Turtles all the way down
July 22, 2010 2:23 PM   Subscribe

Which book, movie, etc, has the most layers of reality (or stories within stories)?

Inception has four layers of reality. Lots of books have stories within stories within stories (House of Leaves, Arabian Nights). Which story can you think of that goes the deepest down the rabbit hole?
posted by empath to Media & Arts (55 answers total) 54 users marked this as a favorite
Synecdoche, New York.
posted by Sys Rq at 2:26 PM on July 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yeah, Synecdoche, New York, definitely.
posted by shakespeherian at 2:27 PM on July 22, 2010

Malkovich Malkovich, Malkovich, Mal-koooo-veeeeeeiiiich...

Don't know if it has The Most, but definitely has the cleverest moment of rabbit hole self-awareness.

Synedoche, New York and Adaptation are also worth a mention.
posted by Sara C. at 2:28 PM on July 22, 2010

Interestingly, Frankenstein is another good example. A large portion of the book is a sea captain writing a letter to his wife, relating what Frankenstein told him, who is relaying a story the monster told him.
posted by shakespeherian at 2:29 PM on July 22, 2010

Ulysses. It's well meta.
posted by tigrefacile at 2:31 PM on July 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

The bar might be higher than that. Inception is at five levels. Reality*, three levels of dream, and then limbo as some kind of Jungian basement where the junk from everyone's psyche floats about.

The Thirteenth Floor is three levels all together, as is eXistenZ.
posted by adipocere at 2:32 PM on July 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

And see also: The Panchatantra.
posted by shakespeherian at 2:32 PM on July 22, 2010

The second two Matrix movies weren't that great, but a good case can be made that the "real world" presented in them is just another level of the Matrix, and that Neo only has physics-bending abilities there because the Architect wants him to.
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 2:32 PM on July 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

Total Recall?
posted by Melismata at 2:34 PM on July 22, 2010

I believe Saragossa goes down about 19 levels.

I counted 10 at one point and got lost after that...
posted by vacapinta at 2:37 PM on July 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

Grant Morrison's Flex Mentallo and The Filth

David Cronenberg's eXistenZ
posted by griphus at 2:37 PM on July 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Inception actually has five levels, no?
posted by eugenen at 2:38 PM on July 22, 2010

The Fall isn't the farthest down the rabbit hole, but it's probably the most visually stunning.
posted by elsietheeel at 2:38 PM on July 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

Also, depending on your interpretation, Cloud Atlas may have six.
posted by eugenen at 2:40 PM on July 22, 2010 [6 favorites]

Would Primer count?
posted by puritycontrol at 2:40 PM on July 22, 2010 [4 favorites]

Jesse Ball's The Way Through Doors is sort of a simultaneous dreamstate/nesting narrative, not sure if you'd count it or not.
posted by shakespeherian at 2:41 PM on July 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Simpsons episode, "The Seemingly Never-Ending Story"
posted by Sys Rq at 2:46 PM on July 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

In Chimera John Barth has a seven nested quote, frames within frames within.... I'm pretty sure that is the record.
posted by Some1 at 2:48 PM on July 22, 2010

Vacapinta has the deepest story-within-a-story so far: The Manuscript Found in Saragossa just keeps going.
posted by Paragon at 2:48 PM on July 22, 2010

I'd appreciate someone getting an accurate count for Saragossa. It really is a contender even if its not 19.
posted by vacapinta at 2:50 PM on July 22, 2010

The Princess Bride...

1) Buttercup gets booed by a hag for marrying Humperdinck...
2) ...but it's only a dream, the wedding hasn't happened yet...
3) ...in the story the Grandfather's improvising to appease his grandson...
4) ...based on the book by S. Morgenstern...
5) ...who is an alias of William Goldman...
6) ...in a movie by Rob Reiner.

