“Whoever is in charge here?”
-Daffy Duck, Merrie Melodies (1953)
Like all of us, Daffy Duck was perennially put upon by his Creator. The sputtering, rageful water fowl’s life was a morass of indignity, embarrassment, anxiety, and existential horror. Despite all of the humiliation Daffy had to contend with, the aquatic bird was perfectly willing to shake his wings at the unfair universe. As expertly delivered by voice artist Mel Blanc, Daffy could honk “Who is responsible for this? I demand that you show yourself!” In animator Chuck Jones’s brilliant and classic 1953 episode of Merrie Melodies titled “Duck Amuck,” he presents Daffy as a veritable Everyduck, a sinner in the hands of a smart-assed illustrator. “Duck Amuck” has remained a canonical episode in the Warner Brothers cartoon catalog, its postmodern, metafictional experimentation heralded for its daring and cheekiness. Any account of what critics very loosely term “postmodern literature”—with its playfulness, its self-referentiality, and it’s breaking of the fourth wall—that considers Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, Vladimir Nabokov, and Paul Auster but not Jones is only telling part of the metafictional story. Not for nothing, but two decades ago, “Duck Amuck” was added to the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as an enduring piece of American culture.
Throughout the episode, Jones depicts increasingly absurd metafictional scenarios involving Daffy’s sublime suffering. Jones first imagines Daffy as a swordsman in a Three Musketeers parody, only to have him wander into a shining, white abyss as the French Renaissance background fades away. “Look Mac,” Daffy asks, never one to let ontological terror impinge on his sense of personal justice, “what’s going on here?” Jones wrenches the poor bird from the musketeer scenery to the blinding whiteness of the nothing-place, then to a bucolic pastoral, and finally to a paradisiacal Hawaiian beach. Daffy’s admirable sense of his own integrity remains intact, even throughout his torture. Pushed through multiple parallel universes, wrenched, torn, and jostled through several different realities, Daffy shouts “All right wise guy, where am I?”
But eventually not even his own sense of identity is allowed to continue unaffected, as the God-animator turns him into a country-western singer who can only produce jarring sound effects from his guitar, or as a transcendent paintbrush recolors Daffy blue. At one point the animator’s pencil impinges into Daffy’s world, erasing him, negating him, making him nothing. Daffy’s very being, his continued existence depends on the whims of a cruel and capricious God; his is in the world of Shakespeare’s King Lear, where the Duke of Gloucester utters his plaintive cry, “As flies are to wanton boys are we to th’ gods; / They kill us for their sport.” Or at least they erase us. Finally, like Job before the whirlwind, Daffy implores, “Who is responsible for this? I demand that you show yourself!” As the view pans upward, into that transcendent realm of paper and ink where the animator-God dwells, it’s revealed to be none other than the trickster par excellence, Bugs Bunny. “Ain’t I a stinker?” the Lord saith.
Creation, it should be said, is not accomplished without a certain amount of violence. According to one perspective, we can think of Daffy’s tussling with Bugs as being a variation on that venerable old Aristotelian narrative conflict of “Man against God.” If older literature was focused on the agon (as the Greeks put it) between a human and a deity, and modernist literature concerned itself with the conflict that resulted as people had to confront the reality of no God, then the wisdom goes that our postmodern moment is fascinated with the idea of a fictional character searching out his or her creator. According to narrative theorists, that branch of literary study that concerns itself with the structure and organization of story and plot (not synonyms incidentally), such metafictional affectations are technically called metalepsis. H. Porter Abbot in his invaluable The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative explains that such tales involve a “violation of narrative levels” when a “storyworld, is invaded by an entity or entities from another narrative level.”
Metalepsis can be radical in its execution, as when an “extradiegetic narrator” (that means somebody from outside the story entirely) enters into the narrative, as in those narratives where an “’author appears and starts quarreling with one of the characters,” Abbot writes. We’ll see that there are precedents for that sort of thing, but whether interpreted as gimmick or deep reflection on the idea of literature, the conceit that has a narrator enter into the narrative as if theophany is most often associated with something called, not always helpfully, “postmodernism.” Whatever that much-maligned term might mean, in popular parlance it has an association with self-referentiality, recursiveness, and metafictional playfulness (even if readers might find cleverness such as that exhausting). The term might as well be thought of as referring to our historical preponderance of literature that knows that it is literature.
