restricted access The Novel in the Balance
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Reviewed by
Arthur M. Saltzman. The Novel in the Balance. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 1993. xii + 188 pp. $29.95

In his introduction to this lucid and intriguing book, Arthur M. Saltzman states that “[i]t is not my goal . . . to enlist in the interminable discussion of what postmodernism is or whether in fact it merits a designation apart from modernism”; yet, this is in fact what he does, and the debate is the better for it. Saltzman discusses the idea of balance as it figures in “a variety of contemporary fictions,” and from this discussion seems to draw the conclusion that if one cannot define postmodernism, one can at least posit postmodern conditions, or a postmodern state of being.

Central to Saltzman’s idea of balance is the paradox created by the clash between contingency and coherency, game and ritual, linguistic play and prescribed structure. It is not, however, a paradox unwillingly arrived at. The balance which Saltzman examines is the space between opposing poles; it thus negates the modernist “either/or” proposition and replaces it with postmodernism’s “both/and.” Balance, in the fictions which Saltzman investigates, is a dwelling in indeterminacy (one thinks here of Ihab Hassan’s idea of “indetermanence”); it is a happy acceptance of the validity of opposing habits of being. But it is not the simple idea of balance which is of primary importance to Saltzman, who comments that he “do[es] not mean to campaign for its particular ingenuity.” Rather, it is the way in which that idea of balance is manifested in [End Page 861] the texts which he reads. What most concerns Saltzman is the way in which the twelve paired texts he studies “retain and reflect the competing motions out of which they arise and which they have been presumably summoned to answer.” The Artist must try to create a valid personal history while dealing with the very unspeakability of that history (Hawkes’ Second Skin and Robinson’s Housekeeping); the Artist must learn to balance the desire to gloss or falsify historical events with the truthful recognition of one’s complicity in those events (Doctorow’s Lives of the Poets and O’Brien’s The Things They Carried); members of traditionally-marginalized cultures must balance the pull of their unique cultural heritage, and the desire to retreat completely within that culture, with the understanding that they are part of a larger, constantly-changing multicultural whole (Silko’s Ceremony and Johnson’s Middle Passage). But Saltzman emphasizes that this balance is not a submissive acceptance of neutrality (which denies the issue of balance anyway, since neutrality implies not engagement but withdrawal), but rather a reconciliation and conjoining of two opposing poles—a reconciliation which spurs artistic and personal growth.

Yet overshadowing these immediate considerations is balance of a global sort. Saltzman seems to suggest, through the medium of his readings, that there is such a thing as a postmodern state of being. He seems to imply that we, like the characters in the novels which he reads, must resist totalizing strategies; we must resist the urge to adopt or abjure either the indifferent flux of contingency, or the inflexible stasis of ritual and the necessities of the real world. We must find a balance between a nihilistic surrender to chance, and a sterile submission to communal order (one might imagine Eliot’s “The Idea of a Christian Society” gone bad). This idea manifests itself most strongly in his readings of Robert Coover’s The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., Paul Auster’s The Music of Chance, and Richard Powers’ The Prisoner’s Dilemma.

Saltzman’s style, in keeping with his subject, is playful yet not pretentious; the text abounds with numerous puns and other examples of wordplay (the title itself is a play on the title of a mythical text in The Universal Baseball Association, Inc.), yet these for the most part do not distract one from the issues at hand. Saltzman’s language is jargon-free, and while it is clear that this book is intended for a specialist audience, it is also accessible to any intelligent reader. Finally, the endnotes to each [End...