This is the first sentence of my review of “Idaho Winter” by Tony Burgess—perhaps the most Barthian work of hardcore metafiction to be released in recent memory. A book review is meant to give the reader an idea of what the book in question is about and how well the author went about writing it.
Unfortunately, this is difficult to do with “Idaho Winter, ” as it is, by design, insulated from outside criticism. The occasional tense shifts might be unintentional, sure. But they also might be purposeful, meant to develop an “author-as-character” who isn’t such a great author. So, too, might explain the novel’s excessive alliteration and noticeable overuse of the words “poor” and “sickly.” Or take an awful, redundant description like this: “A monstrous leech. I dropped my leg back down. Not a normal leech.” That could be, yes, awful and redundant. But a reviewer, like myself, calling it such runs the risk of seeming not in on the joke.
Therefore, any criticism I would want to level against “Idaho Winter” is really more of a criticism of the genre as a whole.
The problem with metafiction (other than pretentiousness)—whose main goal is to expose the pulleys and levers of fiction—is two-fold: (1) that it distances itself from the human experience by remaining purely diagnostic, and consequently (2) its stakes are too low.
At this point in the review, the reader will be wanting description of the plot. Here goes: “Idaho Winter” is about an author who is about three quarters of the way through an atrociously written young-adult story about a boy inexplicably hated by everyone in town when, suddenly, the character becomes self-aware and exacts revenge on its author.
Beyond this, not much can be said because Burgess provides no signposts for the reader to tell where reality is. He provides no explanation for exactly how a human—existing in the human world—becomes trapped—literally—in the work of fiction he is creating. Does he wind up in his computer, vis-a-vis “Tron”? Or do his characters leave the page, not unlike the girl from “The Ring” coming out of the TV screen?
Before you get to thinking I’m some square who only reads realism, let me say that I really like a lot of the tools metafiction works with. The author-as-a-character, the breaking of the fourth wall, the self-consciousness, etc. Employed correctly, I think these can be a great service to the classical themes most literature touches on. I think Dave Eggers’ “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” the short stories of Lydia Davis and everything David Foster Wallace ever wrote proves that.
But in the John Barth sense, I think metafiction has always been vapid. His magnum opus, “Lost in the Funhouse,” published in 1968, does contain human characters, but only as an afterthought. The real meat-and-potatoes of that collection are passages like this—
Description of physical appearance and mannerisms is one of several standard methods of characterization used by writers of fiction. It is also important to “keep the senses operating”; when a detail from one of the five senses, say visual, is “crossed” with a detail from another, say auditory, the reader’s imagination is oriented to the scene, perhaps unconsciously.
—which interrupt the actual narrative Barth is constructing. It’s basically like watching football highlights and having the analyst pause them to draw yellow lines across the screen. Which is useful in a certain context—the want of greater understanding of what you just saw. But imagine now if, as the game were unfolding in real time, Jimmy Johnson and Terry Bradshaw started drawing all over Matt Forte’s rushing route as he was running it, or drew a big yellow circle around Julius Peppers as he manhandles the two unlucky offensive linemen tasked with blocking him. It would ruin the immediate beauty such acts of physical greatness provide, which is really why we are watching, and which is also the only reason we care to watch the analysis in the first place.
The only reason you might be reading this essay, the only reason you might read the New York Times Book Review every Sunday, the only reason you might read critical theory, is because somewhere down the line, on some bygone rainy afternoon, you read a book that just absolutely killed you. It knew who you were, who you are or who you wanted to be. It put you in touch with some part of the human experience.
“Idaho Winter” seems to purposely avoid doing this. Instead of giving us an earnest, idealistic attempt at describing the human experience, its raison d’etre is to cynically point out all the flaws of fiction from a safe ironic distance.
Perhaps I’m going too fast. A good book review, like good fiction, shows rather than tells. And I sense I’ve been telling you about “Idaho Winter” and its genre without showing you enough to convince you. There are other things I’m missing, too—by this point in any respectable book review, the reader should know a little bit about the book’s author. I’ll do that first.
