Brian Stonehill's book on The Self-conscious Novel will be welcomed by students seeking to impose some order and definition on the increasingly impenetrable output of the postmodernists now flowing into the literary marketplace. With its sensible analysis and its ordered categories of the characteristics of "self-conscious" fiction, it provides a guide of sorts through the jungle. That it does so through a short but rigorous examination of the work of five preeminent novelists—James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov, William Gaddis, Thomas Pynchon, and John Barth—adds to the value of the undertaking.
The critic concerns himself with fiction that seeks to draw attention to itself as fiction, with the nonmimetic work that demands to be encountered as such: There is a level on which the action is less important to the reader than his recognition that such action, and the characters involved in it, are there for the writer's own purposes. The author, in other words, plays a game in his literary work, seeking "esthetic satisfaction" rather than the verisimilitude which was the avowed aim of much of earlier fiction.
After a look at the "self-conscious" tradition of Sterne, Beckett, Borges, Gide, and even Proust, Stonehill examines Joyce's Ulysses in some detail to demonstrate that "a self-conscious emphasis on artifice strives essentially to assert the presence of the performing artist." He does this by analyzing the "Aeolus" and "Oxen of the Sun" episodes. He finds that in the former Joyce works through the manipulation of time cycles, the employment of palindrome, and the frequent use of abrupt shifts of setting, reinforcing the strength of literary artifice and dramatizing the author's role as artist. In "Oxen," as Stonehill sees it, the idea is to multiply the narrators in order to call attention to the composition of the fiction itself by the artist. Further, because the narrators speak each in a different, recognizable English prose style (extending from Anglo-Saxon to modern slang), the author is able to embrace self-consciously the whole of English style and language as his property. If the aim is to impress upon the reader that the author is an artist, this critic argues, then Joyce's effort succeeds admirably. [End Page 738]
In a long and enlightening chapter on the devices Nabokov as author employs ("narrators visibly engaged in the act of composition," or repeated references to the text in the text, for instance), Stonehill seeks to account for Nabokov's artistic triumph and finds it in his ability to create a fictional world at a remove from the world of the reader—but to endow that fictional world with the details of "real" life.
Necessarily, the treatment of Gaddis, Pynchon, and Barth in a short study is less ambitious but no less thoughtful. The book, in its range and conception, is extremely useful to students of the novel.
Donald Gutierrez's critical study is an ambitious attempt to "examine the character of the self in several works of modern prose, ranging from Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground through Hardy's Tess, Conrad's Lord Jim, and James's The Beast in the Jungle, to works of Bellow, Celine, and Ellison. In a separate section, the critic considers associated works of nonfiction: Lawrence's "Pornography and Obscenity" and several pieces on torture, notably Jacobo Timmerman's "Prisoner without a Name, Cell without a Number."
Gutierrez's eclecticism makes for an interesting book—although the inclusion of the nonfictional work may force him too far afield and weaken the thrust of his examination of the fictional characters. More appropriate, perhaps, would have been a separate article on Lawrence and Timmerman.
The author is effective in pointing out how delineation of the self can be achieved in many diverse ways, depending on the requirements of fiction, the background the artist brings to bear on his characters, and the vision of the author...