EARLY ON IN DON QUIXOTE, just as the errant knight’s battle with a Basque soldier (who’s really a lowly squire) hits its climax, Cervantes breaks in to admit (rather awkwardly) that his source material has cut off and he has no idea how the episode ends. In the very next chapter he goes shopping and (lucky for him!) happens across a cheap Arabic version of Don Quixote. He buys it, the paused battle picks up where it left off, and Quixote, ever resilient, makes no mention of the fractured narrative frame. But we readers know better. Cervantes’s intrusion has ripped a hole in the novel’s fabric, laying bare our gullible assumption — the very same assumption that undoes his hero — that the words in a story have real-world corollaries. We continue reading, but we’re more skeptical now; in a mise en abyme, we’d do best to keep sharp.
Similar metafictional hijinks pop up throughout the novel’s history, though they become a lot less popular once Realism becomes the dominant mode in the 19th century. In this country, it’s not until the 1960s and ‘70s — in the shadow of Nixon, Vietnam, and atomic uncertainty — that metafiction attains its status as a full-fledged literary movement. John Barth’s “Lost in the Funhouse,” probably the era’s most cited example, is an object lesson in readerly skepticism. Its intrusions (at one point, Barth draws Freytag’s Triangle to explain the trajectory of conventional narratives) relentlessly undercut the authority implied by authorship and assail Realism’s shaky claims as a literature of the actual. If at any moment we find ourselves caught up in the action, feeling for a character, actually caring about what happens, metafiction pipes up to openly declare its own artifice. It reminds us that fiction isn’t a magical window into a world at all; rather, as Donald Barthelme puts it, it’s just “something that is there, like a rock or a refrigerator.”
Without a doubt Barth and his contemporaries altered our relationship to narrative in a profound way. But the contemporary world is so thoroughly self-conscious, metafictional, and irony-saturated that reading metafiction from the 1970s can feel a bit quaint. The theoretical intrusions in Barth, Federman, and Sukenick can come across as clinical or overly academic, the product of an aesthetic iconoclasm that forewent a number of things we love novels for: emotion, desire, heart, empathy, and a bald encounter with someone else.
“Realists” and “Experimentalists” have continued to jostle about the best way to write books. But more and more frequently, contemporary writers have come to understand that the distinctions that are usually drawn between these two camps aren’t as hard and fast as they’re often made out to be. For many younger writers influenced by Barth and company, the hope is to have it both ways, to stake out a fiction of the middle ground that’s open to metafictional play, but committed to exploring deep emotional territory and narratives of authentic longing.
One could argue this drive is at the center of all of David Foster Wallace’s fiction. It’s also a space Ben Marcus taps into in Notable American Women and The Age of Wire and String. You can find it in Ken Sparling’s koan-like novel-autobiographies, or Jeffrey DeShell’s The Trouble with Being Born. In film, you find it in the lyrical turns that close any number of Charlie Kaufman or Guy Maddin screenplays.
This list goes on; the names on it are less important than the drive that defines it. For these writers, metafictional play doesn’t signal a cynical end to storytelling or even a skeptical negation of narrative’s possibilities as an avenue toward deep feeling. Their work acknowledges our embedded self-consciousness, our semiotic makeup, and the disparity between fiction and reality, yet still addresses our readerly desire for something authentic. These writers, fully aware that artifice is the way of the world, are still driven by the thrill of being arrested by a semblance, the communion possible when readers are caught up by something wholly imaginary.
We can now add Dan Beachy-Quick’s dizzying and beautiful autobiographical novel An Impenetrable Screen of Purest Sky to this list as well. Having spent much of his career as a poet, Beachy-Quick perhaps comes to his first novel from a different angle than the writers listed above, but their aims are closely aligned. An Impenetrable Screen of Purest Sky is a self-contained and insular book, a metafiction through and through, a novel that, as Beachy-Quick describes it in an interview from last year, “bears a certain kind of relation to itself, a relation that parallels a poem’s relation to itself.” But it’s also a novel about loss and abandonment, and one with a generous and deeply affecting emotional core.
