10 Mesmerizing Works of Metafiction

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Mesmerizing Works of Metafiction

Metafiction refers to fiction that knowingly address the rules and conventions of fiction during the course of the story, and has the creative process (often of itself) as its main subject. Basically, a metafictional story is one that “knows” on some level that it’s a story, and that plays with format and style in playful and daring ways that remind the reader that they’re reading a created work. Done badly, it can be a self-referential mess; done well, it can challenge readers to change their worldviews and their entire approach to fiction. Metafiction makes art out of the act of creating and pushes readers and authors to new heights. Consider the novels on this list a starting point for exploring the field.

  1. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers: Dave Eggers’ 2000 memoir about raising his younger brother after the death of their parents is energetic, hilarious, and, yes, heartbreaking. But it’s also a quintessentially metafictional text for the way Eggers approaches the very idea of creating a book. There are large segments addressing the reader before the main text starts, and even the copyright page is littered with jokes about copyright pages. The turning point comes halfway through, when what begins as a transcript of an interview he gave to MTV while auditioning for “The Real World” becomes a knowing, referential break with what really happened as a way for Eggers to work through more of his life story and, more importantly, let the reader know that he was going to do just that. A moving, wonderful read.
  2. Atonement, Ian McEwan: Ian McEwan’s award-winning 2001 novel is rightly lauded for the way he creates fully realized, completely flawed characters, capable of changing or ruining their lives with a moment’s indiscretion or misunderstanding. The young girl at the center, Briony, mistakes a moment of passion between her sister and another man for something much worse, a mistake that winds up costing everyone far more than they’d bargained for. Yet her act of atonement is a dazzling one, and it becomes clear that the story is being told not by an omniscient narrator but by Briony herself, constructing a world in which she can put right what went wrong. An amazing and subtle use of metafictional art.
  3. The New York Trilogy, Paul Auster: These three slender novels — originally published separately, but now usually collected in one volume — turn the detective genre on its ear by challenging the reader’s expectations when it comes to mysteries and their solutions. The trilogy is also a hall of mirrors, with the opening story setting the tone as the protagonist receives a call meant for a detective named Paul Auster, takes the case, and eventually meets a different Auster, an author. The trilogy also deals with a writer struggling to come up with decent fiction. The first novel, City of Glass, was turned into an acclaimed graphic novel.
  4. Lost in the Funhouse, John Barth: John Barth is a titan in the metafiction and postmodern genres, thanks to epics like The Sot-Weed Factor, a satire of works like itself, and Letters, in which Barth interacts with characters from earlier works. Lost in the Funhouse is a dense but rewarding collection of short stories that are as much about Barth’s meditations on writing as they are on the finished work, and it’s definitely one that warrants several reads in order to grasp the full meaning of everything. The stories attack the very nature of narrative and flow, and the book is heralded as one of Barth’s best.
  5. If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler, Italo Calvino: Italo Calvino is another major name in literary circles, and If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler is a classic entry point for someone looking to explore his work and metafiction in general. The 1979 novel directly involves the reader in the story, turning the act of reading the book into a part of the book itself. Alternating chapters use the second person to address “you,” the reader, though some parts blur the line between the “you” doing the reading and a hypothetical person. It’s a novel about novels, and a book about reading books. Definitely not one to miss.
  6. The Dark Tower, Stephen King: Stephen King’s seven-volume The Dark Tower was published between 1982 and 2004, and the books are the best example of the way the author ties his multiple works together while also introducing the nature of reality as a major theme. While the first few volumes make reference to other King works, smudging the line between fictions, later volumes find the characters interacting with King himself as a fictionalized version of the real author talks about his efforts to write the books in which the characters themselves first appeared. It’s an intriguing way to add a level of eerie reality to the stories, and the genre-bending books, which mix everything from fantasy to sci-fi to horror, are some of King’s most loved.
  7. At Swim-Two-Birds, Flann O’Brien: Flann O’Brien (the pseudonym for Brian O’Nolan) published this comic metafictional work in 1939, and it’s regarded as one of the pioneering books in the field. Describing the plot in detail would ruin some of the effect — plus it’s also hard to do — but suffice it to say that O’Brien’s work deals mainly with the idea of fictional characters rebelling against their creator. He draws on a variety of classic sources, including the legend of the insane King Sweeney, for his tightly woven novel. A perfect book for newcomers or those looking to explore the peaks of metafiction.
  8. House of Leaves, Mark Z. Danielewski: Mark Danielewski’s debut novel is an engaging mix of styles and genres, but what makes it metafictional is the way the book treats itself as an artifact mirroring the emotions of its characters. Text and design are often laid out in jagged and unusual ways, and the multiple narrators also wind up interacting in interesting and unpredictable methods. For instance, characters navigating a maze-like house do so on pages laid out like mazes. The goal is to jar the reader into realizing they are reading, and to create a different type of book than something that’s merely a delivery method for words. It’s a dizzying ride.
  9. The Neverending Story, Michael Ende: This German novel was first published in 1979, and though it would later go on to inspire some dubious films, the original text is an adventurous fantasy that plays with the nature of fiction and reality in wonderful ways. The book is about a young boy reading a novel called The Neverending Story, who eventually finds himself pulled into the book’s world and becomes a major player in its events. He goes from hero to anti-hero and back as Ende’s novel makes some sharp points about the nature of fantasy and the power of literature to hold the imagination.
  10. Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace: David Foster Wallace only wrote two novels in his life — he committed suicide in 2008 at age 46 — but Infinite Jest changed the face of modern fiction. Set in a United States in the indeterminate future, the novel spends most of its time at a tennis academy, a halfway house, and dealing with the existence of a movie so entertaining it kills people’s will to do anything but watch it. The novel is a commentary on many aspects of culture, but it’s also unconventional in the way it shakes up the literary format. Many passages are footnoted, with notes ranging for pages, forcing readers to constantly move back and forth throughout the book and confront it as an object, not just a passive story. It’s an artwork about artworks, and a book that strives to feel like a wall of sensory overload instead of a simple stream of information. Dense, difficult, and worth every moment.
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