RE: postmodernist fiction. This is no country for old men. A still-quaking ground, its boundaries and main tributaries shift or get redrawn nearly every month. We're like the doddering Brigadier Pudding in Gravity's Rainbow. When he projects the future in a massive tome on contemporary Europe, the foundations keep rocking and he considers giving up: "Never make it . . . it's changing out from under me. Oh, dodgy—very dodgy." So postmodernism has been graphed as the rise of an "incredulity toward metanarratives" (Lyotard) and mapped around the seven collapsed imperial hills or "rubrics" of high-modernism (Hassan); its [End Page 660] hesitations between the poles of modernist-metaphorics and antimodernist-metonymics have been traced (Lodge), as have its centerings around a "dominant" stream of ontological simulations (McHale). These are only some of the main theories. Meanwhile new fictions keep appearing.
Among the four books under review here, some of the principal writers studied have already published new work, and Don DeLillo's new novel, Libra, has just been hailed as potentially the most significant achievement of the decade. Not that these "dodgy" facts gainsay the critics' assessments. Indeed, by arguing the case for a key American writer with eight—make that nine—books to his credit, and moreover a writer nearly untouched by critics (including the summarizers at houses like Twayne or Ungar), Tom LeClair suddenly looks like a most prescient reader of the American scene. Just as well, Alan Wilde's study of ethical probings in recent American fictions contributes importantly to the argument for a revitalized discourse of values in postmodernist culture. Each is an important book; each provides a measure of what is missing in David Seed's erudite but unsatisfying study of Pynchon's fictions.
Both LeClair and Wilde argue new terms into the lexicon of postmodernism. For Wilde, in Middle Grounds, "midfiction" is a broadly useful and synthetic cognomon. It builds from the last chapters of his earlier book, Horizons of Assent (1981), where he argued for the postmodern writer's "suspensiveness," defined as an acceptance of both the world's contingency and thus the nontotalizing rhetorics needed to apprehend it. In the new book, developed since 1982 as a series of essays, Wilde argues that "the best hope of American fiction lies precisely" in such a habit of thought. He locates "midfiction" in narratives that reject extremes: both the pole of metafiction where endless self-reflexivity puts the world under erasure and of realist fictions where the world gets naively taken for granted. Between this rigid binarism that pits experimentalism against realism, or the indicative against the subjunctive, midfictions establish a hopeful, interrogative mood. They often deal in limited cases, in extremist behaviors, and marginal discourses. Yet paradoxically they do so by way of staking out—however experientially and provisionally—a territory for generative, moral action in a world increasingly decoded as "text" and therefore ontologically contingent and problem-strewn. To locate these potentials, Wilde uses a phenomenological method adopted from the work of Merleau-Ponty. This approach is particularly well suited to the task, he argues, because it focuses on those structures by which the writer is seen "seizing" his indeterminate midst and compelling it into discursive forms.
Wilde's midfictionists range from Stanley Elkin, Grace Paley, Max Apple, and Thomas Berger, to Donald Barthelme and Thomas Pynchon. Chapter Six includes a fine, long-overdue polemic against the neorealism of such writers as Ann Beattie, Ray Carver, and Joan Didion, critiqued here as "catatonic realists" because their characters have caved in beneath the terrifying, reductive experience of being controlled by contingent events. By contrast, a chapter on Max Apple powerfully argues the...