Echoing relations and doubles crop up all over the place here, and Beachy-Quick is more than comfortable plying at the borders between reality and literary semblance. Our narrator, Daniel, looks and acts a lot like our author. Besides their shared name, both Daniels teach literature and write on the side. They also share an abiding obsession with Moby-Dick — at one point in the novel, Daniel admits, “I love it to such a degree that it became difficult for me to teach it”; in real life, Beachy-Quick published A Whaler’s Dictionary, his meditation in essays on Melville’s classic, in 2008.
I know little else of Beachy-Quick’s actual biography, but that really doesn’t matter. Markers like these are enough for me to understand that the novel, even as it plays liberally with historical truth, has semi-autobiographical intentions. As readers, we can’t help but draw an important connective line between the narrator (the word “Daniel” on the page) and the novelist himself, even though our English classes have warned us time and again against doing so. Beachy-Quick is fully aware of this tension, however. And it’s in parsing out the exact nature of that connection, the way Beachy-Quick takes us into the troubling fluidity between words and things, that his novel finds so much of its energy and elegance.
The strained relationship between names and things is critically important throughout this book, and Daniel regularly comes face to face with the pitfalls of language. His father, Allan, spends his entire academic career attempting to write the perfect translation of an ancient creation myth, a task that’s endless, all-consuming, and, ultimately, a failure. The myth’s original language is “rooted, if such a word can be used in this case, in a profound instability, in which no single word ever stilled into definition of one single thing,” and when Allan passes away, his translation remains unfinished. As an adult, Daniel mirrors his father’s Sisyphean obsession with language. Every morning he wakes up to work on his own autobiographical novel, hundreds of pages of remembrances (also titled An Impenetrable Screen of Purest Sky) that he can’t bring himself to complete. This novel within a novel, a book Daniel’s told no one about, catalogs his real life while also treading into “a different world,” one that traffics just as readily in fantasy and fairy tale as it does in mundane details. Soon the book becomes a secret monument to the profound ways language and the imagination have created Daniel’s life:
This work — I cannot seem to stop it, though I would like to — this effort at consciousness that dismantles itself into uncertainty, changing facts into myths, self-myths, so that reading back through the pages, the hundreds of pages, gives me back to myself in altered form […] What I have made up about myself has so insinuated itself into my imagination it acts as fact; imagination embraces fact, subsumes it, as an amoeba will swallow itself to end its hunger, and then sated, split in two, and make of itself another.
The hard facts of Daniel’s past include a fatal tragedy: Daniel’s mother dies while giving birth to his little sister, who lives only a few hours before dying herself. This double loss devastates Daniel’s father; he soon abandons his son in order to continue his translation work on a remote island. His letters home grow increasingly cryptic and strange, and though he eventually returns, he lives out the rest of his life as a foreigner to his son. “He never spoke of what happened on that island,” Daniel recalls. “He would look at me in a way that I felt I could not ask him. It was secret.”
These tragic departures have scarred Daniel’s adult life. His book becomes the transformative arena where he revisits and reworks these abandonments through storytelling. The death of his mother and sister morphs into a series of fantastical interludes involving a young girl’s disappearance under the floorboards of her house and her eventual reunion with her mother on a faraway island. In a later section, Daniel’s father departs suddenly but does so to learn a song that makes the family whole again: “He learned the words to a heroic song, and when he sang he became a hero […] The song opened a door between our world and another, the world where the dead wait, looking always up into the air above them.” Private mythmaking structures Daniel’s sadness as a way to overthrow it. Rewriting these stories again and again accesses a realm where the open possibilities of narrative mean anything can happen: an entire ocean’s existence beneath the floorboards of a house, the ability to breathe underwater, a docile whale, a song to resurrect the dead, a warm reunion for Daniel and his family.
This recursiveness, though, also means Daniel perpetually rehearses real catastrophe. And as much as his daily writing routine serves escapist purposes, it also summons real ghosts, reaffirming his own status as an orphan. The downcast glance of his mother, in Daniel’s one photograph of her, haunts the hallway. After nights of fragmented dreams about his father, Daniel returns in the morning to the man’s study, to the man’s very desk, to work on his own book. So while his novel becomes a place of imaginative escape, it also becomes a constant reminder of the tragic realities of his past:
I felt like the little boy I had not ceased to be — that continuous child inside the adult who wanders through the labyrinth of his grown-up self, lost, afraid of monsters, afraid to speak too loudly lest his own words reveal him, and put him in greater danger, put him in the hands of the monster he asks for help to avoid.
Through a colleague, Daniel meets and falls in love with Lydia, an astrophysicist at the university who comes to represent a possible way out of the monstrous labyrinth Daniel’s self has become. Though they study drastically different disciplines, what draws Lydia and Daniel to one another is their shared hermeneutic desire, a drive to read and decipher the world in all its infinite complexity. Lydia’s research focuses on the multiverse, specifically those “realms, theoretically, where one universe touches and merges into the other, where the ‘laws’ collide, a genuine chaos that causes a birth of another universe.” These zones, governed by “entirely other natural laws,” fuse the imaginary and the real, and when Lydia tries to describe them, she comes up against the same language difficulties Daniel faces in his own work. “I’m trying to think about another world, another universe,” she tells him on their first date. “I do the math and the math points at the possibility. But when I describe it to myself, when I write about it in my notes, I reconfigure only what I already know, have already seen, or felt. There’s only this world to imagine another. It is a serious problem for me.”
These difficulties don’t stop either one of them from trying, though. During Daniel’s love affair with Lydia, everything in their world becomes an occasion for close reading. Notably, Daniel lets Lydia read his book; she tells him it is “the dark matter of the self. Words whose weight holds you together.” They spend a summer together working through Moby-Dick, talking intimately about Ishmael’s shifts on the masthead and their own loneliness. When they go out one evening to watch the Perseids, Lydia reads the universe to Daniel, drawing constellations out of the chaos and positing a hermeneutical give and take between people and the natural world. She says:
And so people drew lines between the stars, found shapes and filled those shapes with stories […] The stories mapped out the sky and explained it and then the reverse happened and the sky explained us. We named the stars and now they name us. Tell us the stories we’ve forgotten. It’s beautiful. It is beautiful. Against all the nothingness we have always felt we fill in the tales that add up to … something, to somethingness.
Lydia’s line-drawing between the disparate stars has many implications in Beachy-Quick’s book. A similar drive appears in Daniel’s attempts to decode the thorny language and structure of Moby-Dick or in the connections he hopes to make between the three images of his mother (the one who haunts the hall, the one in his novel, and the woman who walked the earth). We see it in the connective lines that exist between his father’s abandonment and Daniel’s own anxieties about having a child. And for Daniel and Lydia, their love is the line they draw between one another.
Finally, it’s the act of reading that binds all these disparate things together, that gives them a meaning.
The history of American literature is, in one sense, a history of the search for correspondences. Bradstreet, Mather, Edwards, Rowlandson, Emerson, and countless others all looked at the objects and events of this world and saw (or hoped to see) signs of the wonders in another one. The analogues they found, admittedly, were often politically charged. In 1638, when the banished Anne Hutchinson suffers a miscarriage, Gov. John Winthrop writes about her “monstrous birth,” reading the event as God’s just punishment against a community dissident. But the search for correspondences could also serve devotional and deeply personal purposes, an obsession with reading the world born from a desire for self-knowledge. “The world is emblematic,” Emerson writes in Nature in 1836, connecting the dots between language, the individual, and the entire cosmos. “Parts of speech are metaphors because the whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind.”
Well-steeped in this literature himself, Daniel can’t help but be hypersensitive to the numerous correspondences that crop up in his own life in and around the university. At a faculty cocktail party in the library, he happens across the same collection of fairy tales he read as a child in his father’s study; he sees this not as a coincidence, but as a mandate to revisit the book and all the memories it conjures. Later, when he sees two paintings of Orpheus at an art show on campus, Daniel remembers his father’s own obsession with the “singer whose song was so beautiful not only people would be helpless to listen, but stones, trees, flowers.” Daniel then feels compelled to work Orphic imagery into the stories he writes about his father later on. He lifts the title of his book from Emerson’s “Experience,” a move that aligns him with another writer who detailed the fallout of family loss. (Emerson wrote “Experience” in the aftermath of the death of his young son, Waldo.)
