stands as a record of its own composition" (228). The following study considers the novel divided into four narrative layers; each layer includes an author constructing a new written narrative. The frame narrative includes what O’Brien’s narrator terms his "biographical reminiscences." The next lower narrative is the narrator’s manuscript concerning a fictional author: Dermot Trellis. The third narrative plane includes Dermot Trellis’ novel-in-progress, and the lives of his characters. The fourth and final narrative plane consists of a revenge plot by Trellis’ bastard son, Orlick, written in order to punish Dermot for his tyrannical authorship and mistreatment of Orlick’s mother, a character in Dermot’s novel.
This study’s terminology comes from many critics. Several nearly interchangeable terms have been applied to the technique that I call "reflexive." The recent history of such literary terminology can be said to begin at the end of the nineteenth century with André Gide’s mise en abyme. Lucien Dallenbach’s book-length study of Gide’s idea, The Mirror in the Text, gives a compact description of Gide’s term: "a mise en abyme is any aspect enclosed within a work that shows a similarity with the work that contains it" (8). This explanation’s circularity hints at the device’s complex nature. Dallenbach states that the "essential property [of the mise en abyme] is that it brings out the meaning and form of the work" (8). As Michael Boyd simply puts it in The Reflexive Novel, when "a novel pauses to look at itself, to consider itself as a novel, it strikes ... a reflexive attitude" (15). The implications of this authorial stance are many:
The characters in a novel will seem "unreal."... The readers of such fiction ... will be encouraged to become critically detached from the action. At the same time they will find it necessary to take on a more active role, to become involved at the level of artistic process rather than passively receiving the artistic product.... The reflexive novelist will use nonnovelistic material, space-time dislocations, collage, alternative endings, and parody to remind the reader that a novel is something made. (Boyd 28-9)
In much the same manner, Robert Alter devotes his Partial Magic to a discussion of what he terms "self-conscious" fiction. Alter claims an "appreciation for the kind of novel that expresses its seriousness through playfulness, that is acutely aware of itself as a mere structure of words even as it tries to discover new ways of going beyond words to the experiences words seek to indicate" (ix). Alter offers his own definition: "a self-conscious novel ... is a novel that systematically flaunts its own condition of artifice and ... by so doing probes into the problematic relationship between real-seeming artifice and reality" (x). Alter proposes a very neat metaphor for the reflexive genre, that of a "mirror held to the mirror of art held to nature [that proves] not merely an ingenious trick but a necessary operation for a sceptical culture nevertheless addicted, as all cultures have been, to the pleasures and discoveries of fabulation" (245). This is a sort of evolution of artistic form resulting from a scientifically-minded society. Authors desire to discover how the relationship between art and the world operates.
Patricia Waugh gives a similar explanation for what she terms "metafiction":
a term given to fictional writing which self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artefact in order to pose questions about the relationship of fiction and reality. In providing a critique of their own methods of construction, such writings not only examine the fundamental structures of narrative fiction, they also explore the possible fictionality of the world outside the literary fictional text. (2)
There are many different writing styles that can be subsumed by this label, according to Waugh,