One Little Golden Book on my daughter's bookshelf is not like the others. The protagonist starts talking before the copyright information is displayed. He talks about the wordy copyright page. He calls attention to the fact that he is, indeed, in a book. And then... he talks directly to the reader, warning, "There is a monster at the end of this book!"
The protagonist is Grover, from Sesame Street. (For those of you who don't have four-year-olds and aren't steeped in muppet-culture, he's the blue furry one. Not the annoying red furry one whose fingernails-on-chalkboard voice sends me fleeing the room.) The book, entitled The Monster at the End of This Book, chronicles Grover's attempts to keep (presumably giggling) preschoolers from reaching "The End." He begs them, "Please don't turn the page!" He ties pages together with illustrations of rope. He builds illustrations of walls. Anything to avoid having to face "the monster" he has heard lurks near the back cover.
My daughter loves this book. I love this book. She, because the book is talking to her and because it's funny that Grover thinks he can defeat her page-turning with pictures of barriers, and because she's in on the joke about who the "monster" is. I, because The Monster at the End of This Book amounts to preschooler meta-fiction and I have a fixation—perhaps nearly an obsession--with meta-fiction, stories that are self-referential, that call attention to their own "story-ness," that won't allow the reader to completely lose him/herself in a waking dream.
I'm in love with the meta-. I also hate it. Perhaps this is the definition of obsession. (Another definition of obsession might be spending ten years writing meta-fiction that itself has a love/hate relationship to meta-fiction-my novel How To Buy a Love of Reading.)
There are many reasons, I think, to dislike meta-fiction. It provokes suspicion that the writer is being clever for cleverness's sake, having a good time with the reader just along for the ride. It takes away from the Oz-like experience of reading by pulling back the curtain without asking the reader if he or she wants to see what's behind it. It privileges structure and intellectualism, perhaps, over emotion--for is it really possible to bond with characters, to care for them, while being continually reminded that they're just characters?
And yet something draws me—us—to it. A four-year-old "gets" that there is something interesting, and even inviting, about a text that doesn't try to hide its fictionality. A book where the protagonist dares to ask things like why is there all this little writing at the beginning of the book before the story happens? Every person I know who watched Seinfeld remembers fondly the episode when Jerry and George write a TV show pilot for "a show about nothing"—a show that mirrors exactly the plot of Seinfeld. What a relief-and how inclusive-was that moment when Seinfeld viewers laughed at and embraced the fact that they, too, had for years watched a show about nothing? My own introduction to self-referentiality in literature occurred in high school, with Tom Stoppard's play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. That the characters knew they were doomed to repeat their fates—that they knew their character-ness forever changed the way I read. Rather than pushing me away, rather than making the characters "just characters," this self-referentiality gave me a new sense of empathy. If they are just characters, went my thinking, perhaps so am I. They are stuck. I have been stuck. Most of us aren't even aware of our own stuck-ness.
At its best, I think, metafiction celebrates story, invites us in, and delights in blurring the boundaries between "people" and "characters" in ways that invest us in the narrative rather push us out of it. I think of taking the journey through John Barth's "Lost in the Funhouse." I think of "Poot-tee-weet?" the last line of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, a line we've been told early on in the book will be the last line in the book and which, when repeated at the end, always brings me to tears.
And I think of Grover, who when he realizes he is the monster at the end of the book, is so relieved that the reader—who has known the punchline of the joke all along—feels relief along with him. Somehow Grover feels more real for it—and more lovable, too, for the way he reappears on the page after The End to whisper to us, "I'm so embarrassed." I want to give Grover a hug—and because metafictionality allows him to step out of the story, I am able to embrace him.