- The Experimental Self: Dialogic Subjectivity in Woolf, Pym, and Brooke-Rose
What’s in a vowel? Commenting on Christine Brooke-Rose’s wordplay in Amalgamemnon—which turns “Let the best man win” into “Let the beast man wane” and “Let the boast man whine”—Judy Little claims that “These experimental vowels transform the grand narrative of quest or success into a petty, defensive failure . . . a declining story, the amalgamation of a once legitimizing ideology that is on the wane.” In The Experimental Self, Little aims at transforming a different kind of narrative with a verbal magic not unlike that she admires in Brooke-Rose. Observing that “the paradigm of oppositional difference has become the privileged or preferred model for recent literary studies,” with feminist studies of twentieth-century experimental fiction especially beholden to an “oppositional” view of experiment as rooted in a subversive feminine imaginary, Little draws on Bakhtin for an alternative, suggesting that “the discursive mingling and jostlings in women’s fiction are not so much conflicted or even subversive oppositions as they are dialogic appositions.” In the fiction of Woolf, Pym, and Brooke-Rose, she argues, traditionally male genres like quest romance are not so much destroyed by disruptively feminine semiotic energies as they are qualified by “a dialogic mix of appositional discourses—discourses not readily or accurately identifiable in terms of the masculine/feminine opposition.” This “dialogic mix” ultimately yields “a kind of splicing of the available paradigms of the self,” the “experimental self” of Little’s title.
Opposition displaced by apposition: does Little’s verbal magic work? In many of her readings, it does. Her chapter on Woolf assembles persuasive accounts of Jacob’s Room and The Waves, closely detailing the switching and mutual “infection” of different narrative voices and discourses in the two novels. The central “experimental subjectivity” in Jacob’s Room, she finds, is that of the anonymous female narrator; in The Waves, it is Bernard, whose “discourse remains basically relational, feminine, and dialogic throughout his life.” These experimental subjectivities “transform and feminize the symbolic” rather than explode or deconstruct it.
Little’s succeeding chapters on Pym and Brooke-Rose struggle [End Page 1028] harder to frame their arguments in terms of “experimental subjectivity.” In Pym’s case, the problem lies chiefly in the adjective. Little acknowledges that “Pym’s characters would not refer to themselves as ‘experimental’”—nor would their creator. Nevertheless, her thesis requires that she pose Pym’s subdued Anglo-Catholic realism as a “radical undertaking and experiment—to give a text to the ordinary, to give a text to the (by definition) text-less life and self” of the trivial and everyday. Whose “definition” declares life and self to be textless is unclear, since Little on the previous page quotes Derrida to the effect that “there is ‘nothing outside the text.’” More dismaying than theoretical inconsistency, though, is how this “radical” reading of Pym forgets pre-twentieth-century literary history in claiming that Pym “make[s] the language, as well as the complex appositional self, new every day.” Neither Pym nor other British novelists of the 1950s and 1960s were the first to “probe ordinary middle-class or working-class experience”; their turn away from high modernism is also a return to “ordinary” lives already textualized by nineteenth-century realism.
Turning to Christine Brooke-Rose, the difficulty arises not in the adjective but in the substantive. Her novels feature experiment in abundance, but do they have selves? Rather than harboring “mimetic or realistic subjectivities,” Little argues, Brooke-Rose’s experimental fictions present “the self as a new way of seeing, or the self as a continually simulatable new word.” Like her chapter on Woolf, the chapter on Brooke-Rose pairs fine readings of relatively early and relatively late works in the author’s career—here, Brooke-Rose’s Between and Amalgamemnon. Transforming Woolf’s famous observation that women writers think back through their mothers, Little concludes that Brooke-Rose’s postmodern strategy of simulations “thinks back (through fathers, mothers) but thinks widely and radically also...