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Reviewed by:
  • Biting the Error: Writers Explore Narrative
  • Greig Henderson (bio)
Mary Burger, Robert Gluck, Camille Roy, and Gail Scott , editors. Biting the Error: Writers Explore NarrativeCoach House. 304. $22.95

The forty-eight writers included here describe their engagement with language, storytelling, and the world. The prose in this book and discussed by this book is avant-garde and experimental, but any sort of prose used to explore narrative cannot avoid its four basic elements:

  1. 1. Story: narrative content, the chronological and causal sequence of moments or events, an abstraction that can only be inferred and constructed by the reader;

  2. 2. Discourse: narrative presentation, the textual sequence of moments or events, the words on the page, the only concrete existent;

  3. 3. Narration: verbalization and focalization, who is speaking (narrative voice) and who is perceiving (narrative perspective);

  4. 4. Textuality: the interrelationships among what happened, how what happened is related to the reader, and who does the telling and from what angle of vision.

These elements offer experimental writers ample room for transgression: story and discourse can be distorted and fragmented; multiple characters and narrators can furnish multiple perspectives and speak in multiple voices, making textuality fluid and indeterminate. Yet no matter how experimental and avant-garde a narrative may be, it still depends on the [End Page 195] conventional forms it deconstructs. For a narrative to communicate anything, its violence against conventional forms must be organized, and that degree of organization, however minuscule, is what makes it intelligible. As Roland Barthes reflects, 'a code cannot be destroyed, only "played off."' Conventional forms, of course, are anything but static: Waiting for Godot may have been largely unintelligible to its 1953 audience, but to a modern audience it is a conventional instance of theatre of the absurd. Its erstwhile defamiliarization has become familiar.

Alluding to defamiliarization, an estrangement effect that occurs when background becomes foreground, Robert Gluck suggests that 'the more you fragment a story, the more it becomes an example of narration itself - displaying its devices.' As many of the writers in this volume acknowledge - Lydia Davis, for example, speaks of the need to foreground the work as artefact - defamiliarization is the main weapon of transgressive writing and also, one might add, its curse. In our moment of historical belatedness, we are so familiar with defamiliarization that the shock tropes no longer shock. What literary device can compete with the literal violence daily conveyed by the media?

The problem is that all literary devices induce rhetorical effects parasitic upon one convention or another even as they violate that convention. A fragment is an effect, an amputation of a sentence. Reflexivity and realism are effects, as are their respective rhetorical strategies - diegesis (narrative telling) and mimesis (dramatic showing). Thus to attack realism, as do Kathy Acker and others in this volume, and to label it naïve, reductive, mainstream, and dehumanized is to mistake the part for the whole. The extremist view that human motivation and behaviour are entirely shaped and determined by heredity and environment is the convention of realism we call naturalism, and there is no denying that such realism can be reductive and formulaic, fulfilling readerly expectations in a boring and predictable way with dreary slice-of-life documentation that features stereotypical characters living perforce in a milieu of vice and squalor. But realism can also be complex and experimental, just as, say, experimental fiction can be reductive and formulaic: recall the metafiction of many a self-reflexive hack who would be Borges. The problem resides in reduction and formula, not in the particular convention. To say, as Acker does, that the lie of realism is its assumption that narrative mirrors reality is to confuse the formulaic and rigidly ideological - say, Soviet socialist realism - with the inventive and complexly ideological - say, the psychological and social realism of Woolf and Faulkner, neither of whose works imply that language and fiction unproblematically hold up the mirror to society and nature. Theirs is a rhetorical realism - 'rhetorical' because aware of its own semiotic constructedness, 'realistic' because it attempts to represent inner and outer life, knowing full well, as Faulkner's Addie Bundren says, that 'words don't ever fit even when...


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