- Exhausting Heteronarrative: The American Woman in the Chinese Hat
The American Woman is about death. It is about the end of possibility: linguistic, narrative, sexual, emotional. I needed a dead form to tell it in; I needed an exhausted, played out, tired form to enlarge, really, the kind of shutting down that is going on in the narrator’s psyche.—Carole Maso, qtd. in Moore
In many ways, a novel about death and, specifically, about the death of the novel is the logical extension of Maso’s interrogation of the aesthetic in her previous novel, The Art Lover. If, as The Art Lover suggests, the aesthetic offers neither a stable static retreat from the vicissitudes of the world nor an unproblematic means of representing the nature of those vicissitudes in order to mitigate their pain, then a novel that expresses the profound exhaustion of aesthetic conventions would be the logical next step in that sustained interrogation of the adequacy of the aesthetic. While The American Woman clearly extends the interrogation of the process of aestheticization that marks The Art [End Page 935] Lover, The American Woman focuses that interrogation more narrowly upon the conventions of narrative that govern the literary and, therefore, the social configuration of gender and sexuality. Although a critical consideration of the issues of gender and sexuality is present to a lesser degree in Maso’s earlier two works, the manner in which conventions of plot, which embody social values, affect the presentation of these two aspects of subjectivity is more prominently scrutinized in The American Woman. Therefore, The American Woman can, and I believe should, be read as an explicitly feminist work because of the more prominent profile that gender and sexuality are given; The American Woman engages the themes of gender, sexuality, and how they both are coded in the conventions of literary plot in order to illustrate how the social institution of literary narrative shapes female subjectivities.
Maso’s work broaches these issues within their narratological matrix. But, by extending the implications of this narratological coding into the social sphere of gender relations and sexuality, Maso’s work moves from the domain of narrative to the realm of what Teresa de Lauretis calls narrativity—“not so much the structure of narrative (its component units and their relations) as its work and effects” (105). The fact that Maso’s work foregrounds the narrativity of female sexuality and gender suggests that The American Woman can, and should, be read as “a feminist act” (Hirsch 8). Although The American Woman may not define the “feminist poetics” that Marianne Hirsch would desire as part of a feminist act in the literary realm (8), the foregrounding of narrativity in The American Woman clears the path for the “revisions of endings, beginnings, patterns of progression” (8) and other disruptive strategies that flower into the transgressive poetics of Maso’s next works: Ava and Aureole. In this way, The American Woman marks a feminist intervention in the field of narrativity and therefore makes a significant gesture toward examining critically how the conventions of literary narrative configure the social elements of female sexuality and gender.
When reading back in the corpus of Carole Maso from The American Woman through The Art Lover to Ghost Dance, a common thematic emphasis upon sexuality and sexual relationships emerges, though the emphasis is less obvious in the first two works. In Ghost Dance, Vanessa’s lesbian relationships are always a means by which she seeks to reunite with, and to love once again, the mother that she has lost. [End Page 936] Her only heterosexual relationship (with Jack) is based upon a game of fantasy role-playing in which only the anonymity and ignorance of each other’s identity ensures the continued success of the game, the same kind of anonymity that structures the relationship between Paul and Jeanne in Bertolucci’s film Last Tango in Paris (1973). Vanessa’s relationship with Jack ultimately fails, as does the relationship in Bertolucci’s film, when Vanessa is unwilling to sustain the game of ignorance on which it is based. This failure suggests that the affair with Jack is no more authentic than Vanessa’s...