Metafiction is fiction that takes fiction itself as one of its subjects. That is, metafictional texts not only tell a story but tell a story about the nature of storytelling. Metafictional texts often use this technique to explore the relationship between fiction and reality, as O’Brien does in ‘‘Where Have You Gone Charming Billy?’’ In this story, Paul Berlin spends much of the story thinking about the kinds of war stories he will tell when he gets home and how those stories will be different from the actual experience he is having. Paul Berlin also spends a lot of time pretending to be somewhere else, pretending that events in the story did not happen, pretending in advance what it will be like ‘‘when they reached the sea.’’ O’Brien uses Paul Berlin’s fantasies to make a metafictional point: he shows that narratives (stories) do not simply arise naturally but are deliberately constructed to produce specific effects. Paul Berlin shapes the stories he tells himself and those he plans to tell when he gets home in much the same way that O’Brien shapes the story of Paul Berlin. One of the central themes of this story is the nature of storytelling itself, and O’Brien’s use of narratives within a narrative highlights his belief that the purpose of fiction is, as he has said, ‘‘for getting at the truth when the truth isn’t sufficient for the truth.’’ Paul Berlin tells himself stories in the hopes that he can shape his experience of Vietnam, and O’Brien writes a story about a character who tells himself stories to show how the stories we tell ourselves shape the people we become. In this way, the story is metafictional—a story about storytelling—as much as it is a story about the Vietnam War.
Third-Person Limited Point of View
A story uses the third-person point of view when the narrator is separate from the protagonist and narrates the events of the story from outside the protagonist’s point of view. A third-person story can be identified by its use of the pronouns ‘‘he,’’ ‘‘she,’’ and ‘‘they.’’ The narrative point of view in ‘‘Where Have You Gone Charming Billy?’’ is considered ‘‘limited’’ because narrator knows only what the protagonist, Paul Berlin, knows. For instance, in the first part of the story, Paul Berlin does not know the name of the soldier next to him, and hence, that character is referred to only as ‘‘the soldier.’’ Using the third-person limited narrative allows O’Brien to convey Paul Berlin’s confusion about the war to the reader, by only giving the reader as much information as Paul Berlin has. Although the third-person limited point of view remains faithful to the knowledge that the protagonist possesses, it does allow an author to express what a character might be thinking or feeling in language that might be more sophisticated than that which the character might use if describing situation directly. instance, O’Brien describes Paul Berlin’s terror during the afternoon as ‘‘bundled and tight, and he’d been on his hands and knees, crawling like an insect, an ant escaping a giant’s footsteps, thinking nothing, brain flopping like wet cement in a mixer, ’’ it is the narrator who is creating those metaphors and ascribing them to Paul Berlin. The metaphors and language are slightly more sophisticated than those a first-person narrator would use, and they describe the inner state of the character in more figurative language than he would probably use if speaking to the reader directly. This is the advantage of the third-person limited narrative. It allows the author to limit the reader’s knowledge to what the character actually knows, but it also allows an author to describe the experience that character is having in language the character might not use for himself or herself.
Verisimilitude is the term by which we describe how a work of art imitates and represents the known world. Works that rely on verisimilitude suggest a knowable external world that can be accurately described in the text. A verisimilar text is one in which the author has successfully created an illusion of truthfulness or a close approximation of the truth. Even works of fantasy require verisimilitude in order to create a coherent fictional world in which the reader can believe. One of Paul Berlin’s chief tasks in ‘‘Where Have You Gone Charming Billy?’’ is to accurately describe to himself the unfamiliar world into which he has been plunged. One aspect of this is Paul Berlin’s descriptions of the physical world around him. To Paul Berlin, the world is full of the smells ‘‘of mud and algae . . . of cattle manure and chlorophyll, decay.’’ Paul Berlin cannot always make sense of what things mean (such as the death of Billy Boy Watkins), so he concentrates on describing how they look and smell and sound. When wading through a rice paddy, ‘‘his boots made sleepy, sloshing sounds,’’ and when the mine went off, ‘‘Billy Boy just stood there with his mouth wide open, looking down, then shaking his head, surprised-looking . . . finally Billy Boy sat down very casually, not saying a word, his foot lying behind him with most of it still in the boot.’’ These descriptions of the physical world create verisimilitude. The details exist in order to create the illusion that the story happens in the real world, a world of recognizable physical phenomena. Paul Berlin cannot quite comprehend how to be a soldier, and so he concentrates on describing the physical reality in which he finds himself.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 29, Published by Gale Group, 2001.