With just a bit of British disdain in his critique, The New Yorker literary critic James Wood writes in his pithy and helpful How Fiction Works that “postmodern novelists… like to remind us of the metafictionality of all things.” Think of the crop of experimental novelists and short story writers from the ’60s, such as John Barth in his Lost in the Funhouse, where one story is to be cut out and turned into an actual Moebius strip; Robert Coover in the classic and disturbing short story “The Babysitter,” in which a variety of potential realities and parallel histories exist simultaneously in the most mundane of suburban contexts; and John Fowles in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, in which the author also supplies multiple “forking paths” to the story and where the omniscient narrator occasionally appears as a character in the book. Added to this could be works where the actual first-person author themselves becomes a character, such as Auster’s New York Trilogy, or Philip Roth’s Operation Shylock (among other works where he appears as a character). Not always just as a character, but as the Creator, for if the French philosopher Roland Barthes killed off the idea of such a figure in his seminal 1967 essay “The Death of the Author,” then much of the period’s literature resurrected Him. Wood notes, perhaps in response to Barthes, that “A certain kind of postmodern novelist…is always lecturing us: ‘Remember, this character is just a character. I invented him.’” Metafiction is when fiction thinks about itself.
Confirming Wood’s observation, Fowles’s narrator writes in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, “This story I am telling is all imagination. These characters I create never existed outside my own mind…the novelist stands next to God. He may not know all, yet he tries to pretend that he does.” Metafictional literature like this is supposed to interrogate the idea of the author, the idea of the reader, the very idea of narrative. When the first line to Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler,” it has been signaled that the narrative you’re entering is supposed to be different from those weighty tomes of realism that supposedly dominated in previous centuries. If metalepsis is a favored gambit of our experimental novelists, then it’s certainly omnipresent in our pop culture as well, beyond just “Duck Amuck.”
A list of sitcoms that indulge the conceit includes 30 Rock, Community, Scrubs, and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. The final example, which after all was already an experimental narrative about a wholesome kid from West Philly named Will played by a wholesome rapper from West Philly named Will Smith, was a font of avant-garde fourth-wall breaking deserving of Luigi Pirandello or Bertolt Brecht. Prime instances would include the season five episodes “Will’s Misery,” which depicts Carlton running through the live studio audience, and “Same Game, Next Season,” in which Will asks “If we so rich, why we can’t afford no ceiling,” with the camera panning up to show the rafters and lights of the soundstage. Abbot writes that metafiction asks “to what extent do narrative conventions come between us and the world?” which in its playfulness is exactly what The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is doing, forcing its audience to consider how “they act as invisible constructors of what we think is true, shaping the world to match our assumptions.”
Sitcoms like these are doing what Barth, Fowles, and Coover are doing—they’re asking us to examine the strange artificiality of fiction, this illusion in which we’re asked by a hidden author to hallucinate and enter a reality that isn’t really there. Both audience and narrator are strange, abstracted constructs; their literal corollaries of reader and writer aren’t much more comprehensible. When we read a third-person omniscient narrator, it would be natural to ask “Who exactly is supposed to be recounting this story?” Metafiction is that which does ask that question. It’s the same question that the writers of The Office confront us with when we wonder, “Who exactly is collecting all of that documentary footage over those nine seasons?”
Far from being simply a postmodern trick, metalepsis as a conceit and the metafiction that results have centuries’ worth of examples. Interactions between creator and created, and certainly author and audience, have a far more extensive history than both a handful of tony novelists from the middle of the 20th century and the back catalog of Nick at Nite. For those whose definition of the novel doesn’t consider anything written before 1945, it might come as a shock that all of the tricks we associate with metafiction thread so deep into history that realist literature can seem the exception rather than the rule. This is obvious in drama; the aforementioned theater term “breaking the fourth wall” attests to the endurance of metalepsis in literature. As a phrase, it goes back to Molière in the 17th century, referring to when characters in a drama acknowledge their audience, when they “break” the invisible wall that separates the action of the stage from that of the observers in their seats. If Molière coined the term, it’s certainly older than even him. In all of those asides in Shakespeare—such as that opening monologue of Richard III when the title villain informs all of us who are joining him on his descent into perdition that “Now is the winter of our discontent”—we’re, in some sense, to understand ourselves as being characters in the action of the play itself.
