- Reviewed by
I will begin by noting that Allen Thiher's Words in Reflection is one of the most provocative, well-illustrated, and useful books on the questions of language and postmodernism that I have seen in recent years. It should be of interest to any critics interested in experimental fiction of this century.
The first three chapters are thoughtful and well-researched introductions to the main philosophers of language to whom Thiher ties his speculations on the postmodern novel: Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Saussure, and Derrida. These chapters can be recommended on their own to anyone interested in these thinkers, whether or not the reader is especially interested in postmodernism. The weakest chapter is the one on Heidegger; Thiher presents far too many Heideggerian assertions without quibble, and his own normally clear prose collapses under Heidegger's jargon. Also, Thiher seems to be pressing to make Heidegger mesh with the other three thinkers. These three chapters in some way seem to be separate from the last four chapters, which deal with "Representation," "Voices," "Play," and "Reference" in a wide range of novels from several languages. The inclusion of the first group of chapters makes sense, for they provide background for the nonphilosopher, but it makes for a great deal of repetition in the later chapters.
Thiher wrestles bravely with the language of philosophy and traditional literary criticism, and this points up the weaknesses in traditional terminology applied to experimental literature. Thiher frequently speaks, for example, of the work's "autonomous status," "autonomous language," and "semiotic autonomy" to characterize the suspicions Wittgenstein, Derrida, and Saussure have about claims for the referentiality of language. These confusing epithets work against the epistemological claims Thiher would like to make in describing the effect of novelistic representations of the separation of language and world (or, more frequently, the ways language creates a World, while recognizing it to be a fragile construct). Can a work both be an "epistemological satire" and demonstrate mainly its autonomous status? In speaking of a description in Robbe-Grillet's Jealousy, Thiher notes (with alarming simplicity, considering his argument) that mere is "no authorial intrusion." At the same time we habitually use such traditional terms so inappropriately, the critical vocabulary for discussing postmodern fiction is vague and unhelpful: hyperrealism, metalinguistic, metafictions, metanarrative, reflexive, self-conscious, self-referential, and so on. This is not Thiher's fault. In fact, that such a well-read and resourceful critic must fall back on these terms indicates the extent of the problem. This makes for poor argument and points to the problems in discussing such broader terms as "postmodern fiction" itself. We are told that a novel by Helmut Eisendle "offers a nearly perfect example of the temptation to abandon the practice of fiction. . . ." Thiher, who is conscientious, makes analogies between the practices of the modernists—such as Joyce, Faulkner, Proust, and Célineﬁand the postmodernists who tend to erode the distinction. Often these analogies are stated with a reluctance, a hesitancy, as if Thiher doesn't want to wander into modernism and realizes that he is diluting his argument ("Céline's [End Page 351] and Faulkner's novels are not without homologies with the ideas of those language theorists we have been considering . . .").
Thiher bravely brings into his argument dozens of works by Borges, Cortázar, Robbe-Grillet, Beckett, Coover, Grass, Handke, Nabokov, and less known postmodernists such as Gilbert Sorrentino, the members of the Fiction Collective, Helmut Heisenbuttel, Paul Medcalf, and Peter Chotjewitz. This sort of spread is necessary for Thiher to make his arguments, but the coverage is necessarily skimpy, and one would like to see Thiher pursue some of his observations. I would like to see further development of the idea of the postmodern "schizo-text," more about the myth of the superiority of silence, more on the use of "pop" language in postmodern fiction and on postmodernism's antisymbolist bias; I would like to hear more of Thiher's...