Meta from the Greek meaning ‘beyond’ and ‘self’. Fiction from the old French meaning ‘arbitrary invention’. Metafiction, then, is a self-aware invented creation. Something made up that knows it’s made up. One of the best known works of metafiction, I would suggest, is If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino, which is a book about the failed attempt of a reader reading a book called If on a winter’s night a traveler. The chapters alternate between this plot and the opening chapters of books the reader is reading. The book is aware it is being read.
I’d heard about Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry (1973) by B S Johnson from a podcast. Possibly my sort of thing, I wondered? Not exactly speculative fiction in the usual sense, but I liked the way the book was described, and the more I heard about B S Johnson, the more I felt like this book would appeal to me. Johnson is not very well known, generally, and I imagine not at all known in the science fiction, fantasy and horror fandoms. However, I think he will be appreciated by readers of speculative fiction. Not only is Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry a cutting satire that is self-aware, but Johnson is deliberately pushing the boundaries of what a novel can be.
It is a relatively short book – the edition I read was 180 pages, many of them text free. And the plot is fairly straight-forward. Malry is a fairly disenfranchised young man who gets a job in a bank in order to be close to money – which he sees as the main path to happiness in life, along with sex. He soon realises he needs to be a bookkeeper or accountant in order to trace money. After enrolling on a course, he finds himself working in sweet factory, in the wages department. He meets a girl, and they fall in love, having lots of sex. He devises his very own double-entry bookkeeping system, which he applies to his own life; “crediting” himself against society in an increasingly violent manner for perceived “debits” owed to him for being maltreated.
Once I read the opening few pages I knew this book was for me. I immediately saw what Johnson was doing with Malry and could find myself agreeing with his logic. For example, he has no choice about how he walks down a path. He agrees with society that he can’t walk on the road for fear of being hit by a vehicle, but is perturbed by the fact he can’t walk any other way, as there is a building in the way which has no relevance to him. Society, therefore has debited him in taking away a perceived choice. Despite free will and in the UK at least, the illusion of democracy, we don’t have a choice. We have to contribute to society in such and such a way. We have to behave in particular ways and journey through life in acceptable behaviours. There are many things in life I can’t do because it’s not my choice, even though no harm would arise from my chosen actions to myself or anyone else, and society might even benefit.
Thematically then, Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry hit all my buttons. I wonder if Chuck Palahniuk had read this book before writing Fight Club (1996)…
So this would have been a good book for me. However, the metafictional elements notched it up another level. Into great book territory. I crave to read (and hear and see) the different and the unusual. And yet here was Johnson pressing my buttons only a few years after I was born. Not only does this book know that it’s a story and has a reader, Johnson, lets us know that we know. He even talks direct to Christie in a chapter towards the conclusion. Let’s look at the evidence:
Early on, Johnson the story teller is indicating to us as the reader that what we do and don’t need to know about Christie’s life and past. Not so unusual, maybe. However, it is in chapter 3, when we meet his mother, that the full extent of Johnson’s intentions are laid bare. [Spoiler]. Christie’s mother talks to him in actual dialogue about her role in the novel. This role is nothing more than both as narrative and metafictional exposition. When that role is complete, she dies. In a single chapter. Awesome use of fiction in my opinion. Indeed, other characters, for example Christie’s girlfriend – known only as The Shrike throughout – are aware they are but characters in Christie’s novel and behave accordingly. Interesting solipsistic conceit, I think. I often think about how other people perceive me in my life, and wonder about the reality of the lives of others. Are they bit parts in my story, filling in the cracks of my reality? So as well as character knowing they are in a story, and Johnson appearing in a scene talking to Christie about the book, the style and presentation can also be called metafictional. I particularly enjoy the title of chapter 20: Not the longest chapter in this novel. Which itself is more than a quarter of the length of said chapter. One of the best comments is when Christie complains Johnson is using too many exclamation marks. Johnson also admits to the reader that he is often making stuff up as he goes along – as we all do in life.
The metafictional elements are amusing enough, but combined with the satirical swipes at society’s obsessions with money and sex (and remember this was 1973 and is equally relevant today) makes Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry one of the wittiest stories I’ve ever read. Combined with the textual elements addressing free will and a person’s place in the world, almost make this – thematically only – science fiction, although I’d certainly call it a horror story. It sits comfortably on the same shelf as Dick, Vonnegut and Ballard.
No book is self-aware, of course. No book understands itself. It is the author, when writing it, who is talking directly to the reader. True enough of works of metafiction. But then, doesn’t that apply to all fiction? Is all fiction, by definition, self-aware? In traditional fiction, characters behave in ways real people never would. Whereas I can see myself making Malry’s choices, Kirby, the main character in Lauren Beukes The Shining Girls (2013), goes after the man who attempted to murder her, herself. No-one would do that except a character in a story. So Kirby, and all other fictional characters, must act like she is in a story, and not like a real person. While Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry brilliantly wears itself on its sleeve, all authors behave in a similar way to Johnson, whether they admit it or not.
Some elements of this feature originally appeared here: http://www.hodderscape.co.uk/metafiction/