So familiar has the term metafiction become in the past decade and a half that it is perhaps easy to forget its recent origin, readily traceable to William Gass's 1970 essay. The phenomenon of self-consciousness that characterizes metafiction dates to the origins of the modern novel itself and the works of Cervantes, Sterne, and Diderot, as Robert Alter demonstrated in Partial Magic. Gass's coinage creates a generic term for a wide range of fictional experimentation that successive critics have labeled self-reflective, self-begetting, narration-gloss, self-commentary, and story-within-a-story as they grappled with the problematic relationship between fiction and reality. The proliferation of terminology has fragmented the concept [End Page 337] of metafiction rather than locating its essence. Robert Spires differs from most previous theorists in seeking a definition of metafiction that will prescribe the bounds of the broadly conceived phenomenon that otherwise threatens to press virtually all contemporary fiction into its fold, while at the same time bridging the chasm that separates early works retrospectively labeled metafictional from the metafiction movement that has enveloped the novel since the 1960s. For Spires, the metafictional mold is neither new nor born again but is a response to the preoccupation, especially intense in this century, with the function of language and the nature of discourse. Language in a metafictional text is a self-contained system that produces its own meanings independent of external reality. Thus Spires grounds his definition of the metafictional mode in language and the nature of referentiality.
Rejecting current typologies of metafictional texts and the creation of a genre of metafiction, Spires has chosen to rethink modal paradigms and to propose a linguistically grounded, synchronic definition of modes rooted in the linguistic process of transforming external reality. This approach represents a radical departure from the historically determined sequence of modes proposed by Frye and redrawn by Scholes. Seeking to balance the asymmetry built into existing modal paradigms, Spires has proposed a new schema in which history and novelistic theory stand at opposite poles framing the spatial disposition of atemporal fictional modes. As the mode most closely associated with theory, metafiction lies closest to that pole but inside the bounds of fiction. Within the domain of fiction, linguistic transformation links metafiction to satire, on the one hand, and to romance, on the other, through the abstract nature of their referents.
Having elaborated both his theoretical base and his critical apparatus, Spires applies his formulations through close readings of individual novels selected as markers of the trajectory of the metafictional mode in Spanish literature. Spires centers his reading of the texts on Genette's analysis of the act of narrating and the violation of fictional modes, perceptively elucidating the narrator-text-reader relationships. Violation occurs when "the member of one world [the world of the fictive author, of the story, or of the text-act reader] violates the world of another." It is at times unfortunate for Spires's reader that he has linked his formulation of the metafictional mode to an analysis of narrative mode, because the resultant duplication of terminology can initially foster confusion.
Spires initiates his reading of metafictional texts by briefly examining the Quijote and Quevedo's El Buscón before turning to the alternating violation-negation strategy underlying Galdós' "La novela en tranvía" (1871). In the twentieth century Spires selects novels displaying a range of metafictional strategies, linking each novel to the broader context of contemporaneous metafictional ploys. Perhaps the most frequendy cited metafictional Spanish novel, Unamuno's Niebla (1914), confirms its radical modal violations through Spires's analysis of fiction on a palimpsest. Less frequently studied are Jarnés' vanguard novels that Spires discusses in terms of the foregrounding of the code system (Locura y muerte de nadie, 1929) and the violation of the modes of fiction (La novela del viento, 1940). Torrente Ballester's Don Juan (1962) and Cunqueiro's Un hombre que se parecéa a Orestes (1969) constitute examples of the challenge to and transformation of classical...