Maybe it doesn't *quite* fit your criteria, but any way you look at it that's pretty meta.
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 2:51 PM on July 22, 2010 [6 favorites]

A map of the layers in Primer.
posted by -harlequin- at 2:52 PM on July 22, 2010

The Orphan's Tale by Catherynne M. Valente is structured a lot like Saragossa, and I lost track of how many layers there were. More than ten?
posted by bewilderbeast at 2:55 PM on July 22, 2010

The Frame Story wiki page notes that The Sandman: Worlds' End is a nested frame story, and this write-up counts 4 layers deep, though there might be more.
posted by filthy light thief at 3:02 PM on July 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Hero definitely qualifies
posted by np312 at 3:17 PM on July 22, 2010

But the stories in Hero aren't nested inside each other; they're alternate, parallel versions of the same events told back-to-back from the same narrative level.
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 3:28 PM on July 22, 2010

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
posted by Nathanial Hörnblowér at 3:29 PM on July 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

Charles Maturin's impenetrable Gothic novel Melmoth the Wanderer. There are at least 5 or 6 nested stories, including one passage deciphered from a book written in Spanish and transliterated into Greek... There are also whole pages without a single period on them. Fun fun fun.
posted by Vic Morrow's Personal Vietnam at 3:58 PM on July 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

The wikipedia article 'Story within a story' lists some of the examples given above, amongst others, in its subsection Story within a story within a story...

One reader of The Manuscript Found in Saragossa estimates its maximum nestedness at '11 or 12 levels deep' here. The movie adaptation, meanwhile, only nests five levels down...
posted by misteraitch at 4:29 PM on July 22, 2010

If you take into account the Tommy Westphall Hypothesis you can add 1 to a large number of tv shows.
posted by Green With You at 4:51 PM on July 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Last Action Hero has two, and they are both awesome.
posted by Beardman at 5:12 PM on July 22, 2010

On the story-within-a-story front, John Barth's Menelaiad, from the short-story collection Lost in the Funhouse, descends into seven layers of nested narrative. This may not be a record-breaker, but it's notable in that it maintains all the properly-nested quotation marks at the beginning of every paragraph.
posted by baf at 6:24 PM on July 22, 2010

I don't know about the deepest, but there's the Harry Potter series.. which I really only mention on account of J.K. Rowling mentioning various famous wizarding books within the series and then actually publishing them in real life (as her characters). Wizarding text books are as boring as Muggle text books, incidentally.
posted by Mael Oui at 7:47 PM on July 22, 2010

Wait, I didn't quite get the gist of your question before I made that answer. Nothing to see here...
posted by Mael Oui at 7:50 PM on July 22, 2010

My vote would go with Synechdoche New York, and/or Manuscript Found at Saragossa, but...depending on exactly how strictly you mean "stories within stories" Milorad Pavic's Dictionary of the Khazars is a kind of Rubik's cube of interpretations of interpretations.

For a start, you have three broad perspectives (Christian, Jewish & Muslim), divided into three historical periods, all trying to ascertain the truth of an event that happened prior to the first historical period - so you have all kinds of permutations: modern Christian reflects on earlier Jew reflecting on earlier Muslim, etc etc etc.

Within all this, you have retellings of the same events according to these multiple layers, and as it's divided up into short snippets, each small section in itself should be taken as an almost isolated perspective.
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:56 PM on July 22, 2010

Can't believe I'm the first to mention If On a Winter's Night a Traveler, incidentally one of my top 3 favorite books. Incredibly intricate and lyrical at the same time.
posted by Miko at 8:08 PM on July 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

Television: The Singing Detective, the BBC miniseries (not the meh Robert Downey Jr. remake). Truly multi-layered; also pretty damn fine television.

Books: I know it's recced upthread, but I can't favorite House of Leaves enough. minotaur

Plays: The Real Thing by Tom Stoppard, God (A Play) by Woody Allen, and Six Characters in Search Of an Author by Pirandello.

I'm sure I could think of others, if I sat down and... thought. For a day or so.
posted by tzikeh at 8:16 PM on July 22, 2010

Drat. The font color-coding worked in preview. I guess I should have known it wouldn't work on the site, as I never see it. Ah well--I tried. At least I got the strike-through on minotaur.
posted by tzikeh at 8:16 PM on July 22, 2010

Oh oh oh oh!

