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In 1983, Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan ended her useful (and widely used) guide to narratology and narrative theory, Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics, with some remarks on the challenges posed to classical narratology by deconstruction—at that time a comparatively new development on the theoretical scene. Holding out hope that deconstruction might enrich narrative theory rather than render it obsolete, the author resisted the idea that her study could be an obituary of the very field it aimed to synopsize and introduce. Now, nearly fifteen [End Page 1069] years later, Rimmon-Kenan’s cautious optimism concerning narratology appears to have been warranted. Adapting a host of methodologies and perspectives—feminist, Bakhtinian, deconstructive, reader-response, psychoanalytic, historicist, rhetorical, film-theoretical, computational, discourse-analytic and (psycho)linguistic—narrative theory has undergone not a funeral and burial but rather a sustained, sometimes startling metamorphosis since Rimmon-Kenan published her introductory study. Rimmon-Kenan’s new book, A Glance beyond Doubt, issues from this same resurgence of narrative analysis—a resurgence that the author herself helped initiate. Quite different from the earlier book in both method and argument, A Glance beyond Doubt reveals, in an engaging and highly readable style, the rich possibilities of some of the newer strands in narrative theory. It also reveals some of their potential limitations.
The book incorporates a variety of the (literary-theoretical and other) models that have transformed the field of narrative poetics in the past decade or so. More specifically, Rimmon-Kenan draws on philosophical, psychoanalytic, and other frameworks in exploring the relations between the concepts narrative, representation, and subjectivity. The study is remarkable not only for the research hypotheses that it formulates but also for the way it goes about formulating them. Premised on what the author calls a “return to the texts” and an attempt to “theorize via literature,” the book makes a concerted effort not to reduce “literary texts to the status of examples” in a manner that Rimmon-Kenan associates with earlier work in structuralist narratology, her own included. Here Rimmon-Kenan’s accusations of reductionism may be somewhat misplaced. After all, even in early essays like “To Write: An Intransitive Verb?” (1966) Roland Barthes connects narratological inquiry with literary experimentation (e.g., the Nouveau Roman), and nowhere does he grant preeminence to “theory” over “text.” Furthermore, countering reductionism is not necessarily tantamount to abolishing the distinction, canonical at least since Roman Jakobson, between poetics and criticism—between the study of systemic features of narrative discourse and features (themes, images, etc.) that are specific to particular narratives. Although A Glance beyond Doubt does not merely subsume poetics under criticism, theory under interpretation, the author herself raises the question of whether “the emergent theory [is] valid only for [the novels discussed in the book], [End Page 1070] or is . . . more generally applicable.” Put another way, the study sometimes comes across more as a set of readings linked by certain narratological motifs (and an overarching literary-historical argument about skepticism and counter-skepticism in twentieth-century fiction) than as a work of narrative theory articulated by way of the interpretations that it makes possible.
This is not to say, however, that the book reads like a collection of unrelated interpretations of individual novels. Rather, Rimmon-Kenan focuses throughout on how “changing attitudes to representation and subjectivity are enacted by specific strategies of storytelling.” More precisely,
In the novels I analyze, the problem of representation is dramatized mainly through a manipulation of narrative levels: their multiplication, analogies among them, and transgressions of the boundaries marking their separateness. The problem of subjectivity takes the form of undecidability concerning the narrator’s identity and structural position vis-à-vis the events narrated.
The author also argues that, historically speaking, we can detect in twentieth-century fiction a tentative, fitful movement away from modernist and postmodernist destabilizations of the subject and of (the process of) representation. At issue is a countertendency in contemporary fiction, exemplified here by Samuel Beckett’s Company and Toni Morrison’s Beloved, that works to “re-engage with reality (hence also with representation...