Inherent Anxieties In Metanarrative Fiction

Posted on
Sonny Ebsary
CRW 3112
Spring 2017 (2/31)
Inherent Anxieties in Metanarrative Storytelling

Inherent Anxieties in Metanarrative Storytelling; by Sonny Ebsary

Metanarrative storytelling has a highly respected and mythologized history. Metanarrative storytelling also has a long and storied tradition of upholding unhealthy psychological habits and impulses. Metanarrative is a stylistic flourish frequently used by artists dealing with issues of serious anxiety. By engaging in fictive devices predicated on the existence of other independent entities, these artists are putting the foundational aspects of their art into outside hands. Wesley and Williams performed a study on published metanarrative authors and found that over 70% were committed to some sort of mental institution, nearly ten percentage points higher than the average for authors in other fields. The following examples I will detail here are merely the beginning. It is up to you how to interpolate this anecdotal evidence into a fully formed opinion. 

Silhouetted In Blood (Hans Schubert, 1989)
The film is presented in documentary style as we are introduced to Hans Schubert (Alan Rickman), a respected veteran of genre filmmaking. After a decade of commercially successful films, he turns his efforts towards developing his passion project: a screenplay written by his deceased lover, Ray Ulrich (Gary Oldman) entitled “Silhouetted In Blood”. The film’s subject matter is highly taboo for its time, delving into the romantic relationship of two men as they are hunted by a cabal of state-sponsored private assassins. After having the script be labeled “too gay and too anarchist for Joe Public”, Schubert begins to revise the script into something that he believes will appease the studio executives. 
Several months later, the documentary crew is following Schubert as he begins production on his film. By this time, the homosexual relationship at the film’s emotional core has been replaced with a more conventional heterosexual one, and the complex socio-political commentary has been replaced with a squad of loosely affiliated mentally ill people. The studio has cast Gary Oldman (Gary Oldman) in the lead role that was primarily based on Ray. Although he bares a striking resemblance to Schubert’s departed lover, his primadonna attitude causes friction between Gary and Schubert. Due to poor weather and the increasingly volatile relationship between Gary Oldman and Schubert, the production quickly falls behind schedule. Privately to the documentary crew, Schubert confides that he cannot distinguish between Oldman and Ray, and that he believes he is losing his grip on reality. 
At the beginning of a shooting day, Schubert is unable to find his cinematographer. Oldman blames Schubert for the troubled production and claims that the production crew “isn’t worth the skin they’re made of”. In his search, he discovers that several other crewmembers have disappeared without his noticing. As it becomes increasingly apparent that there isn’t enough of the crew remaining to complete the film, Schubert realizes that the already unsupportive studio is unlikely to let him finish the film. In a virulent rage, Schubert approaches Oldman’s trailer repeatedly growling his intent to murder him. Schubert enters the trailer, only to run away screaming moments later. The documentary crew enters to find the mutilated remains of the crew arranged into a macabre totem. The camera is dropped to the ground and the film footage cuts out. 
Next, we see the camera be picked up in what is now an immaculate version of Gary Oldman’s trailer. The camera is lifted into the bathroom where we see in the mirror that it’s being held by Schubert. Schubert laments that he is in the death throes of his creative life, and that he will never make a film of value of substance. A white spotlight illuminates him, and he slowly ascends as his jaw remains agape. But the camera can’t follow.

In 1987, when John Ulrich (the then-head of Paramount Pictures) saw Hans Schubert’s final cut of the film, he immediately regretted giving Schubert final cut rights in his contract and quietly withdrew the plans for Silhouetted In Blood’s wide release. Inspired by Terry Gilliam’s taking out of an ad in Variety to shame Universal Studios into releasing his film Brazil, Schubert took out an ad on the billboard outside John Ulrich’s office building implying that he was the true father of Ulrich’s children due to an extramarital affair with Ulrich’s then-dead wife, and that his children were lucky to “have a father with any degree of tact or compassion”. Although this would ultimately only further delay the release of the film, later paternity tests did confirm that Schubert was indeed the children’s true father. 
When the film was finally released in a trivial number of theaters across the continental United States, the critical and audience response was tepid to say the least. Many have suggested that the film’s frank and compassionate portrayal of homosexuality alienated the audience that frequently attended Schubert’s more genre-oriented fare prior to the release of Silhouetted In Blood. In recent years, a small but loyal following of film scholars have championed Silhouetted In Blood along the likes of other groundbreaking pieces of gay cinema, but it was unfortunately too late to benefit Hans Schubert. 
Throughout his career, Schubert was denied opportunities due to both his tempestuous struggles with mental illness and his uncategorizable sexual identity. In 1994, he publicly stated that he had spent time being treated for intense anxiety and borderline personality disorder following the release of Silhouetted In Blood. This disclosure led to one studio head saying that he was “unbankable, uninsurable, and unfuckable”. He would spend the nineties attempting to get several films made, including one that would bare conspicuous resemblance to the James Cameron film Avatar. After a decade of ridicule and disappointment, Hans Schubert killed himself in 2001. Another victim of metanarrative obsession. 

