Friday, January 27, 2012

Metanarratives For Fun and Profit

I am reading a critical edition of Edgar Allen Poe's novella The Narrative of Artur Gordon Pym of Nantucket in which the preface, footnotes and appendices outweigh Poe's text by nearly two-to-one. It's fabulous and fascinating and thought-provoking. Everything one wants from a critical edition.

I have recently read Vladimir Nabokov's novel Pale Fire, which is structured as a poem by a fictitious poet named John Shade published posthumously in a critical edition with an introduction and notes by Shade's colleague Charles Kinbote. The introduction and notes form a story of their own, as Kinbote riffs on elements of the poem and streams his consciousness through his own mighty ego and personal history. There's the possibility that the poem also comments on the personal history of Kinbote, and some readers have advanced the idea that the whole book (poem, notes, fictional(?) Kinbote backstory, etc) are all projections through the poet of a story being told from beyond the grave by Shade's daughter. I don't know about that last idea, but some folks like it. Anyway, Pale Fire is a multilayered story where the primary narrative (the poem) is expanded/commented upon by a second narrator (Kinbote) through the critical notes.

Having just read the Nabokov, I have to keep fighting against the idea that this critical edition of Pym is the same sort of book. I have to keep reminding myself that the copious footnotes do not tell a story about the editor, that the Poe narrative is not a veiled account of a conflict with the editor, who is using the notes to cast doubt upon any possible "reality" of the narrative, because the editor has something to cover up and the only way he can do that is to try to make Poe look insane or dishonest, and that if I read closely enough, I'll see all the holes in the editor's story, the cracks in his logic, etc, and then I'll know what really happened. Of course, none of this is going on in this book. But what if it was? That could be interesting. Maybe, I think, I should write something like this. I'd give the primary author a chance to write an afterword, too, where he comments on the footnotes. Then I'd let the editor (who would be a guy named Scott Bailey, I think) insert notes into the primary text itself, written after the author's afterword was written. Etc. There would be all sorts of layers and denials and accusations being made, but none of them overtly. Different type faces, etc. That could be great fun. Possibly too derivative of Nabokov, though.


  1. Hehehe, that last part made me giggle, especially the different typefaces. Oh, the fun you could have.

  2. It could be a blast. Though novels with footnotes are kind of a fad right now. But I just had the idea that the editor could maybe have been the long-term lover of the author, and the editor's footnotes could tell the story of having been betrayed by the writer, thrown over for another woman or whatever. That could be fun. Sort of the idea that whoever lives longest gets the last word, history written by the victor and all of that stuff. Loads of possibilities. Too bad I have about five other novels to write before I'll have time for this one!

  3. Novels with footnotes are a fad? Oooo...I have yet to pick one up, but I want to. I might even want to write one. It seriously does sound fun. :)

  4. See here, among other places: