Chénetier is one of France’s best critics; his new book is an extended meditation on “new American fiction since 1960.” Although the book mentions at least three hundred writers—ranging from William Gass to Clarence Major to Harold Jaffe—it rises above mere lists, dull summaries, usual categories. Chénetier is always surprising, wise, and amusing. Here, for instance, is one example of his style: “There are schools as fish would say but their edges are fragile: grouped as they are by affinity or by their search for the same food, gatherings formed against the currents of a poorly understood tradition.” The sentence is artfully constructed, playing with unexpected juxtapositions (fish naming schools).
In his first chapter, “Traditions,” Chénetier refuses to accept standard categories: American Jewish writers, the Beat generation, the Southerners. He believes that the significant writers belong to the “tradition of rupture.” They are “artisans of words” (Laughlin’s phrase); they [End Page 479] believe that “language always controls thought.” The rest of the book views language as perception (or vice versa). And it is not surprising that Nabokov, Sterne, and Lewis Carroll are the shadowy ancestors of our verbal magicians. They are not sure that “reality” exists outside of language. Chénetier is the first critic to note that Salinger is perhaps an influence. “The feeling of ‘phoniness’ that obsesses Caulfield is not the simple effect of a reality perceived as ‘fake’ or ‘hypocritical’ or ‘inadequate’ according to thematic, moral or existential terms. . . .” Salinger’s later fiction points the way to the “recognition” that language itself may not be an adequate instrument of explanation.
In his section “Beyond Suspicion,” Chénetier offers an extended analysis of the ways in which our writers use their words to fight “everyday” jargon. He is especially shrewd in seeing “neural language” in Plus; “Gutenberg’s Revenge” (the significance of typeface) in Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife and Word Rain (by Madeline Gins); the lampooning of narrative instances in Malcolm. (I must add here that he is one of the very few critics to see Purdy as metafictionist. He even quotes the following lines from Malcolm as an example of the various strategies I have mentioned: “‘I have arranged all the situations,’ Mr. Cox spoke without his usual optimism. ‘Why can’t they act? I have brought the right people together and the right situations . . . but nothing happens. Nothing at all.’”)
Perhaps the high points of this section are the chapters on “Images/Noises” and “The Mouth and the Ear: The Avatars of Voice.” In the first chapter mentioned, Chénetier identifies cinema, radio, and television as themes and “techniques” in novels. In the second he extends the same painstaking analysis to “voice,” connecting voice and brooding power, for example, in DeLillo’s fiction.
The book ends with a third section which, in effect, summarizes previous arguments; it proposes that American fiction from 1960 to the present is in its variety, bravery, and beauty a lasting contribution to all lovers of language.