As unnatural as Shakespearean asides may seem, they don’t have the same sheer metaleptic import of metafictional drama from the avant-garde theater of the 20th century. Pirandello’s classic experimental play Six Characters in Search of an Author is illustrative here, a high-concept work in which unfinished and unnamed characters arrive at a Pirandello production asking their creator to more fully flesh them out. As a character named the Father explains, the “author who created us alive no longer wished…materially to put us into a work of art. And this was a real crime.” A real crime because to be a fictional character means that you cannot die, even though “The man, the writer, the instrument of the creation will die, but his creation does not die.” An immaculate creation outliving its creator, more blessed than the world that is forever cursed to be ruled over by its God. But first Pirandello’s unfortunates must compel their God to grant them existence; they need a “fecundating matrix, a fantasy which could rise and nourish them: make them live forever!” If this seems abstract, you should know that such metaleptic tricks were staged long before Pirandello, and Shakespeare for that matter. Henry Medwall’s 1497 Fulgens and Lucrece, the first secular play in the entire English canon, has two characters initially named “A” and “B” who argue about a play only to have it revealed that the work in question is actually Medwall’s, which the audience is currently watching. More than a century later, and metafictional poses were still explored by dramatists, a prime and delightful example being Shakespeare’s younger contemporary and sometimes-collaborator Francis Beaumont’s The Knight of the Burning Pestle. In that Jacobean play of 1607, deploying a conceit worthy of Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, Beaumont imagines the production of a play-within-a-play entitled The London Merchant. In the first act, two characters climb the stage from the audience, one simply called “Citizen” and the other “Wife,” and begin to heckle and critique The London Merchant, and its perceived unfairness to the rapidly ascending commercial class. The Knight of the Burning Pestle allows the audience to strike back, the Citizen cheekily telling the actor reading the prologue, “Boy, let my wife and I have a couple of stools / and then begin; and let the grocer do rare / things.”
Historical metalepsis can also be seen in what are called “frame tales,” that is, stories-within-stories that nestle narratives together like Russian dolls. Think of the overreaching narrative of Geoffrey Chaucer’s 14th-century The Canterbury Tales with its pilgrims telling each other their stories as they make their way to the shrine of Thomas Becket, or of Scheherazade recounting her life-saving anthology to her murderous husband in One Thousand and One Nights, as compiled from folktales during the Islamic Golden Age from the eighth to 14th centuries. Abbot describes frame tales by explaining that “As you move to the outer edges of a narrative, you may find that it is embedded in another narrative.” Popular in medieval Europe, and finding their structure from Arabic and Indian sources that go back much further, frame tales are basically unified anthologies where an overreaching narrative supplies its own meta-story. Think of Giovanni Boccaccio’s 14th-century Decameron, in which seven women and three men each tell 10 stories to pass the time while they’re holed up in a villa outside of Florence to await the passage of the Black Death through the city. The 100 resulting stories are ribald, earthy, and sexy, but present through all of their telling is an awareness of the tellers, this narrative about a group of young Florentines in claustrophobic, if elegant, quarantine. “The power of the pen,” one of Boccaccio’s characters says on their eighth day in exile, “is far greater than those people suppose who have not proved it by experience.” Great enough, it would seem, to create a massive sprawling world with so many stories in it. “In my father’s book,” the character would seem to be saying of his creator Boccaccio, “there are many mansions.”
As metaleptic as frame tales might be, a reader will note that Chaucer doesn’t hitch up for that long slog into Canterbury himself, nor does Boccaccio find himself eating melon and prosciutto while quaffing chianti with his aristocrats in The Decameron. But it would be a mistake to assume that older literature lacks examples of the “harder” forms of metalepsis, that writing before the 20th century is devoid of the Author-God appearing to her characters as if God on Sinai. So-called “pre-modern” literature is replete with whimsical experimentation that would seem at home in Nabokov or Calvino; audiences directly addressed on stage and books speaking as themselves to their readers, authors appearing in narratives as creators, and fictions announcing their fictionality.
