Metafiction” was coined by William H. Gass to call attention to fictions that call attention to themselves. It’s often associated with “postmodern” writers, such as John Barth, Jorge Luis Borges, Angela Carter, Vladimir Nabokov, Flann O’Brien, Thomas Pynchon, Kurt Vonnegut, and David Foster Wallace. Of course the first and most influential novels–Don Quixote and The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy–were also the most playfully self-conscious.

Gass approaches the genre through modernist experiments. He regards Beckett, Joyce and Stein to be “pioneers” of contemporary (1970s) metafiction. Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse (1968) is his chief contemporary example. In a telling phrase, Gass refers to Barth’s “extraordinary genius.” The strong relationship between metafiction and avant-garde modernism obscures “pulp metafiction”: novels about novels written by industry hacks. The pulp industry of the 1920s and 30s became the paperback mysteries, romances, sci-fi’s, fantasies and horror novels of the 60s and beyond. This “genre fiction” always also played with metafiction. The famous opening of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest is an obvious example:

I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte. He also called his shirt a shoit. I didn’t think anything of what he’d done to the city’s name. Later I heard men who could manage their r’s give it the same pronunciation. I still didn’t see anything in it but the  meaningless sort of humor that used to make richardsnary the thieves’ word for dictionary. A few years later I went to Personville and learned better.

Another example is the Nero Wolfe novels by Stein’s friend, Rex Stout. Archie’s narratives are consistently self-conscious. He explains why he chose one word over another or why he’s ordered the narrative as he has; sometimes, he exhorts his readers to guess “who done it” or assumes that they see some “obvious fact” that hadn’t yet occurred to him. Other authors who call attention to multiple levels of mediation include Edgar Allan Poe (in many works, but especially “The Mystery of Marie Roget”), Robert Louis Stevenson (in The New Arabian Knights), G. K. Chesterton (in The Man Who was Thursday), and horror writers, such as M. R. James and H. P. Lovecraft. Let’s not forget Kenneth Fearing’s novels, particularly Dagger of the Mind (1941), Clark Gifford’s Body (1942) and Loneliest Girl in the World (1951).

In this post, I discuss two works of popular metafiction written after Gass’s essay appeared. The first is Donald Westlake’s Jimmy the Kid (1974), one of the Dortmunder novels; the second is Fat Ollie’s Book (2002), an 87th Precinct police procedural by Ed McBain. Whereas the modern “genius” spends years on a “master-piece” (Stein’s phrase), Westlake and McBain published several novels a year for many years, aiming at a middle-brow reading public. Westlake (1933-2008) wrote well over a hundred novels under several pen names, including Richard Stark and Samuel Holt. McBain is the most popular pen name of Evan Hunter (1926-2005), who wrote Blackboard Jungle (1954) and the screenplay for The Birds (1963) while cranking out more than fifty 87th Precinct novels, not to mention the “Matthew Hope” series and numerous books under other names (Curt Cannon, Ezra Hannon, Richard Marsten). Both authors show all the virtues of the industry; their books are efficient, fast-paced, well-plotted thrillers that balance generic expectations with original narratives. Unlike many of their peers, both authors sustained high-levels of originality and craftsmanship, despite their prestigious output.

Their novels adhere to the standards of realism maintained by the culture industry. Indeed, pulp writers have contributed much to literary realism. What would it be without Dr. Watson or Philip Marlowe? Westlake’s and McBain’s stories are worth reading in part because their metanarratives occur within these conventions. This “layer” of generic realism doesn’t limit their metafictional explorations. On the contrary, the “real world” established in earlier books in the series contributes to the pleasures of their books about books.

So far, I’ve treated Westlake and McBain as interchangeable cogs in the fiction factory; to some extent, they are. Like “bingeable” TV, their episodic novels may be intensely enjoyed and soon forgotten. But their metafictions are quite different, and must be analyzed one at a time.

Jimmy the Kid

Westlake experimented with metafictional moments throughout his career, but became increasingly interested in self-reflective narratives in the final decade. Baby, Would I Lie? (1994), about a reporter investigating a country-music star accused of murder, and A Likely Story (1984), about a commercial writer putting together a Christmas book, deploy metafictional elements for satirical purposes; the Sam Holt novels, supposedly written by an actor-turned-detective, are self-conscious, with an eye toward drama. Holt frequently pauses to reflect that he knows how to act like a detective in “real life” because of his years acting on TV.

Jimmy the Kid is something else again. To appreciate it, one must know about Westlake’s most famous series: the hard-boiled Parker novels, written under the pseudonym Richard Stark, and the comedy-thrillers starring the hapless thief Dortmunder, published under his own name. The Parker novels feature a gang of bank robbers with a strong focus on their titular hero, a brutal but honest stick-up man. Written in a tragic vein; they can be as fast-paced as a Continental Op story and as brutal as a Jim Thompson novel.

