of undecidability, but because I see the exact same uses of narrative voice in everyday life that I see in fiction. This is, ultimately, what bugs me about emphasis on such a construct in fiction. I can give a couple of examples. In Lakoff's work, he talks of the term "tax relief" and how the idea was launched from a backroom cadre of Goldwater's people in 1964, but the actual idea of tax relief was invoked in strange ways, evolved in an unwieldy fashion that not even the principals were in control of. Similarly, you can listen to any State of the Union Speech in which a President, by virtue of his authority and the fact that the speech he's giving is required by the constitution, adopts this strange disembodied voice, where everyone acknowledges that the policy pronouncements he speaks are at once brought into being by the formality and rituality of the speech itself, while at the same time the President is not totally responsible (in Bush's time, we might say "hardly responsible") for what he speaks precisely because everyone acknowledges that a team of policy analysts, political hacks and speechwriters formed the words that the President parrots. This is a strange disembodied voice. To call it simply self-referential tends to close off the true weirdness of the speech.

            As for Mann, yes, people point to the idea that it isn't self-reflexive precisely. Rather, you have the voice of the author (presumably) enter the fiction almost as a non sequitir. He begins by giving a reading in expository style of the plot/drama (which is self-reflexive) before moving into an extended theoretical and political analysis that quite diverges from the text.

            There are two kinds of people in this world. The kind who divide the world into two kinds of people, and the kind who don't.

            by upstate NY on Wed Apr 18, 2012 at 01:07:32 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

            •  Maybe I'm not understanding you. (1+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:

              Who's calling the kind of political speech you outline "simply self-referential"?  It's a lot of things, and self-referentiality may be one of those qualities.   I don't understand why you're bugged about that per se.  I don't think you're sending everything into undecidability, but maybe you can clarify whether and where these distinctions lie?

              We can start from the most basic example: do you recognize a distinction between the conventional fairy-tale opening (which is itself a construct, and performative, and whatever else we want to call it) and what Collodi does in the opening of Pinocchio?  Isn't the latter a conscious act of drawing attention to itself as text?

              (Certainly we can make an argument about whether using a literary convention already draws attention to the convention-as-such, but Collodi is doing something qualitatively different.  We should be able to agree on that at least?)

              Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

              by pico on Wed Apr 18, 2012 at 03:07:24 PM PDT

              [ Parent ]

              •  The distinctions lie in how metafiction (0+ / 0-)

                attempts to show the permeability between fictional and non-fictional worlds. To my mind, that tends to reinforce the distinctions one makes between reality and fiction, as any experiment or innovation tends to do regardless. By incorporating the same structures one is working against into the experiment (i.e. by attempting to show how reality and fictional worlds collude) you end up reinforcing the very divide in the first place. Borges says we're troubled by the Quixote because Quixote mentions the book inside the book, which implies that readers may be fictional. But as I read it, I tend to think Quixote is invoking a whole other story altogether.

                I recognize the use of overt metafiction as a construct, just like I recognize modes of narration as constructs, but I don't think these concepts are viable otherwise. I don't think you can ever separate the stories enough to refer to one or the other story as metafiction tries to do. Alasdair Gray's Lanark is one metafiction that undercuts the concept, and I would say Lautreamont's Maldoro does the same thing. After reading those books, it becomes immensely difficult to talk about metafiction. Some may say my point is nitpicky, but I don't think of it as such simply because I think it's crucial to recognize that narrative voice and the consciousness it produces so easily displaces us from distinguishing between the insides and outsides of certain fictions.

                There are two kinds of people in this world. The kind who divide the world into two kinds of people, and the kind who don't.

                by upstate NY on Wed Apr 18, 2012 at 07:07:03 PM PDT

                [ Parent ]

                •  We're going to have to agree to disagree on this. (0+ / 0-)

                  I think theory has a tendency to devour itself, ouroboros-style, on issues that aren't nearly that complicated in practice.  But in lieu of a really, really long comment, I'll just leave it at that.

                  Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

                  by pico on Wed Apr 18, 2012 at 08:28:24 PM PDT

                  [ Parent ]

                  •  We live theory every day (0+ / 0-)

                    I think it's important to break the ties we make between what's being said and the speaker's authority. It's important in everyday life and especially when it comes to politics.

                    Karl Rove, of all people, was pretty keen to make certain points about how narratives originate when he talked to Suskind in the New York Times Book Review about reality-based communities. He seems to me way ahead of he game.

