Books about books about books!
My original plan was to write a fancy post about how the metafictional strategies used in John Barth’s Lost in The Funhouse and Jorge Luis Borge’s Ficciones reveal beautiful things about love, narrative, and existential dread. I then realized that almost no one would want to read that, so I decided to write about The Princess Bride and The Stinky Cheese Man instead.
For those unfamilair with the term, “metafiction” refers to works of fiction that exists within other works of fiction. Perhaps the modern shorthand for this multi-layered approach to storytelling is just to whisper the word “Inception” and go “OoooOOoh!” However, I assure you that the concept already existed is a pre-Christopher Nolan world…if you can even imagine such a thing.
One of the oldest examples of this device is in Arabian Nights, a work dear to both Barth and Borges. A giant web of stories is held together by an outer layer in which Scheherazade and her sister continually delay their execution at the hands of the king by telling a long story in which characters tell stories containing more characters who tell even more stories. Every night ends in a cliffhanger that convinces the king to keep them alive one more night in order to hear the story’s conclusion the following day. This outermost story Scheherazade and her sister is called the “frame tale” while the stories they tell would be considered “metafiction.”
The first time I encountered this device was in second grade when I was introduced to the greatest children’s book ever written: The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith. The main character in this underrated literary classic is Jack (of Beanstalk fame) who plays the role of a stage director attempting to assemble a collection of fairly stupid tales. Here, Jack’s story is the frame tale and the stories he tells are the metafiction. Things go awry from the very beginning, when The Little Red Hen shows up on the patterned endpaper before we even get to the title page. She is unhappy with both the lack of help she has received in making her bread and the lack of help she has received in telling her story. As a kid, this was the first time I had ever even considered the existence of title pages and ISBN numbers and seeing them mocked was a revelation for the 8 year old me. The physical book that surrounds the frame tale that surrounds the fairly stupid tales is something that The Stinky Cheese Man delights in commenting upon and it irreparably changed the way I thought about books.
Jack completely fails to assemble a coherent book and the whole thing is an undeniable disaster. His inability to keep the characters in check prepares the reader for the subversive nature of the fairly stupid tales themselves. They’re almost all anti-climaxes where kissing frogs results in nothing other than slime on your lips and stinky cheese men remain unchased due to their sheer stinkiness. The format lets you know that the stories are deliberate failures and are meant to funny for that reason. Since laughing at the stories themselves is perhaps a tad conceptual, Jack’s character provides a more concrete subject at which to direct our laughter.
Scieszka makes his debt to Arabian Nights clear in Jack’s story about himself. In order to stop the giant from eating him, he retells the story they’re in which itself contains the same story again and so on and so on. The story trails off the bottom of the page and theoretically goes on forever until you turn the page. There are an infinite number of layers containing an infinite number of Jacks. Programmers can think of this as being a recursive function, art fans can think of this as being an an M.C. Escher drawing, and literature fans can think of it as being…well, metafiction.
While these ideas might at first seem to be little more than fun tricks used get a laugh, in the right hands they can bring forth concepts that go beyond mere aesthetic pleasure.
A wonderful example of this is in The Princess Bride. While the part of the movie that first comes to mind for most people is the fairy tale narrative, this part of the plot only exists within a frame tale where Columbo reads the metafictional story to his grandson, Kevin from The Wonder Years.
Most popular sci-fi and fantasy stories have an outsider character who is encountering the world for the first time: your Luke Skywalkers and Frodo Bagginses and so forth. These characters provide a convenient excuse for the world to be explained to the viewer and give you someone to relate to.
In the Princess Bride, the outsiders in the fantasy world literally exist outside of the story. Other characters come and go at various points in the plot, but Kevin and Columbo never leave our side. The audience is meant to identify with them more than anyone else and our own questions and reactions are mirrored through their dialogue. This was an important and very deliberate choice on the part of the writers, as the movie is more concerned with how stories fit into our lives than it is with sword fights or rodents of unusual size.
Just like a young Ross McLean, Kevin initially isn’t too keen on romance and gets Columbo to skip some of the mushy bits. No one wants to read one of those dreaded “kissing books.” However, over the course of the movie, the power of storytelling and his deepening relationship with his grandfather make him grow as a character and by the end he actually wants to hear about the romantic finale. In doing so, the movie ask cynical viewers to consider doing the same.
Chances are The Princess Bride wasn’t the first story that you ever heard (if it was, then you started in a weird place) and isn’t the first one Kevin has heard, either. He knows some things about how stories are meant to work, including that they’re supposed to have happy endings. When it seems like this might not be the case, he becomes upset and the movie starts asking the viewer some questions. Do stories always have a happy ending? Does life always have a happy ending? How are stories the same as life and how are they different?
The experienced viewer probably still expects things to work out fine, and when it turns out to just be a dream sequence their suspicions are confirmed. We see the shallowness inherent to this kind of device but also still identify with Kevin when he brags about how he knew things would be okay the whole time. Columbo immediately chides him for this, by saying “Yes, yes, you’re very smart. Now, shut up.” There is a great vicarious pleasure to be had when hearing Columbo putting Kevin in his place.
This identification with the older generation is important, as well. Kevin is arrogant and assumes he understands how things work, even though it is Ol’ Grandpa Columbo who is holding the book. It’s a story that has been passed down for generations and is more than just a fairy tale: it is the love and knowledge given to us by our elders. While this is a beautiful act, it is inevitably met with resistance by the younger generation. However, by learning to appreciate the love story within the metafictional plot, he comes to appreciate the love given to him by his grandfather too: This is the power of storytelling. Kevin asks him to read the story to him again and Columbo repeats the words of the fictional Wesley by saying “As you wish,” to mean “I love you.” Columbo reading to Kevin is an act of love and Kevin begins to understand at this at the end of the film.
The characters within the fairy tale struggle with ideas of narrative, as well. Inigo Montoya structures his whole life around fulfilling a revenge fantasy but when he completes his quest he realizes that he was just following a plot that he had laid out for himself. His growth as a character doesn’t come from the satisfaction of killing his father’s murderer, it comes from the realization that by focusing on this mission he was missing out on the rest of life. He frees himself from the constraints of plot and is finally able to take the time to live and love. He may exist within a fairy tale, but his character doesn’t suit the framework.
In some ways life is like a story, and in some ways it is not. The Princess Bride wants us to consider how our lives compare to the stories we tell and ask why we tell these stories in the first place. They have things to teach us but at the same time our lives aren’t the same as a fairy tale. In all cases, what’s most important seems to be love.
It’s a pretty great movie, you guys. Also, now is probably a good time to admit that I haven’t watched it in at least four or five years, so this is all just from memory. But I think I watched it enough times as a kid to remember most of the details.
And guess what else? I tricked you into reading a whole post about fancy post-modern stuff by making it about The Princess Bride and The Stinky Cheese Man! I switched the topic when you weren’t looking! Ha! You fool! You fell victim to one of the classic blunders!
Later this week I’m going to write about how these techniques are used by Barth and Borges to ask more existential and epistemological questions. They’re also pretty funny writers, so it should be a lot of fun. Plus, you read all this, so you might as well keep going and read the second part too.