Something smells fishy

What if everyone admitted they’re just making up stories all the time? Brian Brett’s Coyote makes us imagine a metafictional world by: Chris LaVigne, The Republic

There’s fish, and then there’s the fish I caught last summer. I’m talking about a 60-pound salmon that I dragged out of the Pacific, my rod nearly snapping in two from the struggle that this marine behemoth gave me. The gigantic Chinook landed in my boat with such a tremendous noise I thought the deck had been split. That’s how massive it was–easily the biggest fish that I and everyone else who beheld it had ever seen. What a day!

Of course, it never happened. The story is totally untrue. But then, you already knew that, right? If there’s one thing that nobody in the world ever believes, it’s a fishing story. Even cave people knew to distrust each other whenever one came back from the local pond, grunting and indicating a ridiculous size with his hands. We’re just as cynical about anyone’s angling abilities these days too.

And just picture the reaction to a fishing story told by a politician, which would surely inspire a display of skepticism and doubt that would make an atheist jealous. It’s hard to believe anything that comes from a politician’s mouth, let alone something involving a marlin or a trout. Yet this distrust doesn’t stop us from continually voting for politicians in each and every election. Why do we bother when we know that their promises are nothing but stories about fish they’ve never caught?

It could be said that when we vote, what we’re really doing is choosing the best storyteller. We’re all quite aware that very little truth will spill from a political candidate’s mouth, so we choose our favourite contender based on who tells us the most pleasing lies. This fact explains why many seemingly sensible people vote for neo-liberal candidates. Politicians who advocate free-market capitalism are merely telling a story of how people can continue to live corrupt and selfish lives and yet somehow save the world by doing so. It’s a simple story in which the villains become the heroes. History books are filled with these.

Brian Brett’s marvelous new novel Coyote explores the manner in which our world is constructed by such fictions. Coyote is a brilliant book and deserves to be on every major literary award’s shortlist in 2004. It tells the story of a man who is also named Brian (“Why is he named Brian?” the narrator asks the readers, “Am I playing games with you?”) who comes to one of the Gulf Islands to kill the man who used to be the infamous ecoterrorist Coyote. Quickly, he finds himself distracted by the man’s stories instead. The novel also tells the story of RCMP Inspector Janwar Singh, whose investigation into a series of missing women from downtown Vancouver leads him towards the island as well. More than anything, though, Coyote tells the story of its narrator, a trickster figure who may or may not be Brett himself and who alternately obscures and clarifies the tale’s meaning.

“This is a story about how dangerous stories are,” Brett’s narrator tells his readers in one of many warnings about the nature of his own tale. The book begins with the narrator describing how his friends expect his writing to impossibly both adhere to reality and form a unified narrative: “‘Just tell the truth,’ they say, ‘But it should also be a story.'” This is the paradox of writing. The solution might be a metafictional approach like that taken by Brett. Metafiction means a form of fiction that draws attention to its status as fiction and its consequent distance from reality. Examples range from Salman Rushdie’s novel Shame to the Spike Jonze/Charlie Kaufman movie Adaptation to Hideo Kojima’s video game Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty.

“Moral questions,” the narrator begins in one aside, “That’s what we’re trying to explore—the answers to moral questions that might not have answers. Some people would call them stories.” The tale that Coyote‘s narrator tells is one in which there are no easy answers. Coyote justifies his ecoterrorism through lengthy and convincing diatribes against logging companies, zoos, pharmaceutical companies that test on animals, and industrial pollution, but discovers it’s not as simple as he tells himself. When putting his plans in action, Coyote rarely finds that theory matches reality. Escaped zoo animals can’t survive in nature. Industrial sabotage costs workers their jobs. Nothing goes exactly as imagined.

Coyote’s problems highlight the discrepancy between the stories we tell ourselves and the reality we live. But Coyote’s ability to act points out how complicit we are in the damage caused by these environmental menaces for going along with the stories that protect them, even though we recognize they are not true. “Everybody secretly knows what’s going on,” the narrator accuses, “so why do we continue destroying the world around us? Well, that’s a story, isn’t it?”

Later on, the narrator says, “We live in the world that [Coyote] discovered . . . the world where you can’t be right or wrong any more. You can only limit the extent of your damage. That’s the contract with our environment we’ve broken.” Metafiction is the storyteller’s manner of following this philosophy. It limits the damage done by a story by forcing its audience to realize its fictionality at almost every moment. Brett’s Coyote can never be mistaken for reality because it is always reminding you of how fake it is.

Imagine a politician undermining her campaign promise not to raise taxes by drawing attention to the fact that she’s only saying what needs to be said in order to win votes. Picture a returning vacationer bragging to his buddies about the huge bass he brought in, but then admitting to everyone that exaggeration is almost universal in fishing stories. Life would be like this if we all adopted metafictional behaviour.

However, since such a thing will likely never happen, metafiction like Brett’s Coyote reminds us to remain vigilant against our own gullibility. It warns us that the world is made up of stories, not truth, and that it’s up to us to know the difference.