Besides the correspondences Daniel is aware of, though, Beachy-Quick also saturates this novel with allusions and connections his narrator may not be privy to, but that we are. Just as Daniel’s house is haunted by family history, An Impenetrable Screen of Purest Sky is a novel haunted by other books; it’s difficult to find an episode that isn’t at least partially tinged by the shadow of literary history. In the myths Daniel writes about his little sister, he names her Pearl, calling to mind Hester Prynne’s daughter. When Daniel and Lydia stop into an antique clock shop on vacation, we think of Quentin’s visit to the jeweler’s shop in Cambridge in The Sound and the Fury. Even seemingly mundane actions have intertextual echoes. One afternoon Daniel returns from school and finds himself locked out of his house. As he pushes on the door, “knocking as if inside the house there might be someone living in it to let me in,” we see him as himself, but also as a contemporary iteration of Melville’s flummoxed narrator in “Bartleby, the Scrivener.”
Beachy-Quick’s intricate layering of all these images and allusions gives the novel its impressive narrative architecture. We move from scene to scene in this book as if we were rotating around a sculpture or looking closely at a pearl slowly rolling around in our hand. As Daniel thinks about the design of his book, Beachy-Quick self-consciously tips his hand about his larger structural ambitions as well — one less concerned with temporal progression and one more spatial in intent, a collection of widely disparate elements that still cohere into an underlying organic wholeness:
[A] novel whose tap-root dug down into fairy tale, but from that root, split, rhizome-like, erupting out of the ground in shoots and leaves that seem wholly unconnected to their source, different leaves, different worlds, but should one be able to trace the fine thread-roots over their strange coursing, the disparate would be seen as whole, a many and a one, the multiple world.
Confronted with these numerous strange coursings, we read through An Impenetrable Screen of Purest Sky extracting patterns, diligently cataloging in the margins any allusions we recognize. Like Daniel, we hope for a glimpse, however fleeting it might be, of this disparate world as a cohesive whole — a somethingness, a world with meaning.
Melville’s abiding presence in the book complicates and ultimately thwarts any easy reading Daniel (or we) might make of the overlaps we find. More than any other novel, Moby-Dick interrogates the American desire for correspondences by plunging us directly into the thrumming, dark heart of the symbol. The whale’s bottomless meaning — a whiteness embodying purity and light, but also barren death and terror — reminds us that the correspondences that appear in the world often say more about the reader looking for them than they do about the actual text under review. “What the white whale was to Ahab, has been hinted,” Ishmael phrases it, “what, at times, he was to me, as yet remains unsaid.” Ahab’s hunt is for a semblance, a phantom. And his drive to capture it, to name it definitively, leads only to madness and destruction, a quick descent into the blank void really undergirding things.
As a Melville obsessive, Daniel feels this. And even as he labors to create a unifying structure for his novel, he understands that the language he fills it with is merely a facade stretched over the void of his actual loss. “The story has lost its order,” he admits to us at one point, “the story I am writing, this story of my life.” More importantly, the unraveling of Daniel’s novel forces him to confront the idea that he might be a semblance too, his self just another flimsy construction he’s created. What Lydia asks of Daniel is surety. “When I decide I might love someone,” she tells him, “when I come over in the night to make love to him, I want him to mean himself when he says I. When he tells me he loves me, when he says I love you, that can’t be a fiction.” In response, Daniel finds he can say these words to Lydia, but beneath them he still senses the void’s hum. “I love you,” he tells her before immediately admitting to us, “I felt the question in my voice.”
