restricted access Narrative Innovation and Cultural Rewriting in the Cold War Era and After (review)
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Reviewed by
Marcel Cornis-Pope. Narrative Innovation and Cultural Rewriting in the Cold War Era and After. New York: Palgrave, 2001. xv + 318 pp.

Marcel Cornis-Pope opens his ambitious study by questioning the readiness with which many critics have approached innovative fiction as "a self-indulgent formalism rather than as a meaningful response to a historical and literary crisis." Working, in contrast, from the assumption that innovative writers seek to challenge those naturalized conventions of representation that constitute accepted reality, Cornis-Pope goes on to demonstrate the way in which such writers employ their texts to imagine "better aesthetic and sociocultural syntheses." Far from fleeing the traumas of the world for the tranquility of the word, innovative writers seek nothing less than a rearticulation of history—submitting already existing scripts to processes of revision, replacing cause and effect rigidity with luminous moments of coincidence, retrieving ignored mythic possibilities. In thus exchanging metafiction's self-reflection for their own novels' self-reflection, innovative writers engage in what for Cornis-Pope are ultimately ethical acts.

In order to make his case, Cornis-Pope begins by tracing the emergence of postmodernism and its role in disrupting the binary thinking that characterized Cold War culture. He then focuses on three particular kinds of innovative fiction—polysystemic fiction, surfiction, and postmodern feminist fiction—each of which he examines with respect to the work of one or two practitioners: Thomas Pynchon, Ronald Sukenick and Raymond Federman, and Toni Morrison respectively. Significantly, "work" in these instances means individual canon rather than single novel. Equally important, these individual canons and categories are approached in conjunction with literary precursors (Hawthorne, Melville, and Dostoevsky in the case of [End Page 769] polysystemic fiction; Emerson, Stevens, and Williams in the case of surfiction), literary coevals (Coover for Pynchon, Didion for Morrison, Sorrentino for Sukenick), interdisciplinary correspondences (physics, action painting, jazz), and, perhaps most of all, contemporary theory. The result is nothing short of encyclopedic.

To readers familiar with Pynchon's work, of course, that encyclopedic element will not be surprising as his writing has been characterized by that term for close to three decades. And, given the vast amount of scholarship devoted to those novels over the years, it is not surprising that it is in the chapter on Pynchon that Cornis-Pope's analysis—while always convincing—is more comprehensive than original. Not so those chapters that concern Cornis-Pope's other representative authors, particularly those devoted to Sukenick and Federman. In juxtaposing the generative model of surfiction, with its linkages to Eco and Iser, to which Sukenick subscribes against the model of "destorification," with its debt to Beckett and Lyotard, to which Federman adheres, Cornis-Pope ably demonstrates the different kinds of histories that can result when composition is perceived as a performative activity. Equally impressive, his reader-friendly treatment of these writers—which adroitly interweaves textual explication, biographical background, and just enough details of plot—enables those less acquainted with their work to follow his arguments effortlessly.

His admiration of the open-endedness of the fiction he treats notwithstanding, Cornis-Pope remains acutely aware of the tentative nature of the alternative histories proffered by innovative writers in their work. This is particularly true of those novels that depict alternative societies. The mythopoetic imagination in Song of Solomon and Tar Baby may well rescue African-American history from representations that reduce it to a narrative of disasters, but the premodern ethos to which it leads is never advanced by Morrison without qualification. The exclusively female Paradise that would rescue women from the violence to which patriarchal society is prone remains an atopia rather than utopia. And the preindustrial Vineland that would reconnect America to the idyllic "Vinland" of the eleventh century exists only so long as it can withstand the technology that threatens to engulf it; once it is penetrated by the cable riggers poised on its outskirts, its history will be no different than the plot of a television sitcom. Yet recognizing the kinds of caveats and qualifications to which innovative writers are prone only strengthens the position from which Cornis-Pope approaches their work. Once again, the emphasis is on interrogation and self-reflection...


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