Tony Burgess is an Ontario author who is apparently pretty well-known in his native Canada but not-so-much in the US. His most prominent work seems to be a 1998 novel called “Pontypool Changes Everything,” which tells of a virus, spread through language, that makes one a flesh-eating zombie—essentially, “28 Days Later” had it been written by Umberto Eco.
Burgess seems like a weird bird, and what I’ve read about him makes me like him. He lives in a former funeral parlor, whose backyard is rumored to be a makeshift cemetery for more than a dozen cats that now haunt the premises. His literary career apparently began when he’d open punk shows in Toronto with readings of hastily written short stories. And he’s kept the outsider aesthetic of punk as an author—working only with indie publishers, never writing a bestseller and earning a kind of stoic respect from his colleagues.
According to a profile in the Canadian culture magazine, The Walrus, Burgess had fought with his publisher over how to categorize “Idaho Winter.” Burgess insisted it was a young-adult novel. Its publisher, ECW, evidently sees it as literary fiction that parodies young-adult novels.
There’s a case to be made for both.
For the first forty pages of “Idaho Winter,” the author is in complete control of his characters. The title character, known to some by his nickname “Potato,” is living a life that makes Oliver Twist’s seem enviable.
It is the first day of school, and Idaho wakes in his mouse-infested bedroom that reeks of fish and garbage. For breakfast, his father—Early Winter—instructs Idaho to “eat what the critter found,” which turns out to be a dead, maggoty raccoon. On his walk to school, the crossing guard tries to get him hit by a car and his peers catch him and beat the shit out of him.
The one bright spot in his day is Madison Beach, a girl who likes him and thinks everyone in town is evil for treating him so badly. Unfortunately, everyone in town thinks the Potato kidnapped her and sicced ravenous dogs on him. When the dogs accidentally attack Madison rather than Idaho, he gets up and runs away, which the author gasps is “not part of the story I was telling.”
This section is poorly written, but seems poorly written on purpose—intentionally 2-D like the beginning of David Lynch’s “Mullholland Drive” and “Blue Velvet.” None of the characters here are remotely believable. See, for instance, why the crossing guard Ms. Joost so despises Idaho: “The Potato is an awful boy. He smells like rotten fish. He is dressed in filth and, why, even his parents can’t stand the sight of him. No shoes. And his hair!” This is obviously not a real reason to want to kill a child; this is a real reason to call child services.
But OK, it’s satirizing the tropes of the young-adult genre. I get it.
But from there, the author loses control of the characters and becomes trapped in a reality of the troubled Idaho’s making. It’s a world populated by Mom-bats (ugly creatures with the face of Idaho’s mother), dinosaurs and the members of Green Day. How he can escape this hellish world, and also save his book, are the author’s primary concerns. As he sets to this unusual task, he ponders the relationship between writer and reader, between writer and character and between reality and fiction.
He joins up with a group of people living in the sewer. One turns out to be a Ms. Joost far nicer than the one he created, who has the head of one of the other characters attached to her back, Mr. Oncet. Oncet’s head narrates the action going on around them, which the author finds can occasionally provide helpful insight but can also distance one from the reality occurring around them. The others are characters he didn’t even really create personalities for—they are, he realizes, just names from a class list.
He becomes their de facto leader, and plans to reunite Madison with Idaho (who can be conjured by speaking his name) to hopefully bring balance to this world. Trouble is, Madison has become a black hole of sorts—within fifty feet of her, one feels sad. Within thirty, one begins to sob uncontrollably. Within ten, one becomes paralyzed with sadness.
This turns out to be the device through which the book’s only passage of true pathos is delivered. As the author approaches her for the first time, he begins to compulsively list every sadness he’s experienced. This turns out to be extremely cool and mostly well-done. Here are a few sample lines:
“When I was young these farm boys ran over my dog. In front of me and my whole family.”
“I had a friend in school who got very sick, went into the hospital and never came back. I never saw him again.”
“I fell once, tripped off a low bridge across a shallow ditch. It would have been easy to just get up. I wasn’t hurt. But I lay there…the entire afternoon. Because I wished it had been a much further fall.”
These are all excellent details, and one wants more of them. Unfortunately, these are the only glimpses into the author’s life—and since he’s the only literally real character in this book, the reader is left with very little to latch on to.