I prefer the Dortmunder novels. The series is a melancholic comedy about an extended family that ekes out existence on the margins of legality. John Dortmunder is the brains behind (but not the leader of) a gang of non-violent thieves operating in New York throughout the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. Other characters include Andy Kelp, the lock-specialist; Stan Murch, the driver; and Tiny, the muscle. Secondary characters include May, Dortmunder’s “faithful companion”; Murch’s mom, a cabbie who finds work for the gang; J. C. Taylor, who sells “How to” and sex manuals through the mail; Max, who owns the auto-shop that takes cars with “misplaced papers”; Arnie, the fence whose personality is so bad he gives better prices; and so on. Each novel is a loosely chronological episode in the life of this community, anchored by a complicated heist-gone-wrong plot. The gang’s rarely successful, but they never quite get caught.

The metafictional “twist” in Jimmy the Kid begins when Kelp gives Dortmunder a novel to read: Child Heist, by Richard Stark. It’s a typical, although wholly fictional, Parker novel (based on notes for a story that was never finished). One-by-one, Kelp convinces the other gang members to read it:

Murch laughed politely.

“No, on the level,” Kelp said. “What I want you to do, I want you to read that book.”

“Read a book?” Murch read the Daily News and several car magazines, but he didn’t read books.

“You’ll like it,” Kelp told him. “And I’ve got an idea that hooks up with it.”

Murch picked up the book. He would like it? Child Heist, by Richard Stark. “What’s it about?”

“About a crook,” Kelp said. “A crook named Parker. He’ll remind you of Dortmunder.”

“That sounds great,” Murch said, but without much enthusiasm. He riffled through the book: words on every page.    (22)

As Murch, “feeling the stirrings of curiosity,” begins to read, the first few sentences are printed in same same font as the novel we’re reading: :”When the guard came to open the cell door, Parker said to the big man named Krauss, ‘Come see me next week when you get out. I think I’ll have something on’”  (22).

This isn’t just an attempt to promote one book by mentioning it in another. In 1974, Stark was selling better than Westlake, so the promotion would have to go the other way for it to work effectively. Most importantly, this “tie-in” is unthinkable within the hard-boiled atmosphere of Parker’s world, while being entirely acceptable within the Dortmunder comedies. Westlake’s comedic realism is more elastic than Stark’s stark dramas.

The reader of both series reads them for one reason: entertainment. But this isn’t what Kelp has in mind. He wants the gang to read the story as an instruction manual. His enjoyment of the story fuels optimism that a heist planned according to the book’s formula “was all going to work just beautifully. Just like the book. . . Robbery stories where the crooks didn’t get caught in the end–fantastic. For Kelp, it was like being an American Indian and going to a western movie where the cowboys lose” (23). Like Don Quixote and Emma Bovary, Kelp confuses fiction and life. He believes life will imitate art. He convinces Dortmunder, Murch, May, and Murch’s mom to adopt this view because, like him, they identify with the traditional “losers” of the American narrative. Their turn to fiction is an investment in contradictory fantasies: that the “bad guys” can win the day (reversing the normative ‘plot’ of popular culture) and that plots can organize life: things will go according to the book’s plan. Kelp insists that the novel, in which Parker’s crew holds a teenager for ransom, “had like a kind of realism to it,” but already he feels the tug of it’s romance: “the awkwardness of a guy bringing his new girlfriend around to meet the fellas at the bowling alley” (26). The dance between romantic expectations and real-world consequences is the source of this particular comedy of errors.

Chapter three ends with Kelp, “crouching like a surfer in the curl,” exclaiming “Don’t you see? We do the caper in the book! We do the book!” (29). The next chapter begins with the first obstacle: “Dortmunder just sat there.” His initial disinclination stems from associations between reading and doing time: “Reading can speed the days a little, and that’s all to the good. So all in all it had been a fairly familiar experience for him, reading a book, though strange to be doing it in a place with no bars over the window. And also strange to be doing it for some other reason outside of the act of reading itself” (30). The second obstacle arrives less than a page later, when the female members of Kelp’s reading group object to Stark’s sexism:

Murch’s Mom said, “I suppose you want May and me to take care of this brat, like the women in the book.”

Kelp said, “Well, we’re not talking about a baby or anything [. . .] We’re talking about a kid maybe ten, twelve years old.”

“That’s very sexist,” Murch’s Mom said

Kelp looked blank. “Hah?”

“Wanting May and me to take care of the kid. Role-assumption. It’s sexist.”

“Goddammit, Mom,” Murch said, “you’ve been off with those consciousness-raising ladies again.”

“I drive a cab,” she said. “I’m no different from a man.”    (31-2)

Such is the unsettling power of fiction, as Westlake views it. Personal and political associations cause even the most generic text to introduce antagonism. Even barely literate intimates disagree about how best to interpret the text. No “master-piece” is necessary for fiction to do it’s work. It immediately promotes multiple, divergent, delightfully chaotic misidentifications. It turns out that Dortmunder’s real concern stems from a perception of the book itself as a rival. He’s worried that he’ll be written out of the narrative. He’s the guy who plans the jobs; if the plan comes from a book, what’s his role? After May explains “aw-tour” theory to him–”the writer isn’t really the writer. The real writer is the director”–he acquiesces (38). “Well, I got an open mind,” he says, “I’m always ready to have a book writer tell me my business” (45).