Book: Marabou Stork Nightmares by Irvine Welsh. Everyone knows Trainspotting, but nobody knows this book. It kicks TEN KINDS OF ASS. I recommend you go into it knowing nothing about it. Though, knowing that the Marabou Stork can grow to be five feet tall, with a wingspan of ten feet, might help you understand, *a tiny bit*, why the word "nightmares" is part of the title. But only a tiny bit.
posted by tzikeh at 8:20 PM on July 22, 2010 [3 favorites]

Spoilers (duh)

It's not a "story-within-a-story", it's more like a "universe-within-a-universe", but I mention it because the number is so big: In Greg Egan's Diaspora, Yatima and Paolo travel, one level at a time, into the 267,904,176,383,054th macrosphere.

I can't possibly begin to describe what that means.
posted by IvyMike at 10:24 PM on July 22, 2010

Roger Zelazny's 1970s series Chronicles of Amber. It's essentially ABOUT layers of reality. Start with Nine Princes in Amber.

Great stories, characters. Action. Mystery. Worthwhile. Recommended.
posted by eeby at 10:54 PM on July 22, 2010

Add another layer to The Princess Bride, as Goldman has written an extensive introduction to the 20th anniversary edition (or maybe it was 25th), with a largely fictional account of how he came to write the entire novel.

In it Goldman explains, that his own father read him The Princess Bride, by Morgenstern, when he was a child. Goldman in turn buys his own son a copy of the novel, who hates it 'cos it's so boring. Goldman then realises that his father used to skip over all the boring bits and only read the action sequences, which spurs Goldman to write his abridged version of The Princess Bride.

All of this is of course fictional, even as far as Goldman having a son. He only has daughters.
posted by robotot at 11:08 PM on July 22, 2010

Also, Jostein Gaarder's books "The Solitaire Mystery", and "Sophie's World".
posted by robotot at 11:10 PM on July 22, 2010

Response by poster: Goldman has written an extensive introduction to the 20th anniversary edition (or maybe it was 25th), with a largely fictional account of how he came to write the entire novel.

I'm pretty sure that was the original introduction. And the storyline of him and his son and his wife continues throughout the novel. I think one could make the argument that the novel is largely about divorce.
posted by empath at 5:36 AM on July 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Previously. In which I note that the aforementioned "World's End" in Sandman arguably has infinite levels, based on the fact that the levels wrap around on themselves: C is within B, B is within A, but then A is within C...
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 8:33 AM on July 23, 2010

It's not the most layered, but worth watching for the sheer visual brilliance - Bjork's Bachelorette video, directed by Michel Gondry.
posted by O9scar at 10:29 AM on July 23, 2010

Decide for yourself how far down this one goes. Probably not nineteen levels, but it's a real shifting-sand kind of terrain in terms of deciding who's talking to whom.

Paradoxes and Oxymorons
by John Ashbery

This poem is concerned with language on a very plain level.
Look at it talking to you. You look out a window
Or pretend to fidget. You have it but you don’t have it.
You miss it, it misses you. You miss each other.

The poem is sad because it wants to be yours, and cannot.
What’s a plain level? It is that and other things,
Bringing a system of them into play. Play?
Well, actually, yes, but I consider play to be

A deeper outside thing, a dreamed role-pattern,
As in the division of grace these long August days
Without proof. Open-ended. And before you know
It gets lost in the steam and chatter of typewriters.

It has been played once more. I think you exist only
To tease me into doing it, on your level, and then you aren’t there
Or have adopted a different attitude. And the poem
Has set me softly down beside you. The poem is you.
posted by Skot at 10:33 AM on July 23, 2010

The End of Mr Y by Scarlett Thomas. I recognize its weaknesses while being awed by it simultaneously.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 5:11 PM on July 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm not going to count, but Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid has a whole story that keeps adding/dropping down layers. There are other games Hofstadter plays with reality(ies) as well.

Alice Through the Looking Glass. Besides the normal world and Looking-Glassland, the story is a description of a game of chess.

There's an argument to be made for several David Lynch movies (though I'm not interested in detangling them myself at the moment...): Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, Inland Empire. Inland Empire in particular has very strong meta moments, with characters who are actors doing a read-through (film within a film) that eventually merges with the action in the movie. See filmic.org's discussion...