There are other, rare and sporadic attempts at pathos, but they turn out to be either melodramatic or cliché. In one scene, the author muses over Dorothy’s plight to get home in the “Wizard of Oz”: “But the fact that she had to wear a specific pair of red shoes to actually get home scared me. What if she’d never found those slippers?” In another, the author experiencing Madison-induced sadness, thinks of Old Yeller being shot.
Burgess is far better at describing the nightmarish, purely metaphorical things in the book that represent components of fiction. The Oncet narrator, for instance, is a cool way of representing fiction’s authorial voice. People suddenly changing genders 7/8 of the way through the narrative, too, is a cool way of representing characterization.
But the problem is, I don’t think we read things because they are cool. We like leather jackets and motorcycles because they’re cool; we read because it promises to go beyond the cool—beyond the posturing and façade we put on every day to try and appear interesting and impressive to the people around us. But if we let our guard down, there are things we all share that make us pretty uncool—various neuroses and bodily functions, chief among them. We read fiction because it connects us with who we are, not who we pretend to be.
Fiction that exists to critique other fiction never goes that deep. It doesn’t address who we are and what we’re like—it just examines how we go about addressing those things. It is not about the human experience; it is about how we create the human experience. Its stakes are too low because we don’t care about the people involved. We don’t care about the people involved because they aren’t involved in human struggles; they’re tools to represent something else, like x’s and y’s in algebraic equations, used by the author like checkers shuffled across a board.
True, maybe an independent Canadian release that, to be honest, you probably wouldn’t have read anyway (Canadian books, and most international releases, for that matter, are very difficult to come by in the US), might be an unfair effigy for metafiction—a genre that mostly died out around the same time as disco.
But, as if this whole “review” has not been off-putting enough, I would like to posit a quick theory: that we may see more metafictional novels like “Idaho Winter” published in the coming years. I don’t think this is because we have a renewed interest in the artifice of art, but because of—and bear with me, here—the cultural influence of video games.
In “Idaho Winter,” a human becomes trapped in a false world. He faces a series of surreal challenges that he must overcome to succeed and return to the real world. Its structure is very much like that of a game.
In Barth-peer Robert Coover’s 2010 novel “Noir,” the only recent book I can think of that comes close to “Idaho Winter” in its metafictional qualities, “You” are a private detective a la Philip Marlowe, navigating a Chandler-esque underworld the way you might on a PlayStation.
Think also of the film “Inception,” which is a classic story of love and guilt told using a number of metafictional tools (dreams=stories; architect=author; et al). I don’t know if a film like this—where dreamers (read: players) have to beat projections and accomplish tasks on each layer (read: level) to accomplish the overall goal, and where, typically, dying in a dream wakes you up (the way “dying” in a video game simply means “game over”)—could exist before the advent of first-person shooter games.
Video games, like metafiction, put the consumer of entertainment in control and take away the authority of the author. And with a ton of movies about real people trapped in fictions or in the body of others—“Tron,” “The Source Code,” “Avatar,” “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” “Zombieland”—and a number of postmodern books—“Noir” and Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 detective throwback “Inherent Vice”—it seems there is an appetite for such works.
Indeed, it seems unavoidable that fiction will become more interactive, that the tools meta- pioneered and videogames popularized will inform the way writers write and readers read. The rise of e-readers and iPads will only add to this; it’s probably only a matter of time before someone somehow merges video and text on one of these formats.
Perhaps this is the greatest reason metafiction like “Idaho Winter” feels so gimmicky and shallow to those of us living in 2011: modern technology doesn’t just allow us to inhabit other worlds, it forces us to live in them, navigate between them and internalize the rules of each.
Readers growing up in today’s world know the mores that govern our virtual lives, the ones that govern our “real” ones. They have an implicit understanding of how we communicate on Facebook versus face-to-face, by text message versus phone call; the things you can do in a video game versus the things you can do in real life.
“Idaho Winter” kind of fails not because it’s poorly written or overly cold, the way so much metafiction does; it kind of fails because we already know fiction is a construct, because we’re smarter than the gimmicks.
Metafiction supposes we read fiction to admire its shell.
In truth, we read it for the nut enclosed within.
By Tony Burgess
ECW Press, 149 pages, $14.95