Eventually Daniel decides to obliterate his novel line by line, crossing out every one of his sentences and surrendering himself to the chaos of the blank page. He still senses correspondences, but what he reads in them now is a darker design. “I thought I could hear it, as I dragged my pen across the words I read,” Daniel says. “I thought I could hear the earth rolling in its rut. They sound the same.” In a sense, the destruction of his book is something Daniel knew was coming all along. In one of his lectures about the closing chapter of Moby-Dick, he homes in on the image of Ishmael floating alone, face to face with a text (etched on Queequeg’s coffin) that he can’t read. Illegibility is simply the way of the world. “But this book, our book, it ends before the book it is has been written,” Daniel tells his class. He’s speaking about Moby-Dick’s circular structure, but he could just as easily be talking about his own life. “We end at the wordless beginning, when the whole world is unspeakable, unknown, and all capacity to make use of it, to turn it into something that feels like it means something, is gone.”
Despite the semblance of a journey, the narrative of Daniel’s life was set down long before he could give it a new name. He and Ishmael have always been orphans, afloat in an illegible ocean, alone, with no other correspondent.
Anytime an author makes a metafictional move, it immediately thrusts the reader into the realm of irony. It’s an incredibly fun space, but it’s also bottomless, and it necessarily suggests (even irony with the lightest touch) an antagonism between the author and the reader. As soon as Barth breaks the fourth wall in “Lost in the Funhouse,” poking holes in the compromise readers and writers regularly broker with one another, he automatically implies a fifth, sixth, and seventh wall, and so on into infinity. And if we’re good readers, once one level of representation is revealed to be illusory, we’ve got to be skeptical about all of them.
I mention this because as much as I love self-conscious play in stories and novels, if I come to a moment that irks me in a work of metafiction, especially a metafiction that’s also aiming for genuine emotional resonance, I often don’t know how to respond. Am I justified in voicing my dissatisfaction, or have I simply fallen prey to the illusion, something the author’s openly warned me against many times?
Something occurs toward the end An Impenetrable Screen of Purest Sky that irks me a little. It’s a reunion of sorts, one that reads as genuine, and it neatly draws together the book’s disparate threads — Daniel’s dissolved relationship with Lydia, his father’s abandonment, Daniel’s own fears of fatherhood, a mother’s death, and his Melville obsession — in a way that seems overly convenient and too neat. It’s as if the novel is trying to cohere in a way it’s not supposed to. My first time through, the moment really bothered me. But now, as I resurvey the book’s terrain, with all its semblances and multiple representations and impenetrability, I don’t know what to make of it. Is the chance reunion merely another product of Daniel’s imagination, a moment where his wishful thinking’s made manifest? Is it actually happening to him, or is it just another narrative he’s conjured? And for Beachy-Quick, is this decision an attempt at a heartfelt reunion, a moment in this book unfettered by irony, the moment when the novel’s metafictional games bottom out into a genuine heart? Or is this just the semblance of convention, a narrative conclusion that’s actually an ironizing of closure’s impossibility?
These questions, most likely, say more about me than they do about Beachy-Quick’s novel. I should be much lighter on my toes, less concerned with the search for grand patterns and more concerned with the magic embedded in each moment of reading: the lovely music of Beachy-Quick’s language or the incredible accuracy of his details. When I come across a sentence like, “How is it that dusk begins gathering in the trees before the sky?”, for example, my breath catches; it’s a moment where the language makes me see the world anew. Isn’t there pleasure and wonder enough in that? Perhaps these questions about depth are the wrong ones to ask. As Emerson advises us late in “Experience,” “We live amid surfaces, and the true art of life is to skate well on them.”
Beachy-Quick’s novel strikes at the foundational core of the schooled reader, one whose education prizes finding correspondences and searching for meanings. Daniel’s desire for sense and order raises all the irresolvable questions whose answers we believe we will find in books. In class, as Daniel considers the image of Ishmael clutching Queequeg’s coffin, his conclusion seems to run counter to everything he’s supposed to say as a professional reader and a professor. “You don’t read a book,” he tells his students. “You don’t learn something from it that will help you. You don’t get smarter […] You don’t read a book. You put your arms around it; and it saves you […] Or it doesn’t.” What so unsettles me is my sense that Daniel’s conclusion speaks a simple truth, and my simultaneous suspicion that it doesn’t say anything at all.