Written by Paul Park
Vladimir Nabokov’s story, Signs and Symbols, is about a young man in the middle of a psychotic break. He has become convinced that even the trivial details of the world around him are full of coded language. His distraught parents can do nothing to help him, and eventually he kills himself.
But the man, paranoid and delusional, is also correct. Because he is a character in a story, he lives in a world constructed out of language, which does not contain a single word that is irrelevant to him. It is no wonder he destroys himself; the wonder is that any character in any book remains alive at the end.
The story is an example of meta-fiction—a narrative that is self-aware. In this case the realization is gradual, and in other cases there is a wrenching sudden moment, when you realize the story that you think you’re reading is a subterfuge, and that the real story is hidden underneath. In both cases, for the writer, the problem is the same: once we puncture the illusion that we are reading about the real problems of real people, how do we maintain our emotional investment and interest? In Nabokov’s case, though we no longer care about the suicide, we can still feel the young man’s predicament as a symbol of our own, living in a world that is minutely crafted out of our own minds, and simultaneously oblivious.
Here’s another example: I taught a course called Imitations and Parodies at Williams College. I got in the habit of introducing every third class with a minute’s description of an invented dream, which I pretended to have just woken from—the class was early in the morning. Some were foolish, but during the first month I inserted more and more symbols of psychic distress—then I stopped. Two-thirds of the way in, we spent a week writing imitations of H.P. Lovecraft stories in which the narrator succumbs to violent insanity. The next week I introduced the concept of meta-fiction, and asked them to read for Thursday’s class a story by an unknown author. This was a story I had written myself: a professor, tormented by distorted dreams, finally, resolves to murder his entire class after grading a particularly horrifying assignment. And here I included some excerpts from their Lovecraft imitations, including one section about a man deliberately blinding himself with a knife, which I had read aloud during the previous class. I aimed for this to be the meta-fictional moment where the students would realize that the description of the professor corresponded to me, that the described classroom was their own, and that various students from earlier in the story corresponded to their various colleagues. I was curious to see if any of them would skip Thursday’s session, but there they all were, uncharacteristically nervous and subdued. We spent the class discussing another assigned text—Signs and Symbols, as it happened. As the minutes ticked on, the discussion grew more animated and desperate. Five minutes to go, I announced that we wouldn’t have time for the anonymous story; I started talking about future assignments as a way of wrapping up. I rearranged my papers, and at the crucial moment, just before the hour struck, I allowed a butcher’s knife to fall out of my satchel.
The problem remains in meta-fiction: how to make the reader’s experience an emotional one, rather than a bloodless appreciation for a rhetorical trick. In the novel I’ve just published, All Those Vanished Engines, I have tried to combine a number of different strategies. Some are formal: in once section the story is made of intertwining strands, each narrated by a character in the other. In another, a description of an installation of steam engines turns into an implied description of the structure of the story itself. But some strategies are more basic than form: though the novel combines science-fiction and alternate history, it consists of the manipulation of actual true stories—things that really happened, people who really lived. My hope is that this will give the meta-fictional moments, where the narrative exposes their unreality, an added poignancy.
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