restricted access Postmodern Narrative Theory (review)
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Reviewed by
Mark Currie. Postmodern Narrative Theory. New York: St. Martin’s P, 1998. viii + 169 pp.

Written in a fluent and readable style that sometimes verges on the breezy and glib, Mark Currie’s Postmodern Narrative Theory is part of book series called Transitions. In the words of general editor Julian Wolfreys, this series aims

to explore passages and movements in critical thought and in the development of literary and cultural interpretation. [. . .] It is hoped that the student will find this series liberating because rigid methodologies are not being put into place. As all the dictionary definitions of the idea of transition [. . .] suggest, what is important is the action, the passage: of thought, of analysis, of critical response. Rather than seeking to help you locate yourself in relation to any particular school or discipline, this series aims to put you into action, as readers and writers, travellers between positions, where the movement between poles comes to be seen as of more importance than the locations themselves.

I cite Wolfreys’s statement at length because it suggests that what is problematic about Currie’s book may derive from the larger context into which the author tried to make it fit. The bugbear of “rigid methodologies,” perhaps, accounts for the author’s impatience with narrative theorists’ attempts to develop fine-grained “terminologisations” (the title of chapter 2) in discussing issues such as perspective, voice, and temporality. Unimpressed by these efforts, Currie describes narratology as “one of the places where the most offensive terminology has taken hold.” By the same token, one wonders whether it requires methodological rigidity to address, head on, key questions that the author addresses only implicitly (or not at all): What constitutes a narrative and distinguishes it from other text types? Correlatively, what distinguishes postmodern narrative theory from literary and cultural theory more generally? Are there aspects of literature and culture that postmodern narrative theory should not consider as falling within its scope? And what, exactly, sets a postmodern “socio-narratology” apart from the classical, structuralist narratology Currie assumes as deficient? [End Page 1092]

With respect to this last question, the author’s introduction does specify that the “transition that took place in narratological theory in the 1980s” involved a shift from discovery to invention (that is, narrative theorists began assuming that they invented rather than discovered the objects they analyzed); from coherence to complexity (that is, poststructuralist narratologists “sought to sustain contradictory aspects of narrative”); and from poetics to politics (that is, narrative theory has participated in a more general trend toward the convergence of historical and formal critical approaches). The introduction also notes that in light of a widespread recognition that “humans [are] narrative animals,” members of the species homo fabulans, “it is hard to see how narratology could die out. There may be a crisis of self-importance, requiring that narratology adapt its methods to [. . .] new demands, or an identity crisis caused by [. . .] diversification. But this is diversification, not death.” Yet the manner in which the Transitions series prioritizes movement over location helps explain why, at other points in his discussion, the author writes as if narratology is in fact over and done with. Or rather, Currie seems to want to have it both ways, construing narratology as both an already completed event and an ongoing process. Admitting in his introduction that “the particularity of texts or readers only becomes recognizable through a shared descriptive vocabulary” such as the one narratologists began to develop, the author also states that “[i]t is no longer possible to look upon narratology as a paradigm for critical practice.” At times, then, Currie represents classical narratology as a source of still-useful tools for the analysis of stories, a vital influence on the postmodern narrative theory that continues to diversify it; but at other times, narratology appears to have been a brief and in many respects unfortunate stop visited by the train of critical thought on its route from a formalist/structuralist past to a future of jointly formalist and political readings. (Currie sketches this future destination in his final chapter, “The Dark Clouds of Enlightenment: Socio-narratology and Heart of Darkness,” which juxtaposes formalist, deconstructive, and...