restricted access Unnatural Voices: Extreme Narration in Modern and Contemporary Fiction (review)
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Brian Richardson. Unnatural Voices: Extreme Narration in Modern and Contemporary Fiction. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2006. xiii + 168 pp.

Those who have followed Brian Richardson’s work over the past couple of years must have suspected, as I have, that his articles were part of something bigger and ambitious. A landmark in narrative analysis and in the study of modern and postmodern fiction generally, Unnatural Voices confirms the suspicion. For more than two decades now, narrative scholarship has been under strong pressure [End Page 457] to revisit its postulates, which, largely speaking, had been set forth by the linguistics-based poetics of the structuralist 1960s and 1970s. The cultural-historicist turn, its emphasis on ideology, the “politics of” (rather than the “poetics of”) kind of approaches to things literary, and, before them, the poststructuralist skepticism of taxonomic logic appeared, at least for a while, to render considerations of voice, viewpoint, character-narrator-author dynamic, and the like less imperative. All of a sudden, the urgent issues, we were being told, were elsewhere. Or so it seemed. A number of theorists and critics, primarily American, Dutch, and German, were already busy recalibrating time-honored concepts and approaches, and it is due to them that voice is currently dealt with as a matter of both form and subjectivity. Patrick O’Donnell’s 1992 book Echo Chambers: Figuring Voice in Modern Narrative was one of the studies that helped us realize that voice just cannot be—and cannot manifest itself—other than as a configuration of expressed (“voiced”) content regardless of the latter’s nature.

Meanwhile, the conversation in the field has diversified a great deal, and Richardson himself has been one of the most original participants. Unnatural Voices organizes his contributions into a systematic if inductive treatment of the particular—one might say, characteristic —vocality or voicedness of modern and postmodern fictional prose (but chapter six successfully extends the book’s conclusions to contemporary drama). Simply speaking, this treatment leads the critic to several conclusions. First, modernism and postmodernism, and more broadly the last hundred years or so of fiction, can be defined by the struggle to give voice to a world, human and nonhuman alike, that according to more traditional—mimetic, humanistic, culturally and politically conservative—way of understanding the speaking subject, remains silent or is deliberately silenced. Second, he notices that narratology has met with little success in its attempts to come to grips with the unnatural voices with which modern and postmodern writers tell their stories. Hard to fit into the models usually employed to hear them, these voices may be odd, but they are not aberrations. In reality, the plethora of examples adduced throughout the book suggest, as observed earlier, that such vocal forms are dominant. Derived from this insight is the critic’s conviction that curiosities of these kind can be theorized and organized; it is just that available theories and classifications are not very helpful, precisely because in these accounts such narrative procedures are usually treated as exceptions and what they “communicate” is regarded accordingly.

What Richardson argues in chapter 1 is actually the opposite: the “death” of certain techniques does not herald, pace Wolfgang Kayser, the death of narrative—of the novel in this case (1). In fact, [End Page 458] it may well signal the birth of a particular narrative type and with it a whole shift in the representation of the human. How we see ourselves comes off, Richardson contends across Unnatural Voices, in how and with what kind of voice we tell our own and others’ stories, in how we speak, from what and with how many perspectives, and finally, in how we picture the speaking subject, what qualities we think this speakerly/storytelling instance might possess. Along these lines, chapter 2 examines one of the most unnatural storytelling forms: the second person. For it, Richardson unearths a “surprisingly rich . . . genealogy” (17), with Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ian Flemming among the precursors of Butor’s La Modification, after which the you-narration turns into something of a fashion. Here, the critic distinguishes among “standard” (common), “hypothetical” (more vague, future-oriented), and “autotelic” (reader-oriented) forms, then works out a...