09/15/2006 10:49 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Bridge to Somewhere

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Here we go again, and to begin with I must
apologize. But it's not my fault, because every time I watch The
Colbert Report
I find something to write about, a reason to be
optimistic, and more confirmation that the line between fiction and
reality is as only as strong as the metafiction that connects it.

Colbert has a Midas touch when it comes to metafiction, which for
those who don't enjoy reading yawning theoretical treatises like I do
is basically fiction about fiction, its systems, its themes, its memes
and onward. Which might sound like a mouthful of mumbo jumbo, but as
the acclaimed poet and author of the influential metafiction actually
named Mumbo Jumbo target="blank">Ishmael Reed wrote in the novel, "This is the
country where something is successful in direct proportion to how it's
put over; how it's gamed." America's chosen vehicle for gaming the
system, any system? You guessed it!

The reason metafiction matters is that it's used and abused to sew or
fragment fiction and reality in ways that makes you wonder which is
which. Take Colbert for example: One minute he's pranking Hungary with
an online campaign to supplant Miklos Zrinyi and name the country's href=""
target="blank">Northern M0 Danube bridge after himself, the next
minute he's actually having the bridge named after himself! And
so it was that the September 14th installment of The Colbert
Report found the "real" Hungarian ambassador Andras Simonyi
turning Colbert's hyperreal joke into a bonafide Hungarian
citizenship, replete with a passport and fifty American dollars worth
of Hungarian florint, target="blank">and...the bridge! First, Colbert had to fulfill
some pressing entry requirements, including proving his fluency in
Hungarian (he used the Magyar term for "bridge," of course)
and...being dead. That alarming realization calmed affairs down faster
than Tucker Carlson got booted off of, what else, a reality TV show.
But this was not one of Colbert's Kaufman stunts (Andy, not href=""
target="blank">Charlie): Simonyi gave all signs that the rules
could be bent to give Colbert the bridge -- not hard to figure
considering how easy Colbert passed the fluency test -- even though
he's supposed to be dead to receive the honor. Rules aren't what they
used to be in our mediaverse. Nowadays, you can break any one you want
and just drop your Hancock href=""
target="blank">on a signing statement to make it...what's the
word? Oh yeah. Real.

Need more proof? Chew on this: Stephen Colbert has not one but two
entries on Wikipedia in his name, because that name (and its identity,
depending on the receiver) is used to describe both href="" target="blank">the
man and target="blank">the character he plays on television. But which is
which? Which Colbert was it that unleashed those succulent slams of
Bush administration incompetence href=""
target="blank">at the Washington Correspondents Dinner, where the
"real" Bush sat through clenched teeth, trying to answer the same
question himself? He must have wondered, knowing full well that it
wasn't too much earlier in the evening he was href=""
target="blank">talking to a simulation of himself. My unanswered
question is whether or not Bush took the exchange further and wondered
if he in fact was not himself, but rather his metafictional twin,
sitting there through those clenched teeth, listening to Colbert blow
holes in some president's legacy.

You laugh, but it was Moby Dick author href=""
target="blank">Herman Melville himself who in one of his greatest,
if most maligned, novels about American culture had one character ask
another "Who knows, my dear sir, but for a time you may have taken
yourself for somebody else? Stranger things have happened." The name
of that novel binds all of these ideas together: href=""
target="blank">The Confidence-Man. That the character
asking the question is trying to game the other, recalling Reed, to
get his cash is as instructive as the fact that Melville's America
filled with thieves, hustlers, charlatans, and obsessives. Captain
Ahab's desperate quest to destroy a whale for he what perceives as a
personal attack (yeah, Ahab, the whale took your leg on purpose) takes
the readership and characters of href=""
target="blank">Moby-Dick through hundreds of densely knotted pages
only to kill them all but one at sea. href=""
target="blank">Sound like anyone you know?

That the only character left alive in Moby-Dick is named
Ishmael connects nicely back to Reed, who delivers us back to Colbert
and his metafictional exploits, whether they're exploiting the
loopholes of language like his "Word" segment or identity like his
dual Wikis. Or whether he's totally gaming systems from Washington to
Hungary with a bifurcated persona intent on destabilizing party lines
and international borders. That Hungary agreed to name their bridge
after him at all is a testament to the power of metafiction, and the
way Colbert freaks it, as hip-hop would say, as a cultural weapon.
That the Emmys decided to crown Manilow over him shows you just how
scared they are of him.

And they should be. With a joke, he got a bridge named after him in
Hungary. How long will it be before his metafiction spirals into the
juggernaut it can become, before it can make things move that fast
here at home? Colbert was born a aggregated simulation of blowhard
Bill O'Reilly (who?) and those like him, and now his narrative has
superseded O'Reilly's, whose ratings are going nowhere but down.
Wikipedia is deciding whether or not Colbert's identiities online,
which are nothing but collected synopses and analyses of his "real"
self, target="blank">should be merged at last. (True-school Colbert fans
should get in on that action and say hell no.) Sensing his growing
power and cachet, The Washington Correspondents Dinner invited one
Colbert to deliver a crowd-pleasing speech, and the other showed up
with a stream of killer jokes couched in tragic reality.

Some may laugh and others may condemn, but they're the ones who were
for the war in Iraq before they were against it, mostly because they
couldn't see through the Bush administration's proof-challenged
postmodern pitch on Saddam and Baghdad. Right after, I might add,
Osama bin Laden and his crew of fundamentalists (literary critics call
them formalists) brought down some of the tallest buildings in
Manhattan, killing thousands. If that's not proof that the mechanisms
of metafiction are to be learned or ignored at the nation's peril,
what is? Colbert employs metafiction for laughs and to get bridges in
Hungary named after him. Our president, Commander-in-Chief of the
greatest superpower on Earth, employs it to take our eyes off of Saudi
Arabia, a monarchy trying to align itself as funamentally as possible
with the subverted texts of its faith, and keep them on Iraq, a
once-secular nation now under the repressive thumb of a leaking
fiction called democracy.

Who's laughing now?