One of my favorite series of books I am, regrettably, not able to recommend to very many people. I fell in love with Jasper Fforde‘s Thursday Next series shortly after the first on, The Eyre Affair, was published. I have the rest of the series in hardcover and I ration my re-reads so that I get to enjoy the books like I did the first time. But I don’t recommend them to many people because so many of the gaps and sub-plots require a solid grasp of Nineteenth and Twentieth-century literature to understand. Still, when I get the impression that someone might be ready for them, I slip them a copy of The Eyre Affair and tell them about a joke that happens in book three, The Well of Lost Plots:
Quasimodo—who had found sanctuary, finally—grunted in reply and gently placed Das Kapital next to Mein Kampf, separating them by only a thin metal sheet. The “book sandwich” was held together by rubber bands, and a string was attached to the metal sheet. Quasimodo tied the books to the grate, then retired down the conduit, paying out the string as he went. (341*)
Mimi nodded to Quasimodo, who pulled the string. The steel plate shot out and Das Kapital and Mein Kampf came together, their conflicting ideologies starting to generate heat. The books turned brown, smoldered for a moment and then, as Mimi and Quasimodo scurried away up their retreat, the two volumes reached critical mass, turned white-hot and exploded. (345)
My love of the meta is part of why I’ve been enjoying the re-released Jane and Dagobert Brown novels, She Shall Have Murder and Corpse Diplomatique. As Jane narrates her investigations with her husband, she comments on the process of writing them down and cracking jokes along the way:
Before dealing with Dagobert’ imagination, I’d better put down the unvarnished facts. They can be varnished afterward. (She Shall Have Murder 64**)
[Jane] agreed. “Dagobert specializes in making preposterous remarks that I later have to edit.”
“Oh, I see,” [Mrs. Duffield] said, regaining her equanimity. “It must be very confusing being an author and getting mixed up between the real world and the one of your own creation.”
“It is,” I agreed fervently. (Corpse Diplomatique location 2517***)
I’ve known readers who hate it when books wink back at them, aware of their own fictional nature. But when it becomes the fodder of comedy, I adore meta-fiction. These aren’t the kind of books one disappears into. Rather, they’re books that ask one to collaborate. They have layers, but if one misses the joke or refuse to be pulled into the game, meta-fiction loses its allure.
It’s hard to describe my headspace when I read meta-fiction. With non-meta writing, I see the events of the book play out in my mind like a movie—with more or less detail depending on how evocative the writing is. I’m watching the story play itself out. This doesn’t happen when a novel goes meta on me. Then, I feel like I’m more in the room, with the narrator standing just behind me. I’m not bothered; I’m a guest in the corner, taking it all in.
When I read meta-fiction, I become more aware of how necessary a reader is. A story is, after all, just ink on paper until a reader starts to read it. With meta-fiction, I am constructing the story and its framework as I read. Even better are books like the Thursday Next series, which pull in the rest of fiction and the narrator and reader get to play with the interconnections between tales. The more I read Jasper Fforde, for instance, the more I see fiction as another world that we can metaphorically step into and see how the stories and characters are aware of each other, influencing each other.
* Quotes are from the 2003 hardcover edition by Viking.
** 2014 reprint by Manor Minor Press.
*** 2015 reprint by Manor Minor Press.
**** “Reading Woman,” by Géza Vörös.