Chapter 7 of Jimmy the Kid is chapter 4 of Child Heist. Parker, Krauss, and Henley find a target by staking out the exit from the Midtown Tunnel and watching for children riding alone in chauffeured limos. In Chapter 8, Dortmunder, Kelp, and Murch follow this plan. The juxtaposition of pages from the “two” novels illuminates the difference in style between Stark and Westlake. The Parker narrative is plot-driven. It confines itself to actions that contribute to the heist. Descriptions of characters and settings are minimal and objective: “When Parker walked into the apartment, Krauss was at the window with the binoculars. He was sitting on a metal folding chair, and his notebook and pen were on another chair next to him” (45). Dortmunder’s narrative is character-driven, full of inefficient actions and subjective judgments: “When Dortmunder walked into the apartment, Kelp was asleep at the window with the binoculars in his lap. . . . Kelp was sitting in a maroon armchair with broken springs; this was a furnished apartment, three rooms full of the most awful furniture imaginable” (48). The reader’s invited to ponder two modes of realism. The first locates reality in the minimal necessary material construction of the world; it emphasizes Parker’s indefatigable will. In the second, realism is guaranteed by the world’s gratuity; entropic bodies and semi-conscious desires take precedence. Parker’s stripped-down world is hard-edged and unforgiving. In Dortmunder’s, the world’s unpredictable excess helps as much as a hinders. In the very next scene, a cop questions Kelp and Dortmunder, but his investigation is interrupted when his horse shits on their (stolen) car, allowing them to escape.

Following the book’s advice, the gang tracks down Jimmy, the youngest son of a divorced Wall Street lawyer. He’s twelve years old, which Kelp considers an advantage: “The kid’ll have a ball, it’ll be like living out one of his favorite television shows” (63). He assumes that the kid has a capacity to buffer reality by experiencing it as fantasy, which of course Kelp does continually. The well-educated and lonely Jimmy proves much more “adult” than his captors. He’s introduced in the act of bantering with his therapist, the free indirect discourse revealing his sophistication: “”One of his unresolved and so-far unstated disagreements with the doctor concerned this aspect of childlike behavior; Jimmy felt that his own disapproval of such behavior in himself was so instinctive and so strong that it simply had to be trusted. He was not, however, prepared as yet to debate the issue with Dr. Schraubenzieher, so he altered the subject slightly…” (65). Jimmy regards himself as an “auteur” whose genius is unrecognized only because he’s still younger in body than in mind: “He knew he wanted to make movies because he was an artist; the doctor, assuming him to be a child, assumed the desire to be childish. . . Would they have given Mozart a toy piano? Wasn’t Mozart a child?” (67). Jimmy believes himself a genius, and acts accordingly; Dortmunder and friends know themselves to be loveable losers, and play their roles with much ineptitude and bickering.

Westlake explores the multi-layered relation between “reality” and “make-believe” with typical efficiency. In Child Heist, the gang wear Mickey Mouse masks “to make it easier for the kid” (72). “We’re all going to play make-believe for a while now,” they tell Jimmy’s fictional predecessor, Bobby. Their gambit works reasonably well. When Dortmunder’s crew attempt the same thing, Jimmy immediately fails to play the role they’ve assigned to him. “We’re going to play make-believe,” an exasperated May eventually tells him, “I’m going to make believe I’m Mickey Mouse and you’re going to make believe you can behave” (83). He does regard the adventure as a TV show, but doesn’t identify as a character so much as the director. He soon escapes, but returns to help the kidnappers complete their operation.

Meanwhile, the novel explodes metafictional fireworks in all directions. Jimmy repeats Poe’s trick in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” filing down nails in the window to leave Dortmunder with “a locked-room mystery” (115). He reverses their game of make-believe in order to stay up late watching Bride of Frankenstein: “But if you let me stay and watch the movie, you can take your masks off and I promise I’ll make believe you kept them on” (118). When Jimmy’s dad talks to the kidnappers (Murch’s mom, calling from a pay phone), the FBI records the call. Their conversation is revealed in a scene in which father and agents listen to the recording. Pausing and replaying it allows for another layer of mediation. Murch’s mom reads a “script” made out of passages from Child Heist. Hearing this, the FBI agents assume that the gang is more professional than it is; their mistake causes them to take extra caution, which helps the kidnappers. And on and on.

Without giving too much of the plot away, I’ll conclude by noting that the novel ends with correspondence between Richard Stark and his lawyer concerning Kid Stuff, a low-budget film Jimmy makes about his experiences. Not knowing the “actual” source of the film’s plot, Stark complains that it’s a “direct steal” of Child Heist (170). This is a fictional letter signed by a “real-world” pen name about a movie based on “real-world” events based on a fictitious novel. According to Westlake, Stark fails to recognize that life does imitate art; Stark’s perceptual short-circuit implicitly critiques the fetish for the stripped-down realism of the Parker novels.