I am about 20 pages from the end of The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, and think I will be let down unless the last page describes me reading metafilter, finding out about the book, and beginning to read it. However, I will probably shout out loud "TRY TO START A NEW STORY NOW, GYPSY CHIEF!"

I don't think it goes as deep as 12 stories, but I have been enjoying the ride, and not counting the levels. Does it count as an extra level when the characters begin to complain about getting confused with all the concentric stories?
posted by anotherbrick at 6:12 PM on July 23, 2010

The End of Mr Y by Scarlett Thomas. I recognize its weaknesses while being awed by it simultaneously.

Oh god, The End of Mr Y! My mom lent me that book saying "I really liked it until I got to the end. Then I wanted to throw it against the wall. Let me know what you think!"

Sure enough, I read it thinking it was awesome, then I got to that ending and not only threw the damn book against the wall, I seriously considered writing the author a letter written entirely in capslock.

Getting back to the question, there's...

1. a British writer named Sue Townsend, who's written...

2. a series of books about a hapless aspiring writer named Adrian Mole, who writes...

3. a book about a wish-fulfilment, idealised version of himself with a silly macho name, who writes...

4. a novel about a caveman named Ugg, who writes...

5. a novel in the dirt with a stick.

It's kind of a satire on the whole phenomenom. Adrian gets feedback from a publisher saying that Mr Macho is laughable, Ugg is passe, but they're willing to offer him a small fortune for the stick and dirt novel of his fictional caveman.

Although it's years since I read an Adrian Mole book, so some details may be confused.
posted by the latin mouse at 8:08 AM on July 24, 2010

Robert Irwin's The Arabian Nightmare has at least seven levels:

1) The book is introduced by an unnamed storyteller, who proceeds to tell the story of ..
2) .. Balian, an English traveller who visits Cairo in 1486. In the course of the story Balian falls asleep ..
3) .. and dreams that he is in an underground room, listening to a storyteller named Yoll, who proceeds to tell a story of ..
4) .. a poor man named Mansour who lived in Baghdad in the reign of the Caliph Haroun al-Rashid. In the course of the story Mansour meets a prince, and tells him a story about ..
5) .. a boy who is reared by wolves. The boy goes on a quest to discover his true parents, and finds ..
6) .. a letter written by a man on a sea voyage, who describes how the ship's crew mutinied and killed the captain. On going through the captain's possessions he discovers ..
7) .. a manuscript telling the story of the captain's past life.

I think that's all, though parts of the novel are dreams-within-dreams, so it's possible there's an eighth or even a ninth level in there somewhere.
posted by verstegan at 4:12 PM on July 24, 2010

There is a very creepy children's book called 'The Mouse and his Child' by Russell Hoban. It has a recurring motif of a dog food can (I think it was dog food) whose label has a picture on it of a dog holding the can of the dog food (which has a picture of on IT of a dog dog holding the can of dog food, which too has a picture of it of a dog holding the can which has a picture on it of etc. etc.) The mouse child wonders about what happens after the 'last visible dog.'
posted by JoannaC at 8:42 PM on July 24, 2010

Grant Morrison's "The Invisibles" is a set of seven graphic novels. The plot towards the end can be very loosely summarized as "what if every conspiracy theory were true at the same time?"
posted by talldean at 6:20 PM on July 26, 2010

I didn't think of it until I saw JoannaC's comment two up, but Tom Robbins's "Still Life with Woodpecker" does that image within an image thing, with the whole story ostensibly taking place inside the picture on a pack of Camel cigarettes. Which is carried by a guy behind the camel in the picture on a pack of Camel cigarettes. And so on.
posted by kostia at 9:45 PM on July 26, 2010

Inger Christensen's Azorno is a short novel, 105 pages in the New Directions edition. Nevertheless it goes very deep. It is

1 a letter in
2 a letter in
3 a letter in
4 a letter in
5 a letter in
6 a novel in
7 a novel in
8 a novel in
9 a novel in
10 a novel in
11 a novel in
12 reality.
posted by Kattullus at 6:33 PM on September 3, 2010

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