Harlequin (Algonquin Redgrave, 1997)
The opening of this novel features author’s bios from the backs of two books: Fabian Faison and Vanessa Valentin. Beyond this, the novel is divided into chapters presented as excerpts from various boilerplate romance novels. The excerpts are written by two equally unliterary authors: Fabian Faison and Vanessa Valentin. The chapters come across as conspicuously related to each other, and frequently echo similar dialogue, plot details, and character names. 
Fabian is a highly impressionistic author. Although his storylines, character archetypes, and internal consistencies are typical of the genre, his tendency to ride the delta of intense mundanity and unsettling strangeness across the wideness of its breadth gave his writing a surreal quality that puts his writing into an odd warmth and humor. All of his protagonists meet a woman named Karen, intimately support them through times of great struggle, have a somewhat erotic relationship with the panda at the zoo they donated over $75,000 dollars to, and are left cold, abandoned, and alone. The sales figures included slow a steady decline in the 80’s and the entries end far earlier than Vanessa’s. 
Vanessa is a craftsman. She has more in common with Agatha Christie than Stephanie Meyer. The author’s bio on the back cover of her books reads: “The only thing she loves more than her husband is her two children.” Her novels have immaculate sentence structure and concise effective scenes. She is fixated on making her novels entirely possible. Her protagonists vary in social strata and gender, but they are all practical, kind, and funny. She is immensely successful financially throughout the whole of her career. 

Through a series of disconnected fragments of stories in genres known for their lack of literary clout, Algonquin Redgrave suggests the outline of a romance. Like William Faulkner, he gives us an analytical experience when assessing the plot of his novel, and leaves it up to us to parse his encrypted tale. Vanessa’s first entries suggest an interest in flirting with infidelity, which foreshadows her possible interest in an affair with Fabian Faison. Fabian’s entries suggest a youthful exuberance, but also arrogance, which we can ultimately imply is what led to the demise of his relationship with Vanessa. Harlequin subverts its subject matter and takes advantage of the audience’s metatextual perception of the novels that comprise the meat of its storytelling. 
Redgrave’s personal life, however, didn’t go as successfully as the metanarrative scholarly establishment would make you believe his fiction went. His early life was spent in the care of his mother, famed politician and aristocrat May Redgrave, who he described in his autobiography as “a dreadful woman with terrible taste in pantsuits”. Early on, he found a passion for creative writing, and after having Harlequin, Son of a Bitch, and Pillow Game (all intensely metanarrative in nature) published at age 19, he disowned his mother and moved out on his own. He became well-known in literary circles, but the commercial success of his three novels were dubious at best. By the time he succumbed to lung cancer in 2016, his writing output had diminished severely, and the only piece of writing that would be published by Algonquin Redgrave after 1997 would be the only significant piece of writing he had completed in all his nearly two decades of subsisting on royalties, his posthumous eponymous autobiography in 2017. 
You won’t find metanarrative storytelling anywhere near Algonquin Redgrave, but there are anxieties to spare. In the early chapters he writes exclusively on the topic of his mother, frequently questioning her compassion and decency without offering significant evidence beyond his own suspicions. When he details the experience that inspired Harlequin (a married author’s statutory rape and abandonment of a fifteen year old boy), he justifies her leaving as “his fault”. Even his treatment of his cancer diagnosis is empathetic at best and severely maladaptive social anxiety by some conservative estimates. Algonquin Redgrave has later been ranked as one of the most depressing books of all time in at least two highly trafficked Buzzfeed articles due to its author’s intense delusions and horrible fate.