Fat Ollie’s Book

The 87th Precinct novels follow investigations by Steve Carella, Bert Kling, and a dozen other mostly amiable, mostly hard-working detectives in a fictional city meticulously crafted to resemble New York. Each novel begins with the same epigram: “The city in these pages is imaginary. The people, the places are all fictitious. Only the police routine is based on established investigatory technique.” This frame, borrowed from Dragnet and recently used in Fargo (the movie and TV show), asks its public to accept the fiction for the sake of reality. The names have been changed to protect the innocent, as though what follows were based on “real-world” events.

“Established investigatory technique” turns out to be the routine itself. McBain locates realism in the slow slog of following leads and questioning witnesses. Conducting murder investigations is treated as a middle-class job, with many pages given to water-cooler conversations, being stuck in traffic, and balancing work with home life. Opening a book (Ice) at random, we find:

Carella was wearing a turtleneck shirt under his sports jacket that Saturday morning. The first thing Meyer Meyer said to him was, “Those things make you look short.”

“They keep me warm,” Carella said.

“Is it better to be warm or tall?” Meyer asked philosophically, and went back to his typing.        (Ice, 17)

In Fat Ollie’s Book, one cop makes another needle-point pillows that read:





Protect     (80)

This little cipher lengthens the typical police code: “Serve and Protect.” It locates love in the middle of the “SHLEP.” Love the process, is the wish this police lover gives to her police man. It works. “‘That says it all,’ he told her, and took her into his arms.” The romance of routine–following the codes–evokes McBain’s labor-intensive process as a writer. His world is constructed one stitch at a time. His books, like the pillow, are texts for non-academic readers.

The crimes are often brutal, and the stories build to thrilling climaxes, but the detectives are professional, and patient. McBain uses long passages of dialogue to convey the methodical collection of data in a city where everyone wants a say and no one’s perspective is truly objective:

“Were you here in the hall when all this happened, Mr. Coogan?”

“Yes, I was.”

“Where in the hall?”

“In the balcony.”

“What were you doing up there?”

“Listening to sound checks.”

“While you were listening to those sound checks, did you happen to hear the sound of a gun going off?”


“In the balcony?”


“Then where?”

“From somewhere down below.”

“Where down below?”

“The stage.”

“Which side of the stage?”

“I couldn’t tell.”          (10)

Several of the earliest books in the series included long transcripts from interviews in the squad room, all written like this. The utter banality of the dialogue works because McBain is also methodical. Every detail and inflection matters. The generic formula follows Poe’s juxtaposition of narratives in “Murders in the Rue Morgue” and several of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple novels: closely related details are allowed to repeat so that the reader, like a cryptologist, learns to read the patterns behind the words.

A personal drama always occurs in the background, as counterpoint to the slow investigation. In one novel, Carella’s wife, Teddy, faces an assault charge; in another, Kling’s wife cheats on him; after the divorce, he begins a romance with a Black officer, and so forth. Like the construction of a fictional New York, this formula focuses the series on the negotiation of public and private lives. Policing requires constant intrusion of public officers into private lives. Each book in the series illuminates the private life of a different detective to various degrees, but only to the reader. More often than not, a particular officer’s personal problems are not known by the rest of the large cast. Private passions sometimes interfere with the procedure, but usually the detectives successfully police themselves.

Not Fat Ollie, a minor character in many of the novels. Detective/First Grade Oliver Wendell Weeks works in the 88th precinct. Originally he appears as a foil to Carella, Kling, and the others. He embodies all the worst traits of city police: he’s violent, corrupt, slovenly, and rude. Colleagues bemoan his racist jokes and open bigotry. He cuts corners, doesn’t follow the rules. He is the obscene underside of their professionalism: his crude improvisations gets results. The closest thing he has to a redeeming trait is a habit of imitating W. C. Fields:

“Seems a resident here got himself aced yesterday morning, ah yes,” Ollie said.

“So I understand,” Carella said.

“Then why’d you ask, m’little chickadee?” Ollie said, once again doing his world-famous W. C. Fields imitation. The pity was–but he didn’t realize this–nobody knew who W. C. Fields was. Whenever Ollie did his impersonation, everyone thought he was doing Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman. (26)

Our view of Ollie changes drastically when, near the end of the series, his authorial aspirations are revealed. His private passion, it turns out, is writing police procedurals. His manuscript, “A Report to the Commissioner,” written in the voice of Olivia Watts, a sexy undercover agent, is stolen from his car while he’s responding to the murder of a Mayoral candidate. Ollie joins Carella’s investigation in order to track down his manuscript, which circulates through the underworld in advance of him, causing chaos when it’s mistaken for an actual police report.

