I. THE FOURTH WALL: A VERY (VERY) BRIEF OVERVIEW
“Breaking the fourth wall” is when a fictional character—or even simply the narrative itself—acknowledges the existence of the “real life” audience existing beyond the (now-tenuous) barrier between fiction and reality. Some famous examples of breaking the Fourth Wall are Ferris Bueller directly addressing the viewer, Dark Helmet discovering the VHS tape for Spaceballs during the middle of the movie, and the ending of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
The following short video explores the concept of “breaking the Fourth Wall” in storytelling.
The big key with breaking the Fourth Wall is…”reality” is made far more unstable as a result of it. Or at least that would happen, if the fictional world itself was truly real. Which of course, it’s not. (Unless it is.)
II. GO ASK VALIS
Case in point: Philip K. Dick’s 1981 novel VALIS.
VALIS starts off as a serious book about a man, Horselover Fat, whose suicidal friend finally kills herself. Fat becomes so depressed by the nihilism of this event that he too tries to commit suicide…only to fail at his attempt and end up in a mental ward.
What follows is a moving gritty portrayal of living in a mental health facility along the lines of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Hoo boy, you tell yourself, Dick has finally written the great American novel here!
Then Fat’s psychiatrist, Dr. Stone, “cures” Fat. And then you soon realize that not only is Fat NOT cured, not only is Fat still—by the measure of society—insane, but that Fat is really Philip K. Dick himself. And that Dick might be going insane as well.
Seriously, the narrative of VALIS just stops dead…and becomes a free-floating mix of possible psychotic episodes, snippets from philosophical treatises, and possibly the intent to create a whole new religion. Which, if you think about it…is pretty much probably how the holy books of most traditional religions were created in the first place.
PKD doesn’t just break the Fourth Wall in VALIS—he smashes it open with his forehead.
Really long (like, over 8,000 pages of a work called “The Exegesis”) story short, Dick believed he was contacted, and later possessed, by a sort of alien entity called “VALIS”—Vast Active Living Intelligence System.
Connected to this professed experience was the idea that words and stories were not only “alive”—but that they transferred “living information” from one person to another. This “living information” could also “bond” with a human host, creating something called a “homoplasmate.”
So to Dick, VALIS as a book was more than just breaking the Fourth Wall. It was a homoplasmate transmitter.
It is at this point that I should note that many people consider PKD to have been batshit insane, a genius, or (if you’re like me) both. If you don’t appreciate Dick’s genius, VALIS might be utter rubbish to you & I don’t blame you if you feel that way. The attempt at narrative just crushes under the weight of questionable reality fusing into questionable fiction.
III. MR ROBOT: “WERE YOU IN ON THIS THE WHOLE TIME?”
More recently, the television show Mr. Robot employed Fourth Wall breaking techniques in a manner that both “implicated” the viewer and cast the protagonist’s sanity in question. Much like Horselover Fat, Elliot Alderson seems to be trapped in a world of unstable reality, and constantly questions himself and the audience as to whether what he is seeing at any given moment is “real.”
In Mr. Robot, the VALIS-like character is…Mr. Robot, who is (seemingly) a portion of Elliot’s personality the same way Horselover Fat is a portion of the narrator’s personality. This creates, at times, a dreamlike sensation for the viewer, who can never be sure if what he or she is seeing—through Elliot—is real or just a hallucination.
In the process, the presumed solidity of reality itself is questioned. But even more than that—we can occasionally feel, as with VALIS, drawn into a liminal world between “real life” (us as consumer of entertainment) and “fantasy” (thus we are “implicated” within the narrative, a “co-conspirator” and confidant of the protagonist).
That is to say, in the parlance of PKD: we become unwitting homoplasmate transmitters.
IV. SLAMMING INTO THE FOURTH WALL
Around the same time I began the work that would eventually mutate into this blog, I started watching the first episodes of Mr. Robot. And I quickly realized that crucial portions of the series were filmed in & around the “humdrum” locations of my everyday life.
For example, the very subway station I used to get to work in the morning was a location area for the filming the first episode. I know that station so well that I can view simply a screenshot from Mr. Robot and, by recognizing the broken tiles, figure out the exact bench they were shooting the scene at.
One of the other things I was involved in at the time was writing a novella called ELVIN—which was a parody, of sorts, of VALIS.
Like VALIS, the protagonist of ELVIN would occasionally break the Fourth Wall and “leak” into the life of the author. Which I realize sounds like…kind of like really self-indulgent stuff. And I guess it was.
But then, as I continued to work on the book, weird things began to happen that mirrored small plot points in the story, like a scene featuring a malfunctioning exercise bike & a highly bizarre text exchange with an utter stranger who claimed to know me. These incidents started taking place soon after writing similar scenes in the book.
Sure, those incidents were most likely coincidences. But I also felt a strong, admittedly superstitious feeling in the pit of my stomach to cease my literary endeavor.
Then again…did I just hype myself up through my writing to “seek out” those events somehow…did I subconsciously “program” myself? Did I approach that initial bizarre text message differently because I had just wrote something similar only days before? Would I have ignored that text otherwise?
At one point, I was writing ELVIN, re-reading VALIS, and watching Mr. Robot all around the same time. I was being seduced, in some way, by the allure of the Fourth Wall. Addicted to that fleeting aha! moment.
V. THE PROTECTIVE LAYER
Does the artistic work in question suffer when the barriers are so porous between writer and art, reality and fiction? I dearly love VALIS, but find that Dick’s “final” novel, The Transmigration Of Timothy Archer, to be far superior as an actual novel.
Transmigration still contains a lot of the “meta-textual” easter eggs and self-referential “clues” as his later works…but the protagonist, Angel Archer, observes a strict separation between herself, PKD, and the reader. And perhaps she does that very intentionally, herself noting that there is a certain line one crosses before plummeting into the insanity that has seemed into infect the rest of the book’s characters.
In a similar vein, I find the writing that I do for clients to be a lot tighter narratively than that which I create for myself. What is a work of fiction and what is merely a type of personal shamanic experience? Which one will pay the bills? Which one becomes Blade Runner and which one merely develops a small intense cult audience of part-time mystics and code-breakers, or no audience at all?
The Fourth Wall—it is Structure. And more than that…it is a protective layer.
Maybe the Fourth Wall is up for a damned good reason.