Miguel de Cervantes’s 17th-century Don Quixote plays with issues of representation and artificiality when the titular character and his trusty squire, Sancho Panza, visit a print shop that is producing copies of the very book you are reading, the errant knight and his sidekick then endeavoring to prove that it is an inferior plagiarism of the real thing. Cervantes’s narrator reflects at an earlier point in the novel about the novel itself, enthusing that “we now enjoy in this age of ours, so poor in light entertainment, not only the charm of his veracious history, but also of the tales and episodes contained in it which are, in a measure, no less pleasing, ingenious, and truthful, than the history itself.” Thus Cervantes, in what is often considered the first novel, can lay claim to being the primogeniture of both realism and metafictionality.
Following Don Quixote’s example could be added other metafictional works that long precede “postmodernism,” including Laurence Sterne’s 18th-century The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, where the physical book takes time to mourn the death of a central character (when an all-black page is printed); the Polish count Jan Potocki’s underread late-18th-century The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, with not just its fantastic caste of Iberian necromancers, kabbalists, and occultists, but its intricate frame structure and forking paths (not least of which include reference to the book that you’re reading); James Hogg’s Satanic masterpiece The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, in which the author himself makes an appearance; and Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, in which the characters remark on how it feels as if they’re in a gothic novel (or perhaps a parody of one). Long before Barthes killed the Author, writers were conflating themselves as creator with the Creator. As Sterne notes, “The thing is this. That of all the several ways of beginning a book which are now in practice throughout the known world, I am confident my own way of doing it is the best—I’m sure it is the most religious—for I begin with writing the first sentence—and trusting to Almighty God for the second.”
Sterne’s sentiment provides evidence as to why metafiction is so alluring and enduring, despite its minimization by some critics who dismiss it as mere trick while obscuring its long history. What makes metalepsis such an intellectually attractive conceit goes beyond simply that it makes us question how literature and reality interact, but rather what it implies about the Author whom Sterne gestures toward—“Almighty God.” The author of Tristram Shandy understood, as all adept priests of metafiction do (whether explicitly or implicitly), that at its core, metalepsis is theological. In questioning and confusing issues of characters and writers, narrators and readers, actors and audience, metafiction experiments with the very idea of creation. Some metafiction privileges the author as being the supreme-God of the fiction, as in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and some castes its lot with the characters, as in The Knight of the Burning Pestle. Some metafiction is “softer” in its deployment, allowing the characters within a narrative to give us stories-within-stories; other is “harder” in how emphatic it is about the artifice and illusion of fiction, as in Jones’s sublime cartoon. What all of them share however, is an understanding that fiction is a strange thing, an illusion whereby whether we’re gods or penitents, we’re all privy to a world spun from something as ephemeral as letters and breath. Wood asks, “Is there a way in which all of us are fictional characters, parented by life and written by ourselves?” And the metaphysicians of metafiction answer in the affirmative.
As a final axiom, to join my claim that metafiction is when literature thinks about itself and that metalepsis has a far longer history than is often surmised, I’d finally argue that because all fiction—all literature—is artifice, that all of it is in some sense metafiction. What defines fiction, what makes it different from other forms of language, is that quality of metalepsis. Even if not explicitly stated, the differing realms of reality implied by the very existence of fiction imply something of the meta. Abbot writes “World-making is so much a part of most narratives that some narrative scholars have begun to include it as a defining feature of narrative,” and of that I heartily concur. Even our scripture is metafictional, for what else are we to call the Bible in which Moses is both author and character, and where his death itself is depicted? In metafiction perspective is confused, writer turns to reader, narrator to character, creator to creation. No more apt a description of metafiction, of fiction, of life than that which is offered by Prospero at the conclusion of The Tempest: “Our revels now are ended. These our actors, / As I foretold you, were all spirits and / Are melted into air, into thin air.” For Prospero, the “great globe itself…all which it inherit, shall dissolve / And, like this insubstantial pageant faded…We are such stuff / As dreams are made on, and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep.” Nothingness before and nothingness after, but with everything in between, just like the universe circumscribed by the cover of a book. Metafiction has always defined literature; we’ve always been characters in a novel that somebody else is writing.