MFS Modern Fiction Studies 48.3 (2002) 693-712
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Postpatriarchal Endings in Recent US Fiction
Ellen G. Friedman
"Doesn't every narrative lead back to Oedipus?"
Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text
Particular narrative practices that depart from tradition draw our attention not only for their literary values but also for what can be read in such departure concerning cultural meaning. 1 The arguments proposed here presume agreement on this issue: social practices and meanings are figured in fiction, and fictional narratives stay within a geography of cultural possibility. Despite the instability of signs, instabilities circulate within borders that are made visible in the interactions between literature and social institutions and practices. Such legitimating and disciplinary attributes of narrative have been connected to the unconscious of narrative, to oedipal sources. "Every narrative" Roland Barthes wrote in Pleasure of the Text, leads "back to Oedipus." In his view, the Father, as a figure for origin and law, is the rationale for all storytelling: "If there is no longer a Father, why tell stories [. . .]? Isn't storytelling always a way of searching for one's origins, speaking one's conflicts with the Law?" (47).
Oedipus's centrality in current explanatory cultural narratives is emphasized even in philosophical texts written to oppose it. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari resist oedipal determinism in Anti-Oedipus: [End Page 693] Capitalism and Schizophrenia against the prevailing ideas of cultural and orthodox psychoanalysts: "They all agree that, in our patriarchal and capitalist society at least, Oedipus is a sure thing [. . .]. They all agree that our society is the stronghold of Oedipus" (174-75). Deleuze and Guattari assess the fascination with oedipus as profound, and with exasperation declare that he "is demanded, and demanded again and again" (175). 2 In his introductory remarks to the book, Mark Seem, one of its translators, summarizes the revolutionary effort it would take to disengage from the oedipal thrall: "The first task of the revolutionary [. . .] is to learn [. . .] how to shake off the Oedipal yoke and the effects of power, in order to initiate a radical politics of desire freed from all beliefs. Such a politics dissolves the mystifications of power through the kindling, on all levels, of anti-oedipal forces [. . .] forces that escape coding, scramble the codes [. . .]" (xxi).
Because the trope of the father, particularly the oedipal father, is repeatedly invoked in explanations of culture and narrative, this essay theorizes the new role of the father before turning its attention to the texts that exemplify this pattern and its narratological and cultural implications. Twentieth-century US fiction, particularly by male authors, provides compelling examples of oedipal intransigence, perhaps none more blatant than Donald Barthelme's satire The Dead Father. This narrative concerns the burial of a father, disinclined to die, by his son and daughter. Of gargantuan proportion, the father is described as "dead, but still with us, still with us but dead" (3). Queried by his daughter about ever having wished to "paint or draw or etch" (18), the father replies, "It was not necessary [. . .] because I am the Father. All lines my lines. All figure and all ground mine, out of my head. All colors mine. You take my meaning" (19). Barthelme's oedipal allegory only foregrounds by exaggeration the irresistibility of the father in US narrative, where he is compulsively invoked, though sometimes not actually present. William Faulkner makes the search for the father his great theme in Absalom, Absalom! and Light in August, and the father determines the journey and its outcome in As I Lay Dying, in which he is physically present but emotionally absent. 3
Even narratives that begin as a quest for the mother may turn into a quest for the father as in Thomas Pynchon's Vineland, in which a daughter's quest changes just in that way. The father's power often rests on his unavailability so that just as the daughter discovers her father in [End Page 694] Vineland, he leaves. Having first established his authority, he disappears before it can be challenged, resisted, or made vulnerable. Patricia Yaeger describes this...