Meta is an odd word; it is all about me. Self-referential. And, we do it in the subtlest of ways. Right when I’m enjoying a work of fiction I get a glimmer, a suggestion, that this book is all about the author. It is likely their story.
At this blog I’ve reviewed Aleksandar Hemon’s short stories, Love and Obstacles and Lily Tuck’s Liliane—all supposedly fiction, but both hovering on the edge of autobiography.
With Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf and The History of Great Things by Elizabeth (Betsy!) Crane we are easily clued in. The author actually references themselves. In Our Souls at Night the main characters talk over the morning newspaper while at breakfast and mention that that one writer, his latest novel is being made into a play. She’d enjoyed the last production the playhouse did of his work and now it looks like they are launching another.
“He could write a book about us. How would you like that?”—she asks.
Louis replies to her, “I don’t want to be in any book.”
The joke is on them—and a bit on us. It is all imaginary, it is all so real. Holt the imaginary county and imaginary county town were all spun over 25 years ago from Haruf’s head. He was blessed before he passed away last November to see several of his novels transformed for the stage. It must have pleased him immensely because he brings it up in the course of conversation between his characters. Louis says:
“But it’s his imagination. He took the physical details from Holt, the place name of the streets and what the country looks like and the location of things, but it’s not this town. .. It’s all made up.”
I like to imagine Kent Haruf writing those lines with the flicker of a smirk on his lips. I loved Plainsong and his follow up novel Eventide and also Benediction. Our Souls at Night is his last. Unless one of his characters cares to recreate a novel about Haruf; that would be interesting.
The History of Great Things is about Betsy and Ben her husband and her mother and father. In fact it is her mother talking to her, telling her story. Except it is not. It is a fictional retelling. How many of us have had the good intention of one day sitting down with a tape recorder and asking old granny some questions. Or asking Dad about what it was like to play basketball in college. There is always that one story they tell and you think: I should write that down. Very few of us get around to doing this.
Elizabeth Crane has done the impossible, she has gone back to get her mother’s story. Both Betsy and her deceased mother get a chance to tell their personal history. It’s how I imagine the circle, unbroken, sitting around a table in gloryland. Truly an inventive book, meta, but not sentimental. It’s the truth, just not one Crane can claim to be hers alone.
May the Circle Be Unbroken (1907)
There are loved ones in the glory
Whose dear forms you often miss.
When you close your earthly story,
Will you join them in their bliss?
Will the circle be unbroken
By and by, by and by?
Is a better home awaiting
In the sky, in the sky?