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Reviewed by:
  • Amy Cowen
Magali Cornier Michael. Feminism and the Postmodern Impulse: Post World War II Fiction. Albany: State U of New York P, 1996. x+ 275pp.

Magali Cornier Michael’s Feminism and the Postmodern Impulse: Post World War II Fiction represents a much-needed insertion into discussions of both postmodern and women’s literature. The “postmodern” has been defined and redefined according to precedents set by male writers. This cycle has been reinforced by the perceived schism between feminist theory and postmodern theory. Currently, feminist critics like Jane Flax are articulating combinations of postmodern and feminist theories. However, even as feminist theory addresses its intersection(s) with postmodernism, women’s fiction remains obscured under the label “realist.” What Michael brings to the forefront is that contemporary women’s literature, ignored in discussions of postmodernism, often utilizes postmodern techniques toward a specifically feminist end.

Michael rightly critiques the virtual absence of women writers in Brian McHale’s Constructing Postmodernism (1992). Similarly, arguing that to distance feminism from postmodernism cuts feminist theory off from its cultural context, she is critical of Molly Hite’s willingness, in [End Page 931] The Other Side of the Story: Structures and Strategies of Contemporary Feminist Narrative (1989), to separate women’s literature from postmodern literature. Michael’s introductory chapter offers strong summaries of postmodern positions as well as of feminist theory’s uncomfortableness with postmodernism’s perceived apoliticalness. She emphasizes such key postmodern touchstones as subject, representation, and narrative, and her discussions of language and history are strong throughout the text. However, in defining literary postmodernism as evidenced by three main characteristics—resistance, transgression, and critique of cultural structures—Michael cites without elaboration some postmodern techniques (for example, relentless play and indeterminacy) as incompatible with feminism. While she is advocating feminism’s use of postmodernism, by dismissing rather than exploring, for example, the potential agency evinced by the play, instability, and indeterminacy endemic to postmodern culture, Michael echoes feminist theorists who have rejected postmodernism and fails to substantially alter or reinterpret existing views of the relationship between postmodernism and feminism.

Suggesting that it is more important to dismantle the assumption that “contemporary” equals “postmodern,” Michael sidesteps the issue of postmodernism versus modernism. Nevertheless, her overview of “modern” women writers (for example, Stein, Woolf, and Barnes) as a literary foundation from which the postmodern woman writer emerged implies that underwriting Michael’s study is an acceptance of postmodernism as situated in time. If this is the case, her lack of discussion of postmodernism as effected by, and in the context of, technology, specifically the computer age, is problematic. Furthermore, it is unfortunate that Michael’s choice of books on which to focus her subsequent chapters is so limited. She defends her selections, admitting that, while they are not the most experimental, they are well-known women’s texts which are often viewed both as feminist and “realist,” and they illustrate women’s texts using postmodern techniques for feminist purposes. Nevertheless, reviewing Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook (1962), Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), and Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus (1984) does little to open up the rich, and untapped, field of women’s postmodern literature. A chapter on current women writers (for example, Carol Shields, Nicole Brossard, Carole Maso, and [End Page 932] Jeanette Winterson) who employ postmodern techniques and whose characters exhibit postmodern sensibilities would have increased the impact of Michael’s study. An isolated view of four texts, discussed individually, fails to delineate the dimensions of the postmodern in women’s literature and, despite her disclaimer, makes the realities of postmodern women’s fiction too easy to dismiss as “isolated.” The recurrence of women writers creating characters who question Truth, single reality, single self, authoritative history, and language points towards a much larger challenge to the stereotype that suggests “postmodern=male” than Michael’s study indicates. Moreover, while her analyses of the novels provide strong close readings, readers might wish her discussions of the texts engaged more directly with feminist and postmodern theories. The final chapter, however, is very compelling as it draws all four novels together and examines...

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