If you introduce a metafictional element into a work of fiction – what are the causes and effects of it?
The easiest analysis is that it makes the explicit statement: “This is not real”. That is the cause.
Interpretations about postmodernism aside – what is the direct and visceral effect of doing so?
Because meta-fiction is a device that appears in many shades, there are many answers to this.
If you insert the author as a framing device, like Vonnegut did in Slaughterhouse Five, and have him appear at moments inside the text, and have the text draw attention to that – you create a precedence for artificiality and interjection. This is a very useful device for drawing out of the events within the book. If you have a book that is entirely about a whining and edgy teen’s thoughts – but have an author undercut it with constant comments, you can provide a significant balance – like a kind of ‘greater view’. So Vonnegut uses his own presence as one of the many elements to draw away from the horrors of war, and make it seem all the more ridiculous.
This method, I think, was coined by Brecht – but he used it for silly Marxist-theoretical reasons rather than caring about the actual effects in the fiction itself. Thus, to have the character in a work decide to break out into a long exposition about the socio-economic realities of his/her life halfway through, because he thought that merely creating the metafictional distancing would ‘shift the audience into a more analytical state of mind’.
In actual fact, what it does is bores the audience. An example of this is Godard’s Tout Va Bien – which attempts to showcase the ins and outs of a strike by having the manager and the workers have long monologues ranting about their lives and their feelings halfway through. This would work if we already had empathy towards the characters, but sadly our feeble human minds, if we are not synced with the character’s personalities, will not read this as an excuse to be analytic, but an excuse to be bored.
Now the fact is that the act of reading a book is still the act of reading a book, so if you keep using metafiction for its own sake, and have the author say this is a book every 2nd page – then it serves no purpose after the first few attempts. In other words, metafiction must still be beautiful, witty, or well-written.
There is another usage of metafiction that goes beyond merely using it as a distancing effect to create the possibility of ironic and artificial commentary.
This would be what stuff like Undertale does – using it as an attack towards the reader. A problem is that an attack is useless if they do not feel it. And to feel the attack, it must be logical. Funny Games by Haneke, for example, does not sound like a particularly good attack. If you make a horror movie and then critique the viewers for sadistically enjoying it, you have to actually make a sadistically enjoyable horror movie so that they can feel the contrast directly.
The attack can be made in two ways. Either the text or a character directly comments on it, or there is a stand-in for the viewer within the work itself that is an obvious analogue. Interactive mediums have a third choice – they can make the viewer directly culpable through giving interactive possibilities.
Whatever it is – attacks done well are so rare, because in order to have it told in your face, while having the viewer feel it as well, requires such an in-depth knowledge of how to create contradictory emotions that you can play the viewer like a violin. In some cases, it may be done so well that a less perceptual viewer may not realize that it’s actually an attack.
SubaHibi begins with a quote from Cyrano de Bergerac that, taken in isolation, is about a poet giving beautiful fantasies to a reader. In this case it would be Cyrano and Christian. In a way, this is taking a third option – neither attacking (although it will have quite a few attacks later – like a lot of It’s My Own Invention scenes) nor creating detachment (although it will have quite a number of detached moments later – like any Otonashi Ayana speech). This third option is – more or less – celebration of the artifice.
And setting this precedence is important, because a lot of SubaHibi rests on its ability to use entire genres as representative of certain states. In SubaHibi, Slice of Life Comedy or Yuri Romance is paradisiacal. The Mystery Genre is representative of a downward spiral into Chaos. DtRH1 is a depiction of an ideal state before it collapses into the puzzle and chaos of DtRH2. As the story drags itself up back to the paradisiacal state (that is, when it finally gives the path to you – the reader) – it starts inserting Slice of Life or Heroic Action Tropes back into the story.
SCA-JI understands exactly what kind of effects whatever tropes or stereotypes he uses will create – and thus he can merge them and give them new meanings from their previous bonds and stale connotations. Furthermore, he uses the structure of knowing the plot before seeing it through another character’s eyes – such that these tropes are undercut with a greater significance when you, for example, see a happy scene while knowing what will happen later. Kind of like the Alfred Hitchcock – tell the audience there’s a bomb in the room trick but taken up several degrees. So he does not need to be able to come up with as many interesting jokes as Romeo, nor does he need to be as good a mystery writer as many New Orthodoxers, nor does he need to come up with the same kind of action prose that Urobuchi can write.
What SCA-JI has to focus on is the moments that are peculiarly his – which are the poetic and philosophic moments that helps to knit the story together. This is not to say that any other writer could have come in and filled up the rest of the parts as long as they kept the key moments (because SCA-JI also weaves in various echoes and resemblances within the other moments here and there) – but if you want to get an inkling as to how he created the effects he did, you must track the juxtaposition of the genres and the pacing of the philosophical scenes themselves.
While using contrasting genres as a way to make the reader feel a blend of emotions is a feat in itself, this is where the usage of metafiction – or, in this case Cyrano de Bergerac – helps to set a precedence for the extensive genre abuse that will appear later.
This creates a mnemonic circuit. Once you come to the end of the story, and you’ve seen all the clashing parts forming together as a whole, then the poetic epigraph gains significance. It is kind of like a promise that is kept all the way to the end. I have told you that I am going to give you the greatest artifice – and now I have given it to you. That kind of thing that Shakespeare also did with the ending orations of The Tempest and A Midsummer’s Night Dream. Fiction celebrating its ability to create beautiful fantasies.
And this – to me – is the finest trick. Which is much higher than the mere statement of “Live Happily” – which some people may choose to read as ‘finding happiness in the calmness of daily life despite all of its troubles – and not seeking for any kind of metaphysical reprieve in an afterlife – since death does not exist”.
A problem with this interpretation is that it does not exactly fit SubaHibi – whose artifices and reliance on Slice of Life tropes are quite distant from any semblance to real life, while its most directly truthful moments comes from some of its most painful moments of suffering. To be honest, that kind of moral would fit something like a Yasujiro Ozu film, or a Hirokazu Koreeda film, or Yoji Yamamoto’s The Twilight Samurai better – or even the Up Documentaries. Mihaly Csikszenthmihalyi’s Optimal Experience is a better text at teaching the secret to appreciating daily life.
The trick is this – SubaHibi has convinced you to live in happiness in your own realistic daily life (if you are open to the message that is) – whilst the entire story is made up of the highest level of artifice – and it directly throws this fact in your face with the very first epigraph. In other words, it is a story about the triumph of Fiction over life, underscoring life, and making life all the more vibrant because of it. The moral of the story is not just “Live Happily” but “Live Happy Fantasies” – the failure of happiness for some of the characters in the work is not due to being delusional, but due to having the wrong delusions.
And so, you find yourself drawn – asking: “Why is it that I’ve seen these acts before, done so many times, and yet all of those previous moments were merely amusements? Why is it now that I have realized their full enchantment?” If you examine the constituents of SubaHibi in their individual parts – you come to the same conclusion as what a character described Cyrano de Bergerac as – an easy entertainment designed to make you feel comfortable – not an outstanding play, but a witty and playful one.
It is for this exact reason that SubaHibi opens up the highest potential for the metafictional – it keeps you within the circle for the duration of its spell, despite you being fully aware of the circle. It uses that awareness the same way a magician uses misdirection in a magic trick. The more you are aware, the more you find yourself still strangely affected by its contents – and then that sets the stage for the true performance to sink in.