The thieve’s confusion is understandable, because Ollie’s book follows “established investigatory technique.” His major epiphany as a novice author is to write it “true to life”:

At first, the book itself was giving him trouble. . . The trouble was that he was trying to sound too much like all those pissant writers out there who were not cops but who were writing what they call “police procedurals,” and by doing this, by imitating them, actually, he was losing track of his own distinctiveness, his very Oliver Wendell Weekness, no pun intended.

And then he hit upon a brilliant idea.

Suppose he wrote the book like a Detective Division report? In his own language, the way he’d type it on a DD form. . .      (20)

In multiple flashbacks, McBain uses Ollie to defend his own approach to the genre he’d written for fifty years. Ollie realizes that “anyone writing the stuff had better learn to keep it simple” (58).  He rewrites his “literary” style: “The sound of music came from somewhere inside the apartment. Its noisome beat filled the hallway tremblingly” becomes “Loud music hammered the halls” (59). This is the private part of his revelation: the discovery of his “own language.” The public part illuminates the other half of McBain’s formula. Upon “realizing that most of the mysteries on the bestseller list were written by ladies, Ollie took an entirely different approach.” Writing his report from a woman’s perspective, “he had found a voice at last” (59). Like McBain, he realizes that the macho world of the police investigation should be balanced by a feminine world focused on familial relations. In McBain’s work, these worlds are strictly heteronormative; the police sometimes run into “fags” on the street, but their love lives revolve around child-rearing, weddings, divorces, family vacations and other strictly straight-world occasions. Ollie’s plot queers this world; by turning the first-person narrator into a woman, he attempts to merge McBain’s work-life/family-life distinction.

The first eight pages of Ollie’s manuscript, printed in a different font, begin on page 85, appearing periodically thereafter. The manuscript contains texts printed in yet another font, suggesting an endless regression of quoted texts. Olivia interprets texts in Ollie’s text, which we read in the context of the series. A cross-dressing heroin addict named Emilio also interprets Ollie’s book. Mistaking it’s fiction for fact, he reads it like Dortmunder’s gang: as an instructional manual that will help to commit a crime. Whereas Westlake’s comedy hinges on a too-intimate reading of the book in question, McBain’s thief soon realizes that the “Report to the Commissioner” is written in code; he attempts to “translate” Ollie’s fiction by mapping it onto the “real” city–the fantastical city painstakingly constructed over dozens upon dozens of novels. “The trouble with Livvie’s city was that it was imaginary,” is Emilio’s epiphany. “The people, the places in her pages were all fictitious. For all Emilio knew, even the police routine was phony and not based on established investigatory technique” (166). Upon reading a passage of Ollie’s novel, Emilio thinks:

You’re not going to fast for me, honey. . . You’re giving me clue after clue. If I don’t find you by Sunday, I’ll eat my rhinestone-studded thong panties. You have just told me that your informant is a tall, thin, one-eyed Jamaican who is known as The Needle, big surprise, but whose real name is Mortimer Loop, which is probably not his real name, either, they are so fuckin cagey, these people….     (120)

We soon learn that “in real life, this was a white man named William “Fats” Donner. Ollie had changed Donner’s name and description for fictitious purposes and also because he did not wish to get sued later by a fat junkie snitch” (120-1). Nonetheless, Emilio makes more progress in his interpretation than Ollie does in his investigation.

Once the novel’s text is introduced, metafictional resonances explode. In a flashback we learn that Ollie receives advice from a publisher that includes “YOU MUST INCLUDE A TICKING CLOCK” (84). Immediately after Emilo begins to map Ollie’s fiction onto McBain’s fictional world, we’re told: “The clock is ticking!” The book’s “simple” formula doubles. The race between cop and criminal becomes a race between the character’s interpretation of the text and the reader’s progression through the murder investigation. McBain and Ollie fulfill this generic requirement simultaneously. While the investigation proceeds at its patient pace, it’s new romantic leads, Olivia (in Ollie’s novel) and Emilio (reading Ollie’s novel), spring from deduction to deduction, keeping one step ahead of the criminals (in Olivia’s fictional world) and the cops (in McBain’s mise-en-scenè). All of this is rhymed again by the book’s overall plot: Carella’s search for the politician’s murderer requires the interpretation of several letters, while Ollie’s search for his manuscript requires him to “uncover” Emilo’s double-identity: a man at home, a woman on the streets.

