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  • The Play of the Double in Postmodern American Fiction
  • Kathryn Hume
Gordon E. Slethaug. The Play of the Double in Postmodern American Fiction. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1993. ix + 235 pp. $34.95 cloth.

The double is no longer a character, an uncanny but sometimes angelic twin to the protagonist or a sinister shadow embodying repressed and unacceptable impulses. Slethaug leaves behind the Freudian and Jungian symbol, and even various versions of The Other, all of them personifications. The double here becomes the applicable term for any sort of doubling, binarism, repetition (with inevitable variation), reinscription—in short, all forms of such limited multiplication. Slethaug seemed at first to be ruining a useful literary term by broadening it too far, but his point is that postmodern writers are deliberately extending and negating the conventional double. Traditional authors employed the image of a person as double to affirm the humanist concept of a stable self and unified culture. The double temporarily split off and manifested itself as a separate entity in order to be dealt with: integrated, or killed, or joined on a higher plane of reality. The power of the image was so great precisely because it threatened our sense of unified self, and we could feel reassured when that rebel fragment was subsumed or destroyed, and unity reasserted. Postmodern ideologies deny the unitary self, coherent reality, and the meaningfulness of character as an element in fiction; to come to terms with the tradition, current authors must absorb and rework it in this new image. [End Page 859]

Slethaug deals with Nabokov’s Despair, Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, Hawkes’s Blood Oranges, Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse, Brautigan’s The Hawkline Monster, and Federman’s Double or Nothing. Nabokov’s aims are presented as being very directly the interrogation of the double tradition. Despair is not “another rationalist-humanist iteration of a metaphysical contest between good and evil, of Freudian decomposition, or of Jungian psychological imbalance” although it has been read in those fashions. It is the “carnivalized play of the double” through the deliberate creation of a false double. Pynchon is credited with altering the function of the double in literature when he affirms binary intersubjectivity. The full breadth of what Slethaug embraces under the double shows when he adopts every binary opposition ever noted in that novel. Slothrop overlaps and echoes such characters as Tchitcherine and Enzian in a fashion called (by Brian McHale) “mapping on to them”. To this generally recognized quasi-doubling, Slethaug adds affinities with Greta Erdmann, Roger Mexico and Jessica Swanlake, Geli Tripping, Edward Pointsman, Ernest Pudding, Katje Borgesius, Blicero, Byron the Bulb, and Franz Pokler as cases of extended doubling. But why stop there? Pig Bodine, Gerhardt von Goll, indeed virtually all the characters share some experience or characteristic with Slothrop. Does drinking the same drink ensure a meaningful connection, let alone doubling? Is this whole sale doubling as useful to our reading the text as McHale’s study of how characters map onto each other? Slethaug’s reading makes Pynchon obsessed with destroying our concept of the stable or unitary double. While Pynchon seems to me to have more important obsessions, Slet-haug makes a good argument for this concern with doubling if doubling is defined as including binary oppositions.

Hawkes’s forms of doubling are linked to those of Lacan. Barth uses doubles in all the fashions of Nabokov, Pynchon, and Hawkes, and in addition, he designifies society, culture and history every time he designifies the double. With Brautigan, the double leads us, among other things, into interrogation of our culture’s narcissism. Via the double, Federman turns literature and life into games. In many ways, I found the book more interesting as a discussion of postmodernism through the lens of this one literary device than as an analysis of the device, but its readings are helpful either way. Brautigan is difficult to talk about coherently, but Slethaug manages with sparkle. In both that chapter and the one on Hawkes, the original texts come through vividly; this is less true [End Page 860] for Pynchon and Nabokov, where I kept pleading for more illustrations for Slethaug’s...

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