Although John Hawkes was born in 1925 and published his first novella as long ago as 1949, his fiction continues to baffle unprepared readers. One would have expected that the acceptance of The Recognitions, The Sot-Weed Factor, Ada, The Public Burning, and Gravity’s Rainbow—not to mention One Hundred Years of Solitude—would be enough to persuade even the most recalcitrant witness that fiction had changed since the heyday of Faulkner and Hemingway. Yet in November 1984, for instance, The New Criterion published a mean-spirited essay titled “John Hawkes’s Fan Club” in which the author attacked not only Hawkes’s novels but also the critics “blamed” for their high reputation: Frederick Busch, Leslie Fiedler, Donald J. Greiner, Albert Guerard, John Kuehl, and Robert Scholes. Despite such controversy, Hawkes has continued to expand the genre of fiction (he published The Frog in 1996), and the list of informed commentators has likewise continued to grow. With her splendid new study, Rita Ferrari adds her name to the list.
Ferrari traces Hawkes’s well-known commitment to parodying both the forms and themes that conventional readers normally expect in traditional novels. Stressing language and image rather than character and plot, Hawkes “dismantles generic expectations.” In doing so, he frees not only the novel form itself but also the reader from the constraints of realism. Yet, as Ferrari points out, Hawkes has also been committed to the “poles of the authorial self”: innocence and power. Ferrari defines her project as an exploration of Hawkes’s multiple and shifting engagements with the “poles,” and she persuasively demonstrates how Hawkes’s brilliant rendering of the simultaneity of innocence and power results from his career-long interest in paradox, “the existence of what does not exist”—in other words, language. She stresses the relationship between Hawkes’s foregrounding of language and Barthes’s distinction between “work” and “text,” and she celebrates Hawkes’s command of language as his means of violating received opinion. As Hawkes said long ago, he would rather create a world than represent one. The imagination is always more alluring than the mundane.
Rather than define Hawkes as a solitary master, Ferrari interestingly and correctly links him to the “Romantic reconciliation of opposition [End Page 1005] through the inner life,” to such giants as Coleridge, Poe, Hawthorne, and Conrad. Hawkes inherits the Romantics’ emphasis on defamiliarizing the ordinary world by featuring the neutral border where the imaginary confronts the actual. Such meetings take place, of course, in the labyrinths of language. Where the Romantics stress harmony, however, Hawkes insists on both design and debris. A more general point, one I have long advocated, is that Hawkes’s postmodernism is not an unexpected break with his predecessors but a logical extension of modernism. Ferrari shows that, faced with fragmentation, the writer reconstructs the world linguistically. She accepts Lyotard’s definition of postmodernism as that which “puts forward the unpresentable in presentation itself.”
A high point of Ferrari’s discussion is when she explains how Hawkes’s fascination with the simultaneous absence and presence inherent in language relates to his interest in sexuality, which involves also both absence and presence. Desire, for example, depends on absence; the imagination is always erotic, and the erotic is always artistic. This argument leads Ferarri to feature Hawkes’s female characters, and to show how male desire assumes form in the paradox of language used to create the silent Other. Thus readers already familiar with the complexities of Hawkes’s more celebrated, widely discussed novels—The Cannibal, The Lime Twig, Second Skin, and The Blood Oranges—may want to turn to Ferrari’s chapters on his later novels, those that foreground the power and innocence of the feminine Other: Virginie; Adventures in the Alaskan Skin Trade; and the brilliant, evocative Whistlejacket.
With its female perspective, Virginie offers “a new vantage from which to view male author-figures and to reenvision the possible attainment of authorial innocence through the beauty of language.” The paradox in Virginie is that the male vision of eroticism is...