Meanwhile, Ollie gains interiority. Of all the detectives in the series, he has until now been the most caricatured. In the station house, he’s “a character,” constantly performing himself; in the series, he’s the most artificial character, his persona put together through a gross amalgam of stereotypes. Up until this point, he’s every fat white man in the popular-culture canon. He eats hamburgers as rapidly as Popeye’s J. Wellington Wimpy, banters as buffoonishly as Oliver Hardy, bickers as good-naturedly as Jackie Gleason, and makes bigoted declarations as innocently as Archie Bunker. Now, we learn his inner thoughts. Normally, a character’s’ personal-life intrusions concern “real-world” problems: Carella’s wife is deaf, Kling’s new relationship is interracial, etc. Of all people, Ollie’s romance is actually Romance. His interior monologues mix racism with literary opinion: “He could just imagine how difficult it was for poor Jonathan Franzen, whom Ollie admired a great deal because he’d dissed a Negress like Oprah Winfrey” (96). His literary perspective makes him an ass (an observation his sister needle-points into a sampler that hangs over his toilet), but also a better detective: “Ollie guessed Walsh thought he looked like a TV detective. TV detectives thought they looked like real-life detectives, which they didn’t. Trouble was, real-life detectives watched TV and then started acting like TV detectives, who were acting the way they thought real-life detectives did” (211). Ollie’s appreciation for the way life imitates art imitating life helps him to solves the crime his manuscript’s created. He doesn’t recover the manuscript until a later 87th Precinct novel arrives: Hark! (2004).  In this book, full of anagrams, palindromes, and quotations from Shakespeare, Ollie finds Emilio. He’s burned the manuscript–but also MEMORIZED it. Ollie puts him in an interrogation room with a microphone and he regurgitates the entire thing. 

Both writers use metafiction to explore the relation between books and their genres. Both raise questions about how casual readers interpret texts. Both imagine the popular narrative to introduce a thrilling / dangerous chaos into the world’s plot. Westlake focuses on the relation between auteurs and collective projects. McBain focuses on the campy misinterpretation of sexual codes. For Westlake, writing in the early 1970s, our fictions are Freudian projections that never quite hit the mark. Comedy results from the impossibility of following our own scripts. For McBain, thirty years later, fictions result from textual misinterpretations. Their organization of the future is more important than that they were organized in the past. In both cases, metafiction is existential–the occasion to meditate on the mediation of reality–but no more so than in ordinary life. Our anxiety over the construction of reality motivates us (positively, if foolishly, for Westlake, through its absence for McBain), but mostly because it’s annoying. It accrues in little frustrations: life’s “liveable shit” (to quote the Sleaford Mods).

For Gass, metafiction edges literature into philosophy. It adds serious reflection of a new order to the reading experience. The culture industry’s metafiction is more dramatic and playful. No one would mistake these books for Beckett, Stein, or Barth. But they do evoke the playfulness of Cervantes and Sterne. The confusion engendered by the book’s alternative reality is survivable; everyone gets “lost in the funhouse” but everyone gets out again. 

As I write this, a constitutional crisis plays its miserable “make believe” out through an unpresidented conglomeration of twitter feeds, CNN, Breitbart, and real-life reruns of Celebrity Apprentice. We’ve been creeping up on government via reality TV for decades. The question is, how do we collectively live this crisis? Those most invested in tragedy want a hard-edged, uncomplicated reality. The rest of us want something more capacious and contagious. We shouldn’t give up the fantasy of an ordinary, infinitely complicated, always misunderstood, endlessly forgiving reality.

BACK TO THE BONE: Jeff Smith’s Bone Comics

Bone coverLast week, I observed a comrade’s son reading Jeff Smith’s Bone. It gave me hope. Only a month earlier, I’d wished Bone upon a brilliant student who’d written her honors thesis on graphic novels. The coincidence got me thinking. I hope everyone remotely interested in graphic narratives will read this beautiful, crazy “cartoon epic.”

The term’s appropriate. Epics are long. Mythic and historical in scope. At 1,332 pages, Bone must the single longest complete graphic narrative. Obviously many comic strips and series burn thru more pages, but they do so serially, rather than with the attempt to create a singular story arc. (For example, the complete Love & Rockets would be much longer, but Los Bros. Hernandez use the open-ended narrative structure of telenovelas; by contrast, Bone sustains a singular narrative–a version of The Odyssey. Our protagonist, Bone, spends the entire time attempting to get home. The story’s closest living relative is the Lord of the Rings trilogy (the collected Bone even comes with a map similar to those constructed of Tolkein’s world). But it’s graphic narrative is also reminiscent of modern epics, such as Pound’s Cantos or Williams’s Paterson. Although mediated differently, Smith’s comic, like these long poems, prioritizes imagistic fragments, allowing the sweep of history to lodge within ordinary life. Bone is one of the most finely drawn and thoughtfully conceived comic stories. It’s “epic” in quality as well as scope.

When I told my friend’s son how glad I was to see him reading, in my phrase, “the best comic of all time,” he corrected me: “it’s not a comic; it’s a graphic novel.” Similarly, my student’s honor’s thesis required a defense of the genre: graphic novels should be regarded as comics book for grown-ups. Bone blurs this distinction. It’s both comic book and graphic novel; it mixes the cartoon’s slapstick with the length and complexity of a Russian novel. When it first appeared in 1991, I didn’t get it. I was too “young” because I was too concerned with being “grown up.” Into more macho and ironic graphic novels, I was put off by the amorphous, Pogo-like characters, intensely slow scenes, and black-and-white printing. 25 years later, I’m charmed by its whimsy. It balances adolescent enthusiasm with poetic intensity, and plays with genre expectations in delightful ways.

