Writing in 1988, Raymond Federman acknowledged self-reflexive fiction as a troublesome, exasperating, irritating form of narrative with its gimmicks, its playfulness, its narcissism, its self-indulgence. It is a remarkable admission, considering that as both critic and innovator, Federman bears a large share of responsibility for the attack on the referential element in which the historical is displaced by the instantaneous, originality by quotation. It was Federman, in fact, who coined the term “Surfiction” and edited a collection of essays bearing that title which still stands as one of its defining statements.
In this current collection of eight essays, half of which have been previously published, Federman offers what might be thought of as a eulogy for a self-conscious tradition he traces to Cervantes, Sterne, and [End Page 857] Diderot. In the post-existentialist era that followed the Second World War, art becomes a participatory exercise often merging criticism with fiction in a single form Federman labels Critifiction.
The idea that runs throughout these essays is that literature does not express a preexistent meaning in the manner that both romanticism and realism tended to regard it but, as Roland Barthes has argued in “The Death of the Author,” every text is eternally written here and now. Meaning, if it existed at all, was to be found solely in the narrative act and conferred by the reader. Writers, artists, and musicians incorporated an awareness of the act of creation itself and so brought into their work a focus on performance which meant improvisation, a blurring of the distinction between artist and audience, a shift from esthetic distance to real time, and a displacement from what a work is to what it does.
Surfiction, Federman argues, in a seminal essay which stands as a manifesto as well as a description, neither represents the world nor expresses the inner self. It searches “within the fiction for the implications of what it means to write fiction.” In place of characters whose psychology explains their actions, such fiction is animated by figures who function solely as linguistic elements and thus imitate other fictions rather than original sources. Accordingly in one of many aphorisms in which he couches his critiques, Federman finds plagiarism in literature not only admissible but advisable.
Federman attributes seminal influences to Samuel Beckett, with whose death in 1989, he identifies the end of postmodernism, and to William Burroughs, whose 1959 novel Naked Lunch anticipated it. Beckett’s anti-heroes are described as progressing not toward the conventional novel’s discovery of knowledge but toward a static condition of chaos or purposeless. What Beckett revealed was the writer’s paradoxical condition of affirming the necessity of his own failure to apprehend the nature of reality as anything other than the existence of words. Like all such movements, the death of postmodernism rested not in its failure but its success and, in particular Federman attributes it not to the exhaustion of possibilities but to the transformation of writing into moral fiction by confronting its own impossibility.
Federman’s Critifiction makes use of the same devices of digression, erasure, quotation, and startling typography employed in the New Fiction he examines so that in some sense he is like the man who sells hair replacement on TV only to reveal himself not simply as the owner of the [End Page 858] firm but as a client as well. The intent of this playful collage is to free language from grammatical constraints and so transform it into a self-questioning game that creates rather than merely reflects reality.
But if we cannot always take his criticism literally, we cannot help but take it seriously. Federman’s critical voice is immediate, impassioned, committed. He adopts an italic stance that adds to literature in the act of commenting on it and so extends once more the tradition he has done so much to make an important part of literary history.