Reading list: five meta-fiction classics

Metafiction - writing that takes fiction itself as one of its subjects - can be playful, thought-provoking and mystifying. Here are five fascinating - and mind-boggling - classics for those who want to explore the genre.

Lost in the Funhouse by John Barth Meta-fiction has been around almost as long as there has been fiction but it achieved a degree of prominence in the 1960s and this was one of the key texts. In a series of short stories, Barth explores narratives and what they mean to us. It's often frustrating and confusing but it's always worth the effort.

If On A Winter's Night A Traveller by Italo Calvino Another seminal work of meta-fiction, If On A Winter's Night A Traveller… is a meditation on the novel that considers what it means to be a reader, a writer, an editor, a translator and a censor, all through a series of fragmented stories. I don't consider it a great novel but it is the best book I've read about the novel.

A Void by Georges Perec Perec's masterpiece is famous for not containing a single letter E - a feat that translator Gilbert Adair has managed to repeat for the English version. The missing letter is played for laughs at times but at others is used to hint at an existential horror. Only at the end does Perec reveal the holocaust to be his real theme.

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut Both Vonnegut and Perec experienced the horrors of the Second World War at first hand and both decided to tackle it through darkly humorous works of metafiction. Written during the Vietnam war, Slaughterhouse Five is the story of the Dresden bombing and beneath Vonnegut's

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell Inspired by If On A Winter's Night A Traveller, Mitchell's Cloud Atlas takes a series of short stories, all (except one) of which break off at a crucial point. However, unlike Calvino, Mitchell delivers the conclusion of each story in the second half of the book. In true metafictive fashion, one of the characters in one story creates a book, the Cloud Atlas Sextet - a series of nested stories that resemble Mitchell's work.