THE STORY (in 5 sentences)

Three cousins–Fone Bone, Phoney Bone, and Happy Bone–flee a riot sparked by one of Phoney’s get-rich-quick schemes; they get separated while crossing a mountain range into foreign territory. The arrive in a magical land populated by peasants, princesses, talking animals, dragons, and other monsters. It’s as foreign to them as it is to us, while their world, which we hear of but never see, is full of nuclear waste, organic gardens, venture capitalists and Fourth of July parades. Our protagonist, Fone Bone, falls in love with Thorn, a warrior princess; with the help of her kick-ass grandmother and a Red Dragon, they defeat a Tolkienesque evil. Phone Bone spends much time bickering with his cousins and trying to keep them alive; in the end, the three of them head back to Boneville, their reality.


Cartoon confrontationThe original comics were black-and-white, pen-and-ink drawings. Before they were colored, Smith’s drawings depended upon the size and shape of lines, along with the spacing of narrative elements, to develop complex characters, slapstick humor, and fast-paced action. He contributed to the innovations in the use of negative space and “slow motion” that Frank Miller popularized in Ronin and the Dark Knight. But more like Hergé than Miller, Smith focused on a precise rendering of panel-by-panel actions and reactions. His work resembles Saul Steinberg’s in it’s love of the pen and George Booth’s in the the care it extends to the minutia of details.  But Smith does more; he uses two graphic styles to represent a fundamental rift in his world. Bone and his cousins are Pogo-like cartoon creatures, drawn with thick, smooth lines. The residents of the valley in which they find themselves are human and animal, rendered with thinner, scratchier lines. The Bones’ bodies are empty of all but the most significant details; the human and animals bodies are more fully “filled in” with textural marks. In other words, two styles share many frames. Compare this to Miller’s two realities but single style in Ronin or the distinct styles of Jaime Hernandez’s Hoppers vs Gilbert’ s Palomar. In Bone, characters from one stylistic reality (cartoonish / clear-line) find themselves in a world dictated by a different stylistic reality (realistic / textured). 

This difference is fundamental to the entire narrative; in Smith’s world, visual styles dictate physical laws. Bone and his cousins enjoy different gravitational effects. For example, unlike the humans and animals around them, they suffer few or no ill-effects from falling from great heights, but can be literally “bowled over” by love. They function in the story’s reality, but with a difference.

Bone Falls in Love

Thorn gives Bone an extra-long look, which adds romance to her statement that “we’re friends.” We see Bone absorb this; then he’s flipped out of his saddle by a feeling. The hearts floating over his head in the last panel don’t apply to Thorn, her grandmother, or other characters of the “human” world. In the last panel, Thorn looks back in surprise. Not only is she unaware of his infatuation (he’s about to write her some very bad love lyrics), she’s confused by its physical effects. The visual metaphor appears to her as an unaccountable accident. It’s as though Bone comes from the world of the Id, while Thorn remains within the world of the ego. The ego’s world is the only world we see, but the Id’s world sounds (as disclosed in conversation) more like our own. The ego’s world is inhabited by humans and (talking) animals; the Id’s world (Boneville) is represented by cartoon creatures, who are astounded that animals talk. The on-going negotiation between these worlds–both kinds of creatures attempting to understand the other with great patience–constitutes the daily life that fills the narrative foreground, even as an epic battle unfolds. 


In it’s initial stages, the battle unfolds in meticulously rendered chase sequences. Bone’s chased by two “stupid, stupid rat creatures”: Laurel-and-Hardy monsters you can’t help but love. Consider the time sequence and intense details in this typical sequence:

Stupid Stupid Rat Creatures

Slapstick rendered with intense naturalism recalls Buster Keaton’s The General or The Navigator. In the first panel, Bone, falling off the collapsing tree, catches the rat creature’s ears. In the second panel, the rat creature realizes the size of the cliff.  Both characters recognize the need to work together. But as Bone climbs to safety, the second rat creature slams into them and everyone falls. Look at Bone’s expression in the final panel and at how the rat creature acknowledges his critique. In Daredevil in the late 70s / early 80s, Miller began to depict action with this degree of balletic detail, a marked contrast to the more symbolic sequences of “classic” superhero comics. Smith applies this technique to comic effect. Everyone survives. 

The slowing down of visual narrative is used to amplify ordinary reactions to extraordinary events. One of my favorite sequences unfolds over two pages. Phoney, working off his latest scam by doing dishes in a tavern, is confronted by a wizard resembling the Grim Reaper:

Phoney Bone and Death 1Phoney Bone and Death 2

Phoney confronts  what for him’s a typical dilemma. He’s ready to assault any entity that threatens his cousin–unless a “business” prospect interferes. The thing appears first at the window, then sticks it’s head into the kitchen, provoking a physical reaction that can only be experienced by the residents of Boneville. The page ends with a comedic jolt as Smiley slams more dishes onto the counter. On the first panel of the next page, Phoney’s jitters are the result of both his confrontation with the mythic figure and the frazzling carelessness of Happy. Then the perspective reverses, and the wizard’s actions are mirrored as Phoney looks through, then leans through, the window. Note his shadow as he peers out. Four silent panels set up his realization that surreal forces are involved. He understands capitalism, but not magic…

It gets more complicated. As the forces of evil overwhelm the peasant-warriors, a meta-level hallucination occurs. Bone’s favorite author is Herman Melville; he carries Moby-Dick and a diary in his knapsack. As the forces of evil grow, Thorn’s and Bone’ dreams grow strange. In the following, he dreams that he’s Ismael and Phoney, Ahab. 

