restricted access Fables of Subversion: Satire and the American Novel, 1930- 1980 (review)
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Reviewed by
Steven Weisenburger. Fables of Subversion: Satire and the American Novel, 1930–1980. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1995. 320 pp.

In Fables of Subversion Steven Weisenburger challenges a host of traditional notions about satire and postmodern American fiction. In spite of its seemingly limited scope—American novels between 1930 and 1980—Weisenburger offers a serious and probing refutation of New Critical assumptions that have dominated scholarly and popular discourse on the subject. [End Page 848]

The study’s introduction carefully lays the conceptual and theoretical foundation for the five remaining chapters. Weisenburger draws a crucial distinction between generative and “degenerative” satirical writing, with the generative mode representing traditional satires. The degenerative mode he describes as “delegitimizing . . . function[ing] to subvert hierarchies of value and to reflect suspiciously on all ways of making meaning, including its own. Still more, it suspects that any symbolic practice may entail incursions of power whose logic tends toward either total domination or the final chaos of reciprocal violence.” This degenerative mode is largely a postmodern phenomenon.

Drawing primarily on Jean-François Lyotard, Weisenburger emphasizes the postmodern doubt about the modernists’ attempts to use literature as a way of establishing a canon of high art and enlightenment. Instead, postmodern art emphasizes contingency and pluralist approaches, which, “[d]espite all their apparent negativity and nihilism, . . . the subversive carnivals of postmodernism bear witness to the opening of a ‘pagan’ discourse that was always at the heart of modern darkness.”

Postmodern satirists “suspect all structures, including structures of perceiving, representing, and transforming,” and their works interrogate the violence and terror inherent in established cultural forms of discourse. Consistent features of the contemporary satire are its deformations of plot, grotesque violence, transtextuality, and excessive attention to details.

Weisenburger clearly demonstrates the ways in which Formalist criticism has dominated the scholarship on satire, defining conventions which simply have nothing to do with degenerative, postmodern fictions. Weisenburger refutes the validity of four crucial assumptions underlying traditional criticism—satire is a rhetorical formulation offering a rational argument and appealing to the common opinions of a majority of readers; it requires an extramural object of attack rather than the act of fiction-making itself; satire is a moral or ethical corrective; and it is normative. In each case he demonstrates that the methods and purposes of degenerative satire have nothing in common with conventions drawn from far more conventional satiric models. Finally, the introduction considers research on the grotesque and carnivalesque to clarify the sensibility of degenerative satire. “Carnival definitively illustrates the semiotic processes of dismantling and exposure of [End Page 849] which satire is a part. Amid its disorder, one discovers points of view, specific orderings that are suppressed by or in sharp opposition to authorized representations.”

The lineage of writers considered begins with Nathanael West whose works tend increasingly toward the fully accomplished degenerative mode defined in the first chapter. The Day of the Locust is the apogee of West’s satiric practices and a work that “can be read as a narrative about the troubled emergence of a radical, degenerative mode of satire.” Analyses of Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood and John Hawkes’s The Cannibal emphasize the contemporary development of this sensibility.

A chapter devoted to Black Humor presents the most careful and well-argued reevaluation of that literary phenomenon to date. While regarding Black Humor as “the early, literary expression of an emerging postmodernism,” Weisenburger cuts through the hyperbole of many longstanding assumptions to demonstrate that the impulse to joke dominates the fictions of Kurt Vonnegut, J. P. Donleavy, and Terry Southern. James Purdy’s Cabot Wright Begins, a book for some time overlooked by critics and scholars, is seen as an inspired failure, while Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, Donald Barthelme’s Snow White, Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, and Hawkes’s Travesty are submitted as the most daring and fully realized examples of Black Humor satire.

A fourth chapter addresses examples of social and political satire in the 1960s, wherein Weisenburger argues that postmodern American satires have less to do with corrective solutions than the exposition of dissent and subversion, and he insists that these satires, notwithstanding their...