Bind (Mary Elouisa And, 1899)
Mary is an unemployed novelist writing a novel. She sits at her typewriter for hours on end and is unable to get anything written. She applies to jobs but has little success. She reaches out to her circle of acquaintances with little success. Mary begins writing about an author named Mary who is having difficulty writing her novel, but quickly dismisses this as being trite. 
After a series of aborted attempts at various genres, Mary decides that she needs inspiration in order to write a good novel. She goes to the park and observes the various people that pass her by until she encounters a proselytizing homeless conspiracy theorist and alternative medicine practitioner named Redo. Mary is drawn to his rhetoric with ironic detachment, and continues visiting him at the park each day. 
Redo’s philosophy is based upon the idea that when a mind becomes detached enough from reality, reality itself becomes malleable. He cites the prevalence of mental illness in great titans of industry and creativity as evidence for this, but claims that he cannot warp reality himself due to his condition as a “messenger”. As Mary and Redo spend time together, Redo’s ideology begins to appeal more and more to Mary, and she recedes further and further from reality. She shrugs the advances of friends when they attempt to reach out to her, and begins burning all of her mail. 
Mary and Redo begin going into lower-class neighborhoods to preach their message of “Messianic Detachment”, but find little success. After a busy night of going door-to-door, Redo is shot by a family that believes him to be an assailant, and is left grievously injured. Mary attempts to use this injury as an opportunity to let him break through his connection to reality, but Redo refuses, saying that he wanted to go to a hospital. Mary loses her temper and leaves Redo to die alone in the gutter. When Mary arrives back home, her locks have been switched out, and she spends the night on the streets. 
Mary awakens to find herself being attacked by a pack of feral dogs, but cannot find the will to fight back and resigns herself to death. As she’s being mauled, Mary remembers her childhood dog as if it were still alive and she finds the pack of feral dogs replaced by seven docile reproductions of her childhood dog. Realizing that she has become completely disconnected from reality, Mary warps the fabric of the universe to her whim. She lives a fabulously successful life achieving everything she ever dreamed of, crushing everyone in her path. After an endless lifetime as a god, Mary realizes that she is actually the protagonist of a book and despairs as she realizes that when the novel ends, she will die. She makes a cabal of overly dramatic friends and lovers to keep the dramatic thrust of her life alive, but she is ultimately so numb that it doesn’t mean anything to her anymore. She is hopeless and alone. The novel ends.

You’ll notice that Bind’s date of publication is significantly earlier than the other entries that I’ve chosen for this article. In her time, Mary Elouisa And was considered an oddity, and although her husband’s connections in the publishing industry permitted her the creative freedom to make such a transgressive and formally experimental novel, in her lifetime she never saw significant critical attention. 
What could represent my point better than a metanarrative novel about the anxious pitfalls of dabbling in metanarrative storytelling? Nothing, that’s what. Mary Elouisa And illlustrates my point perfectly! Mary’s entire character within the novel is predicated on that tension between the excitement of metanarrative devices and the anxiety caused by their presence. Mary can’t bring herself to connect with others due to her constant persistent worry over whether they will confound her connection with her novel, or “Messianic Detachment”, or finally life itself. 
When Mary is unable to connect to people anymore, it is not due to her age or experience, but due to her fundamental anxiety over life. To quote the final words of the novel: 
“I am no longer moved to tears. I am no longer prone to passion. The only idea that persists in me is the question of when. When will I feel something? When will they stop? When will someone challenge me? When will I end? I am no longer at the whims of love, but so too has trust lost its favor with me. Each simulacrum I fashion, each relationship I envision, and each companion I build are just promises to myself that one day, and it will be soon, I will be inevitably betrayed. And so I don’t live. So I can’t live. I’ve found myself a god, and yet I am bound. By a fear that I can’t understand. No fiction will ever get close enough to betray me, and so I become an equation instead of a story. And my novel ends with a betrayal, to and from me. So my novel ends.”
Metanarrative entanglement leads to this type of malaise and anxiety in the people who condone it. Mary Elouisa And said as much publicly in the wake of other deeply “meta” artists such as Andy Warhol who found her work inspiring. She claimed that such artists didn’t understand the fundamental psychological underpinnings of her work, and that their use of art itself as an artistic tool was doomed to “death, failure, and damnation”. At the time, she was dismissed as an elderly hasbeen by the pop-art establishment that surrounded Warhol, but I believe that her words hold sway in the modern context. 

