restricted access Carnival of Repetition: Gaddis's "The Recognitions" and Postmodern Theory, and: Alternate Worlds: A Study of Postmodern Antirealistic American Fiction (review)
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Reviewed by
John Johnston. Carnival of Repetition: Gaddis's "The Recognitions" and Postmodern Theory. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1990. 241 pp. $25.95.
John Kuehl. Alternate Worlds: A Study of Postmodern Antirealistic American Fiction. New York: New York UP, 1989. 373 pp. $50.00.

Is it not strange that, at a time when our most adventurous novelists are regularly dismissed by reviewers and mainstream critics as being too "academic," the academy itself is doing so little to promote its own? The names of Gaddis, Coover, Hawkes, McElroy, and even Pynchon remain less known within universities than more realistic contemporaries like Updike, Roth, Bellow, or Mailer; and chances are that Barth, Burroughs, and Donald Barthelme will be the postwar writers making room on course lists for Erdrich, Leavitt, Walker, and Morrison. This is not, in every instance, for lack of scholarly industry: in seventeen years since the publication of Gravity's Rainbow, for example, there have been nearly twice that number of books on Pynchon. But not until recently have critics begun to read this novel "through the lenses of contemporary literary theories such as feminist, new historicist, psychoanalytic, reader-response, and Bakhtinian narratology"—among the academic approaches most amenable to antirealistic, socially critical work (see Bernard Duyfhuizen on recent Pynchon criticism in Novel 23.1 [1989]: 75-88). As a result, Pynchon and his peers have remained isolated from the larger, international currents that have shaped the central theoretical debates of the past decade, and both theory and contemporary literary scholarship are the worse for it.

In this respect the work of William Gaddis may have benefitted from long years of neglect; his critics having made up in sophistication what they lack in numbers. Thanks to the traditional scholarship and source work of Steven Moore, John Kuehl, and others, there is at least a solid research base on which future critics might build. And with the appearance of John Johnston's Carnival of Repetition, the first book-length critical study of The Recognitions, Gaddis' place at the unstill center of the current debate on modernism and postmodernism should be assured. Johnston reads Gaddis' monumental first book as a "Janus-faced text" that looks foward to postmodern textuality, simulation, and ideological deconstruction even as it retains the ambition of classic modernism. Johnston attempts, therefore, not only to place the novel in "an especially significant transitional position in the evolution of modern American fiction" (2) but also to see this evolution as part of a larger movement within the culture.

This thesis, and Johnston's frequent references to Mikhail Bakhtin on the dialogic novel and Gilles Deleuze on cultural simulacra, provide an appropriate critical context for a novel that "creates a multiplicity of references, allusions, textual transformations and metamorphoses," whose protagonists are known less in themselves than in the way their words and movements are reflected by others, and whose author as his career developed would nearly abandon traditional narrative for the predominant dialogue of JR (1975) and Carpenter's Gothic (1985). Gaddis has always delighted in exposing and creating counterfeit worlds and characters, and the resulting proliferation of copies, imitations, and plagiarisms of every kind inevitably brings into question traditional distinctions between the real and its simulations. These echoes of the concerns and themes of continental theory are so evident that one wishes Johnston had done more to distinguish Gaddis' difference from the theorists, or perhaps to suggest how a novelist who claims [End Page 579] not to read much recent fiction and who in his interviews sounds like the last defender of the New Criticism comes to exemplify "postmodern theory." Nonetheless, Johnston does bring to the novel the analytical skills needed to convince readers that Gaddis' relation to current theory—whether intended or not—is more than superficial. And if it is doubtful that any single study will put the 950-page-plus Recognitions on course lists, Johnston's should at least encourage readings in academic quarters where both the novel's literary and cultural importance will be perceived.

John Kuehl's more wide-ranging Study of Postmodern Antirealistic American Fiction is clearly intended for the larger and more traditional audience within the American university. A series...