Getting All Meta

All Those Vanished Engines by Paul Park

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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12 thoughts on “Getting All Meta

  1. I’m looking forward to reading All Those Vanished Engines! Although there was no mention of him, as a fan of Umberto Eco and a devotee of Semiotics this sounds really fascinating.

  2. Not only was that a confusing and inadequate descriprition of “meta-fiction,” but the cheap trick you pulled on your class amounted to pschyological abuse of students who already have enough stress the their real lives. In a day and age when students already have the thought in the back of their minds that a fellow student might randomly pull out a gun and start shooting, at the very least, your “prank” was the kind of thing that reinforces cynicism. Had I been a student I would’ve sued you. Had I been your boss I would’ve fired you. Why don’t you try actually “teaching.”

    1. I’m not certain this was a real event but an attempt at describing the style… Writers are very specific with word choices… his word choice was “Here’s another example:” He did not say, “Here is an anecdote from my experiences as a teacher”, or something similar. I believe Mr. Park is showing us how he employs his technique in the novel. I freely admit I may be wrong, but this is how it seems to me…

  3. why always this assumption that metafiction is dry intellect and cannot engage the emotions of the reader? Metafiction is not simply reducible to a self-awareness within the text of it being a text, or it probably is in academic circles, but there are many interesting divagations from this. There is the merging of the real with the hyperreal, that is where a character (or even a reader) cannot distinguish what they have directly, personally experienced, from that which is culturally and socially constructed. That strikes me as a meta-fictional seam to plough. And it all returns to the risible notion that fiction can approach realism or reality. It is called fiction after all and like any art form, operates through the symbolic and the metaphorical as demonstrated by Magritte’s painting “Ceci n’est ce que une pipe”. Metafiction must consider the relationship of the text to the metaphorical, both for author and reader and good metafiction sets up a series of resonances from author through text to reader which can leave the reader vertiginous and most definitely with their emotions pricked.

  4. I have not read the full article yet, putting it off until I’ve read the Nabokov short. For others in the same situation, or just anyone that wishes to (re)read ‘Signs and Symbols’ The New Yorker has a full version posted free, see link below.

    As an odd aside, The New Yorker first published the story as ‘Symbols and Signs’. According to Wikipedia, link provided below as well, “In The New Yorker, the story was published under the title “Symbols and Signs”, a decision by the editor Katharine White. Nabokov returned the title to his original “Signs and Symbols” when republishing the story.” And yet, the on-line version retains White’s title…

    “Symbols and Signs” at The New Yorker – http://www.newyorker.com/archive/1948/05/15/1948_05_15_031_TNY_CARDS_000214135

    “Signs and Symbols” at Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Signs_and_Symbols

  5. “And when I looked up, I saw that everybody in the room had pulled out a weapon…”

  6. Scarcely a day goes by when I don’t contemplate suing one author or another for violating my expectations.

    My concern here is that your students might come away thinking that metafiction should be subtle as a butcher’s knife. Next time try dropping a set of scalpels. It seems to me that flaying is closer to the pedagogical process than cleaving, anyway, and torture is more appropriate than murder as retribution for the agonies of reading undergraduate prose.

  7. I hate to say it, sir, but I would have probably dropped your class. 🙂

    My being a wimp aside, I’m very interested in reading All Those Vanished Engines now!

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