Metafiction is fiction about fiction, writing that draws attention to the fact that it is writing, that it is not real, that it is a construct. There are zillions of different varieties of metafiction – novels about fiction writers writing other novels, novels about readers reading other books, stories within a story…that kind of thing. It’s a very old device and it works to add layers of awareness and meaning to an otherwise straightforward story.
Metafiction brings the reader into a story in a way that regular fiction does not – it asks you to divide your attention between what’s going on in terms of basic plot and how the story is being constructed or who is constructing it. In this sense, it reveals the narrative blueprint and attempts to show you something you might not otherwise have noticed – something about the power of fiction, about fiction’s relationship to what, I suppose, is its opposite, reality. This kind of fiction works in direct opposition to what John Gardner, in The Art of Fiction, calls the vivid, continuous dream:
These novels give the reader an experience that assumes the usual experience of fiction as its point of departure, and whatever effect their work may have depends on their conscious violation of the usual fictional effect. What interests us in these novels is that they are not novels but instead, artistic comments on art.
It took me two or three tries to read past page 5 of Paul Auster’s Oracle Night, mainly because I generally dislike straightforward novels with writers as the main character. It wasn’t until I hit page 8 that I realized this wasn’t a straightforward novel and that Auster wasn’t writing a novel at all – but an artistic comment on art. So, I waited a few more days and finally sat down with it when I was in the mood to see what he might be doing.
Oracle Night begins with Sydner Orr, a writer, who is recovering from some unnamed but very serious illness. For the first time in months, Orr is able to begin work on a new manuscript which he bases on a small episode from Dashiell Hammet’s The Maltese Falcon. Orr’s novel deals with a set of characters, who are also dealing with a manuscript – about a man who can predict the future. Already we have three stories floating around. Later in the book, Orr gets asked to write a screenplay about time travel. At another point, another character in the book, also a writer, shares some of his own work with Orr. Woven in and out of these other stories remains Orr’s ongoing account of his troubled marriage. The novel is a tangle of story after story after story. Somehow, hopefully, they are all connected.
Unless their being connected is beside the point. Metafiction asks us to get over the idea of coherent story and look at a text’s fictionality. For Oracle Night this brought me to re-examine Orr, our first-person narrator, and to doubt him. I know that a first-person unreliable narrator is common in traditional fiction, but in that situation most often the reader learns early on that their narrator is not to be trusted, which then informs their unfolding understanding of the rest of the novel. In Auster’s world, the smooth surface of Orr’s narrative authority is never punctured. Instead, it was only at the end, looking back at Orr’s uncanny ability to create and maintain multiple stories coupled with his need to fictionalize his own reality that eventually had me wondering – it was like being handed an extreme version of the writer as puppet master. And suddenly I was looking at a whole other book.
But for the last week or so, I’ve been debating this interpretation. I realized that holding Oracle Night to my own strict definition of metafiction might have me reading a whole lot more into it than is really there. It’s a seductive idea but I can’t rule out the possibility I may just have it wrong. I see Auster commenting on the use of fiction and storytelling to mediate reality, on fate vs. destiny, on self-fulfilling prophecies…and maybe that’s all, and maybe that’s enough. But if Orr is a legitimate protagonist then a lot of that exploration stays too close to the surface for me.
Part of my hesitation may also come from the fact that I found myself disappointed with Auster’s writing style, so I’m unwilling to give him too much credit. I’m planning to read more of his stuff before deciding for sure, but I felt there was too much flat, sometimes clichéd writing in Oracle Night along with a lot of lengthy, unrealistic dialogue. Perhaps I am not forgiving enough of his homage to noir mystery or maybe he uses that style on purpose to make some point that I’m failing to see. Any Auster fans out there? How does Oracle Night compare with his other work?