                    There are two kinds of people in this world. The kind who divide the world into two kinds of people, and the kind who don't.

                    by upstate NY on Thu Apr 19, 2012 at 06:53:58 AM PDT

                    [ Parent ]

        •  similar argument (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          pico, ferg

          was had in my film classes in art school concerning diagetic vs nondiagetic sound in film (Diegetic sound is any sound presented as originated from source within the film's world, nondiagetic sound is when you hear the boom mike hit's not in the fictional world of the film, it's 'real' sound)

          i think the key here is the purpose and intent of the play on the construct. does the author want you to forget it's a fiction, or are they using the fact that the story is a fictional device to further their point?

          When life gives you lemons, don't elect them to Congress.

          by papa monzano on Wed Apr 18, 2012 at 12:46:59 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  I guess I would say... (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            papa monzano

            ...a sound is a sound. When it comes to intent, especially with a sound, the viewer is an entirely independent agent.

            I could invoke Terence Malick's voiceovers in Thin Red Line and Tree of Life. They are not narrative based in strict sense, and they are truly weird. At best, they serve as banal anodynes for whatever is going on in the plot. But I'll be damned if I can figure out their origin (obviously, in the protanogist's voice) but their self-referential quality is missing in many of the utterances. A bit like Brecht but weirder. They are very different than, say, Wim Winder's voiceovers in Wings of Desire. Those seem to me strange but elliptical. They comment on the story from a parallel or obverse viewpoint. Not so Malick. But, when it comes to film, I tend not to give them as much thought as I do fictions, so someone might have a good explanation for what's going on in Malick that might change my current perspective. I'm confounded.

            There are two kinds of people in this world. The kind who divide the world into two kinds of people, and the kind who don't.

            by upstate NY on Wed Apr 18, 2012 at 01:12:29 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

            •  malick (2+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              pico, bookgirl

              i felt those were internal monologue from the protagonist (jim cavezial's character waxing poetic about war, sean penn waxing poetic about fathers) and thus part of the primary fictional world. I'm contrasting this against, say, Branaugh's Henry V, where the chorus speaker is walking among backstage props and ladders, giving a glimpse behind the curtain.

              (full disclosure: i adore malick's films. i cried in the theater during tree of life)

              come to think of it, "meta" may be the difference between the wizard of oz and that little old man behind the curtain.

              on a lower brow, the film version of josie and the pussycats has a lot of fun with meta. one character is asked "why are you even here?" and replies under her breath "because i was in the comic".

              sorry to wander off into film on a lit thread, bookgirl. :)

              When life gives you lemons, don't elect them to Congress.

              by papa monzano on Wed Apr 18, 2012 at 01:23:40 PM PDT

              [ Parent ]

              •  Hmmmm, the stuff in Thin Red Line (1+ / 0-)
                Recommended by:
                papa monzano

                is off to the side, in my opinion. I watched it a second time to make sure my ears weren't deceiving me, and even the second time I noted that frequently the voiceovers did not reference the war, the plot, anything going on. Very often they were about nature, and they were a curious juxtaposition, but ultimately, I was not convinced they were there for contrast. This is why I called them at best an anodyne. They could have been from an Attenborough film, and in fact were probably stolen from Attenborough.

                There are two kinds of people in this world. The kind who divide the world into two kinds of people, and the kind who don't.

                by upstate NY on Wed Apr 18, 2012 at 01:36:04 PM PDT

                [ Parent ]

                •  thin red (0+ / 0-)

                  i assumed that was the internal thoughts of the main character who was stuck physically in a war while being mentally in a place where he could reflect...the mundane observations about abstract beauty by a man living in real horror. frequently my thoughts during a tough situation dont reflect the reality of what's happening (i'm thinking about things like my reflections on "cake boss" while sitting at my friend's hospital bed. were they recorded and played over the top of the footage of him on machines, they'd seem like thin red's VO, i think)

                  i'll have to rewatch :) personally, i love seeing the scaffolding of creative works, so the meta wink of an author or director letting me see that this is a constructed reality is a joy to me. I loved the little diaramas in rushmore and royal tennenbaums, but i REALLY loved the cutaway ship in Life Aquatic since it didn't try to be a diarama made by a character, it was a reveal that the movie is a fiction...this contrasted against a Dogme95 film like The Idiots, where you wonder if this is found footage or a scripted movie.

                  When life gives you lemons, don't elect them to Congress.

                  by papa monzano on Wed Apr 18, 2012 at 01:51:50 PM PDT

                  [ Parent ]

              •  Since film is another way to tell (0+ / 0-)

                a narrative, it works for me.

  •  I so enjoyed ... (4+ / 0-)

    The Dogs of Babel - can't wait to read The Nobodies Album. I still remember the last page of 'Dogs' as one of the most beautiful things I've ever read.

    I'm currently reading Sebastian Barry's The Secret Scripture. I think it was recommended in last week's diary, either by you, Bookgirl (?) or by someone who commented there. Whoever it was - thank you so much. What a treasure it is.

  •  My favorite meta-fiction (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    shaharazade, pico, papa monzano, ferg, bookgirl

    is If On a Winter's Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino.  It's so meta that the first line is, "You are about to begin reading If On a Winter's Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino."  It has an actual plot:  the Reader keeps trying to read a book, but there's always a problem:  it's missing pages, or the book gets stolen, or something, so he winds up reading the first chapters of a wide variety of books.  The complications become increasingly absurd and surreal, to the point of book-related conspiracies and vigilante plagiarism.  I love it because i couldn't write anything remotely like it.

    I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death; I am not on his payroll. - Edna St. Vincent Millay

    by Tara the Antisocial Social Worker on Wed Apr 18, 2012 at 10:33:06 AM PDT

  •  subgenius (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    pico, bookgirl

    there's a story in "three fisted tales of bob", an anthology of subgenius short stories, where Bob (the prophet of the faux-religion) has to go meet god to renew his prophet's license...he ends up in an argument with god about who's real. God argues that he's a figment of Bob's imagination, and eventually the argument devolves into whether they, as characters in a short story, can assume that the writer or reader is real. it's wonderfully done.

    Removed now from the controversy, I think there's an argument that James Frey's Million Little Pieces could be considered metafiction, maybe.

    Stephen King's insertion of himself into Dark Tower still stands as one of those moments where the meta should have ruined the book but instead it worked for me. and of course, how meta is House of Leaves. it references graduate thesis papers that are fictional themselves, referencing the film (fictional) of the house (fictional) within the writings of Johnny Truant (fictional) with footnotes by the editors (themselves fictional characters).

    great topic choice today!!

    When life gives you lemons, don't elect them to Congress.

    by papa monzano on Wed Apr 18, 2012 at 11:35:02 AM PDT

    •  almost forgot Robert Anton Wilson.... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Illuminatus! references and reviews itself during the book, and i'm pretty sure the character George Dorn realizes he's fictional and jumps to another RA Wilson book, leaving the plot of Illuminatus. It's been a few years since I fell through that trilogy, though, and it's a jumbled maelstorm of a read anyway.

      When life gives you lemons, don't elect them to Congress.

      by papa monzano on Wed Apr 18, 2012 at 11:45:54 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Just finished "Ex Pat" on my Kindle. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    papa monzano

    The protagonist is a woman, and the tension of her life roles is exciting and provocative.

    I think, therefore I am. I think.

    by mcmom on Wed Apr 18, 2012 at 12:21:06 PM PDT

  •  I just realized your second line (0+ / 0-)

    includes a metafiction device: " Dear Reader."  Very clever, bookgirl.

      I enjoyed the above debate, although I am not inclined to enjoy metafiction.   Too many past-reads about writer's referencing writer's block, or writers being too-too clever with self-referential devices, even asking the reader point blank if they understand what is going on.

    I think, though, that I might enjoy Nobodies Album;  always willing to take a fresh look.

    Continued thanks for this provocative series.

    Just waitin' around for the new Amy Winehouse album

    by jarbyus on Wed Apr 18, 2012 at 07:34:09 PM PDT

  •  the split hair (0+ / 0-)

    i think, personally, i confuse the issue of meta by lumping in book-within-book tales, or movie-within-movie (i'm thinking about never ending story type stuff here...where the character in the book is involved in reading a book, but it's not a realization that they are fictional constructs themselves. in these cases, it is simply a book the character is reading) alongside what I would consider truly meta stories...stories where the character isn't simply reading a book, he/she comes to a realization that they are NOT real people, but characters in a book (something more like George Dorn's realization in Illuminatus! that he is a fictional character in a novel he isn't enjoying, so he jumps to another book leaving a plot problem for his fellow characters to solve). One is simply a character reading a book (ironic because they're in a book themselves) versus a character realizing they exist fictionally (meta because they are referential of their nature as fictions).

    so, in my view, there's a line to be drawn between books that have pocket books within them, and then there's books that acknowledge they are themselves books. the latter i consider meta, the former i consider no different than a character using a toliet, or a fork, or a car.

    When life gives you lemons, don't elect them to Congress.

    by papa monzano on Thu Apr 19, 2012 at 07:44:42 AM PDT

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