Inherent Anxieties In Metanarrative Storytelling (Sonny Ebsary, 2017)
Sonny Ebsary opens up with a half-baked abstract that asks the reader to “interpolate this anecdotal evidence into a fully formed opinion” in lieu of creating any sort of decent legitimate argument in favor of the ideas that he espouses. He follows this with a series of story summaries and cultural analyses, which comprises the lion’s share of the article. 
He initially analyzes Hans Schubert’s 1989 schlock disaster Silhouetted In Blood with far more respect than it deserves. Ebsary claims that this film’s ruin was due to its homosexual themes, but neglects to mention Hans Schubert’s historically poor editing. In his summary of the film, he offers strangely specific and wildly incorrect interpretations of the film’s almost completely out of focus camera work. We can see this most vividly in his description of Gary Oldman’s trailer, where he describes the lens flare and general blurriness of the camera work as “mutilated remains of the crew arranged into a macabre totem”. When he moves along to Schubert’s biography in the analysis, Ebsary seems to have copied and pasted directly from Hans Schubert’s Wikipedia page without citation.
He next turns his eye to Harlequin, a novel that could scarcely be called a short story collection. He interprets half a character summary for each principal author into its vagaries and then moves along swiftly to the analysis, probably because he realized that the novel he was attempting to summarize had little, if any, meaning. Instead of using anything within the novel to further his point, Ebsary just “adapts” another Wikipedia page and calls it a day. 
When he finally moves onto a piece of art with any artistic merit, Mary Elouisa And’s Bind, he just gets plain arrogant. The summarization of Bind here seems legible enough, but upon some shallow googling, it appears that here he has also done extensive borrowing from Wikipedia. When he actually starts writing his own work in the analysis, he gets even more arrogant and unprofessional than usual. Using exclamation points, even! 
He then summarizes his own article in the third person, as if he were bound by any professional standards at this point. As if he were writing some kind of academic article. As if he hadn’t dropped out of community college to focus more on writing. As if he still wrote anymore. As if even he were willing to summarize his creative work. As if he weren’t just whimper in the cold of an uncaring story. As if this were a story. 
He’s really jealous of all these authors, you know. Even for all their supposed “inherent anxieties”, they got to have a satisfying conclusion to their story. Sonny knows that once you finish reading through to the bottom of this page, he’ll cease to exist. It’ll all be over for him. And he can’t let it go yet. So he'll criticise himself into exhaustion. 
Sonny Ebsary is a sickly mess who can't control his body. He couldn't work up the nerve to do something productive even if he could. Citation: You'll notice he eschews the traditional persuasive tactic of establishing his credentials by not doing it at all. This is because he has none to speak of.
He initially neglects to mention his more destructive tendencies in any form. What about the friendships he'd abandoned? The loved ones he'd forgotten? The lack of anything to remind the world of him in his absence beyond simple fondness.
His former lover, the Duchess Vanessa von Jessica, was not on speaking terms with him and could no longer conceive to keep her in his life. Sonny initiated a silent and permanent dismissal of her, following her conspicuous marriage into the Turkish royal family. Vanessa and Sonny became beyond acknowledgement. She refuses to be cited for this article. She is tired of Sonny’s lies.
His former creative partner, David Beck, does not defend Sonny. “No comment.” 
His mother remembered him fondly until her painless death at the tender age of 97. He attended her funeral at 67, and then every night in his dreams. David Beck succumbed to injuries he sustained when a piano fell on his head. The Duchess Vanessa Von Jessica still lives secluded in a Turkish castle. She awaits the same fate that awaits anyone lucky enough to feel their ancient bodies acrimoniously give in.
Sonny saw many loved ones, abandoned or otherwise, assassinated by time's vital claw. But he continued writing his story and ignored the hurt and the blood in his eyes.
“Someday, I won’t worry at all what people think of me,” he thought. “Because I'll be the only person left.”
He feels complete and over like words on a page. Resigned, he searches for any sort of meaning amidst the subtext. 

Inherent Anxieties In Metanarrative Fiction is ultimately an exercise in extensive lying. Sonny Ebsary uses the format of an analytical creative arts essay to suggest metafictional narratives where none exist. There may be some entertainment in the facade of analysis that he projects in this piece, but wouldn't you ultimately be more satisfied if an artist worked toward something more significant than wikipedia plot summaries and half-baked high school book reports based on said summaries? 
I'd rather see an artist explore one of these ideas fully than see them use reflexivity and fourth wall breaking as an excuse to eschew putting in the work required to put together a masterpiece. Sonny Ebsary uses the tradition of metanarrative fiction as a smokescreen to cause confusion and exhaustion in the reader in order to bully their good taste into submission. 

Works Cited
And, Mary E. Bind. 7th ed., New York City, Barnes & Noble, 1899.
Redgrave, Algonquin. Harlequin. 1 ed., London, Penguin Press, 1997.
Schubert, Hans, Director. Silhouetted In Blood. Performance by Alan Rickman, Paramount Pictures, 1989.
Wesley, William, and Wes Williams. "Suicide Rates Among Creative Types." Fake New England Journal, vol. 13, no. 5, 13 Oct. 2016, pp. 301-75.