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Richard F. Patteson’s previous publications treat the work of postmodern scribes Paul Bowles and Donald Barthelme. In Caribbean Passages, [End Page 1010] Patteson analyzes contemporary West Indian fiction as another case of postmodern culture whose fundamental tendency is a metafictionaI “meditation on the intrinsic attributes of story itself.” In his introduction, Patteson eschews what he calls “the imperialist flag of an ideology, a political agenda, or even a preconceived unitary thesis,” preferring instead “to explore each writer’s territory in turn, looking for both marks of originality and signs of kinship to others in the region.” Despite the author’s stated aversion to political and theoretical ideology, Caribbean Passages is well grounded theoretically. Returning often to cite Caribbean critics whose work is well known in the United States, Patteson bases his thesis about Caribbean writing as ludic postmodernism on Antonio Benítez-Rojo’s theory of Caribbean society as a “repeating island” and “meta-archipelagic text” and Edouard Glissant’s suggestion that creolization in the Caribbean is moving toward a “métissage without limits.” The introduction sets out five important thematic concerns, including a sense of belonging to a place, the child’s coming of age, the figure of the mother as culture-bearer and storyteller, the problem of history, and cultural creolization. Together, these themes define the “exuberant coherence” of West Indian fiction. Though not primarily concerned with literary history, Patteson usefully situates contemporary West Indian writing as a “third wave” which follows the early twentieth century grouping of H. G. De Lisser, Claude McKay, Jean Rhys, and the Beacon Group from Trinidad, and then the breakthrough generation of emigrés including George Lamming, V. S. Naipaul, Samuel Selvon, and others.
Having framed his project theoretically, thematically, and historically, Patteson generates individual chapters in a mostly New Critical style, that is, through extended close readings of fiction by Olive Senior, Zee Edgell, Shiva Naipaul, Caryl Phillips, and Robert Antoni. Olive Senior’s superb short story collections are treated as linguistic “countercolonization,” by which Patteson means they renovate the stratified relationship between Jamaican Patwah and Queen’s English. Thematically, according to Patteson, Senior’s stories, like the novels of Belizean writer Zee Edgell, adumbrate the clash of tradition and modernity, and filter the challenges of historical change through the paradigm of family relationships. In the chapters on Senior and Edgell, Patteson presents an essentially optimistic reading of Caribbean social change. The next two chapters take a pessimistic turn, however, and [End Page 1011] emphasize the pitfalls and blind spots of regional history as these are expressed in the fiction of Shiva Naipaul and Caryl Phillips. Both writers use language to register social voids, ruptures, gaps, and discontinuities, but in each case Patteson also reads language—particularly the creative discourse of the fiction writer—as consolation and even as a kind of humanistic resistance against the “disorganizational forces” that allegedly dominate the social vision of Naipaul and Phillips. In the final chapter on Robert Antoni’s fiction, Patteson offers the most sanguine interpretation of “the power of the imagination to refashion reality.” In contrast to the nihilistic premises Patteson ascribes to Naipaul and Phillips, Antoni is presented as a healthy cultural producer able to synthesize new myths from the diverse African, Asian, European, and Amerindian legacies of the region. Of the novel Divina Trace, Patteson writes: “The goal of this collective, tentative, and distinctly nonauthoritarian evocation of a scattered past is nothing less than the construction of a Caribbean consciousness, and the conception of history-as-story underlying the enterprise is not simply the restrictive ‘othering’ discourse of the West but a magically transformed one—fluid, changing, and potentially liberating.”
To be sure, Patteson achieves some provocative results with his chosen method of letting the thematic focus of each creative text determine the scholarly approach. His discussion of Ramayana influences in Robert Antoni’s Divine Trace is a wonderful piece of exegesis that complements and expands Derek Walcott’s commentary on the Hindu epic in his Nobel laureate speech. On the central...