The White Whale

The dramatic perspective, technically precise detail, and embedded frames are typical of the entire comic.  Notice how the background details fade in the middle panel and disappear entirely from the bottom panel. The styles continually mediate a range of subjective/objective details; the more intense the personal drama, the more the style beckons toward early Disney comics, which minimized background. Bone’s dream enjoys a similarly multi-layered relation to the plot as a whole. Sometimes Phone Bone and Phoney Bone seem like the little angels and devils that appear in poems and cartoons to indicate moral decisions. Both are sought by the forces of darkness, whose prophecies suggest the importance of one or the other of them. Meanwhile, Bone and his cousin have a lot of baggage. They’ve grown up together, looking out for each other in myriad ways. Now their confronting a strange world,  often with their backs to the wall. Phoney, whose cartoon features are determined by greed the way Bone’s are by love, gets them into a lot of trouble. Happy Bone, whose trait is goofiness, usually goes along with his get-rich-quick schemes, leaving Bone  to confront his cousin. Their antagonism is symbolic, but also the subject of an intense, ongoing conversation.

Furthermore, dreaming is treated with great reverence; Thorn’s dreams reveal her destiny and are used to control her will.  Bone and Thorn, young lovers that they are, spend a lot of time interpreting each other’s dreams.  No one interprets Bone’s dream (when he wakes, everyone’s gone), so it’s up to us. Imagining Phoney as Ahab suggests the Bone recognizes his cousin’s mania, and also that he regards him as the Captain of their little gang. Indeed, the dream suggests that if Phoney is allowed to lead their quest for home, they will die. Bone must come to recognize that he’s the Odysseus to Phoney’s Ahab.

Smiley Bone and Rat Creature make money close upIt’s more complicated than that,  of course, because Phoney also wants to get them safely home; he’s just convinced that a large amount of loot will help them on their way.  Like Scrooge McDuck, he suffers from an intense money fetish. When Smiley and an orphan rat creature they’ve named Bartleby figure out how to coin money, Phoney weeps with joy. By contrast, Bone’s Caspar the Friendly Ghost, a frequently ignored superego that hovers near by, lamenting bad decisions when he’s not saving the day.

The climax involves a war between humans, rat creatures, and other monsters, plus an explosion that recalls Mt. St. Helen’s eruption. As the characters flee across the blighted landscape, they share a collective hallucination that causes Bone’s dream to come to life. Phoney finds himself having to traverse the boulder-strewn desolation with a wooden leg, thanks to his cousin’s Id. Their conversation’s hilarious.

Smith takes the time, panel-by-panel, page-by-page, to complicate everything. The characters are constantly commenting on their own actions and reactions; about 70% of the story involves their conversation about what’s going on. In the scene described above, Phoney yells, “It’s a VOLCANO! Can’t we just say that the mountain BLEW UP? Why’s it EVIL?” He’s never accepted the story about sorcerers and dragons everyone in this world seems to believe. He’s infuriated by Bone’s and Happy’s acceptance of this nonsense. Yet the evidence is right there–in his wooden leg, which only makes matters worse… Like Moby-Dick, Bone explores at length the numerous stated and unconscious goal(s) of the voyage. Even the love plot’s complicated. Does Thorn treat Bone’s infatuation lightly because: a) she regards him as doughy little cartoon; b) she sees him as a possible suitor, but is into hunky farm boys; c) like him, she’s shy; d) she’s got a lot of her mind as she transforms from peasant to princess-warrior. The answer’s all of the above. Their relationship, as important as that between Bone and his cousins, evolves tenderly through dozens of side-bar “check-in’s” as the epic unfolds:

Bone and Thorn conversation 1

Bone and Thorn conversation 2

Smith renews our trust in the possibilities of earnest conversation. Friendly banter–little apologies, admissions, explanations–will be the source of their survival. When it matters, they will trust each other and reason together.  This trans-species intimacy is at times facilitated and hindered by their wildly different experiences and bodies.  These bodies are “lived in” throughout the story, but also symbolic of two styles in the now-massive comic-book industry.  Bone and Thorn cross the boundaries between the adolescent slapstick of the dailies and the aesthetic priorities of the mature graphic novel.

In recent years, captivated by Hollywood, the comics industry has moved in the opposite direction. They create “universes” that are entirely monotonal, singularly textured.  When “Spiderman 14: A New Beginning” and “X-Men 36: Another Apocalypse” prove too much for you, go back to the Bone.