Chain Reaction: Is This The Real Life, or Am I Tripping? Two Metafictional Novels and A Movie

Anyone ever read Don Quixote? I promise it isn’t all about tilting at windmills and going on impractical adventures. In fact, in the second half of the story Don Quixote reads the same story we just read. This is metafiction — when an author makes literary characters aware that they’re in a book and they are characters, not people; sometimes with no agency of their own except what the creator wills for them. In college-level writing courses, this is often also known as the “6 a.m. ending” (best exemplified by one Far Side cartoon captioned, “It was late. I was tired. There was a deadline).” Metafiction goes the other way, too; authors either insert themselves into the work or make it clear they are influencing it.

People revered for their metafictional ways include Kurt Vonnegut and John Barth. I’m still getting around to reading Vonnegut, but John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse is a masterpiece of metafiction, metaphor, and narrative form. Barth writes about a narrator who is in turn writing a story about a kid named Ambrose — and the real identity of Ambrose is ambiguous. Stephen King’s Dark Tower series has too many books to list here, but he connects characters and events from a number of his books, making it clear that events in one world are influenced by another. The best example is Father Callahan, the priest who was turned into a vampire in Salem’s Lot, then reappears years and worlds later in Wolves of the Calla, a late entry in the Dark Tower series.

On the screen metafiction is called “breaking the fourth wall,” or meta-theatre. Like when Deadpool comments on the X-Men film franchise: “McAvoy or Stewart? These timelines are confusing!” or The Princess Bride, when one of the characters demands to check the script. The Princess Bride in both forms is actually a mise en abyme, a fancy word for “book within a book.” Same thing goes for Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which boasts a play within a play — and at one point, the actors describe another play about themselves.

Metafiction and meta-theatre can be fun if done well (Deadpool); they also make your brain hurt if done well. Each can be considered its own genre. The best meta stories involve unreliable narrators and get the reader (or viewer) to participate in the storytelling (Don Barthelme’s Snow White includes reader quizzes). You get to question the universe, your place in it, and what’s really real… Kind of like getting high, I guess?

Without further ado, here are three SF/F/H equivalents of getting high:

The Race by Nina Allan (2014, UK; 2016, US) is a collection of four linked stories set in an alternate future England (or is it?). The first one drew me in; the second one made me question the reality of the first; the third made me wonder Just What Exactly Is Going On Here? and the fourth refused to tie up all the loose ends, but posited a theory that would explain the other three stories — which is the genius of the entire thing. Each story is a different world — but different only by degrees, featuring same-but-different characters and events that may or may not have been made up. I love stories about ambiguity, and The Race is so carefully crafted via prose and structure that it calls into question the reciprocal relationship between memory and imagination — they should be separate, but they’re not, as anyone who’s ever studied memoir will tell you. The Race is one of the most rewarding pieces of metafiction I’ve read in a long while. It’s almost impossible to describe here without giving too much away — hell, it’s almost impossible to describe anyway! But it is really, really very brilliant and you should go read it.

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski (2000). What. The. Hell. I first encountered this in a college course on narrative form. House of Leaves is a horror story and love story all rolled into one and neither at the same time. It’s crazy, confusing, and amazing. Another example of mise en abyme, it has four stories going AT THE SAME TIME — not to mention a whole host of unreliable narrators. The main storyline concerns a tattoo artist named Johnny, who becomes obsessed with editing a manuscript written by a blind man named Zampano. Zampano’s manuscript is in turn an academic treatment of a documentary film about a mysterious house in Virginia. The house’s occupants, Will Navidson, his partner Karen and their two children, made that documentary about the weird aspects of their house — doors appear in blank walls, hallways move and shrink, and eventually a maze appears in the middle of the house. Johnny spirals further and further into the mystery as he questions the existence of the Navidsons, the documentary, the house, and the manuscript. Finally, the reader learns about Johnny himself through letters his mother wrote him from her residence in a psychiatric hospital. Danielewski (brother of musician Poe), wasn’t afraid to experiment with narrative forms. There are interviews, letters, footnotes, footnotes for footnotes, sometimes all on the same page. Sometimes there is just one word. Sometimes there are sentences arranged in spirals. (I can only imagine the typesetter having several cows.) All of it evokes claustrophobia, agoraphobia, and sooooo much more. Honestly, this entire thing is the equivalent of a wooden block puzzle. You know — the one you can never put back quite right.

Galaxy Quest (1999). I keep meeting people who have never seen this movie. If you want comedy with your metafiction, this is the best ticket. Galaxy Quest is a brilliant sendup of Star Trek (and Star Trek fans). Six washed up former stars of a television series called Galaxy Quest are recruited by a benevolent, child-like actual alien race called the Thermians to do battle against the alien Sarris, who wants to wipe them out. The Thermians have no concept of fiction; they revere the “historical documents,” aka episodes, of Galaxy Quest, and know the actors only by their stage names. They have even recreated the crew’s spaceship, The Protector, and all of its mechanics and operations based on close studies of those “historical documents.”  So here is a group of people who played intergalactic explorers, who have never even been on a real spaceship — a spaceship that shouldn’t even exist. Yet they are thrust into outer space and into the middle of a galactic conflict. The crew go along with the Thermians, referring to tactics used in different episodes to get out of sticky situations — until Sarris figures out their secret. Then they have to prove themselves to the Thermians and destroy Sarris. The all-star cast includes the sarcastic, scene-stealing Alan Rickman, Sigourney Weaver (“Hold please”), fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants Tim Allen, the expressive Darryl Mitchell, thrill-seeking Tony Shaloub, and steadfast Enrico Colanton, plus a young Justin Long as a super-nerd. It’s pure comedy gold mixed with action from beginning to end.

Keep the chain going! Share your favorite — or least favorite, I won’t judge — metafictional headshakers in the comments below!


  • Shara White May 23, 2017 at 12:58 pm

    Galaxy Quest is a favorite movie of mine, and now you’ve really got me wanting to read The Race. I’m loving that cover!

    I tried reading House of Leaves a few years ago and just couldn’t do it. It’s one of my husband’s favorite books but it just lost me. Though I heard afterwards it’s best to read the footnotes after you finish a chapter, instead of reading the footnotes as they happened, which was what I was trying to do. Maybe one day?

  • Lane Robins May 23, 2017 at 7:01 pm

    Love this column! But then I love stories that unfold and refold themselves, going inside and out, and rearranging your thoughts as it does. One of my favorites (besides House of Leaves) for strange authorial games is Peter Straub’s loosely connected series–where it’s a book about an author uncovering his small town’s awful secrets. But as the series progresses, established “facts” keep shifting, including the narrator’s name. It ends up being really interesting, kind of like a story someone tells you obliquely, because it’s too strange or horrible to just say straight out. But more and more of the “truth” keeps leaking out.


Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: