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Narrative studies today have the same kind of preeminence within criticism that studies of the lyric had fifty years ago. If theory is where it is at in literary circles, then narratology is the inner ring, the hippest circle. The New Historicism gets a lot of play, but the overwhelming majority of New Historical essays focus on prose narrative. In a period when criticism is explicitly concerned with values (as opposed to a period when criticism claims to be "objective"), the breadth, complex social modeling, and variety of voices available to prose narrative make it the most "natural" subject for analysis. Narrative as Communication, the sixty-fourth volume in Minnesota's Theory and History of Literature series, and Narrative Perspective in Fiction, volume fifty-nine in Toronto's Romance Series, provide evidence simply by their publication for the cachet associated with narratology: Coste's book is maddeningly eclectic, and Chamberlain's book is completely abstract, derivative, and circular.
Narrative as Communication attempts to provide a comprehensive description of narrative from a linguistic perspective. Coste covers a lot of ground very quickly, never spending more than a few pages on any one issue or textual example. This wide scope and rapid pace are alternately appealing and frustrating. When I became lost in the jargon of technical linguistics or stranded in the analysis of a French text with which I was unfamiliar, I could at least relax in the knowledge that the discussion would soon shift radically, in topic and approach, and I would likely be back on more familiar ground. On the other hand, every time I became deeply interested in a line of argument, every time a useful model began to take shape, the discussion moved on. It was like a meal in which the courses kept coming, rapidly, one after another: those I disliked were soon replaced, but I never had time to finish the ones I liked.
Coste's own disclaimer suggests both the wide range and the lack of depth of his book:
Since I am neither a professional philosopher, linguist, or historian, nor a jack-of-all-trades, my sole ambitions will be to alert as many users of narratology as possible to the ideological, political, and ethical implications of the interpretive schema on which they rely, and perhaps provide a few new critical tools to improve the yields of some present crises: the crisis of literary theory, the crisis of history, the crisis of the concept of modernity.
Though this book is political, it is not quite as political as Coste makes it sound. He understands narrative as a way of knowing and communicating, a kind of language—rather than, say, a genre, or a strategy employed by all languages. As such it is best analyzed, he believes, from a linguistic perspective. He employs a variety of disciplinary approaches and terminologies, including political and economic as well as linguistic and more traditionally literary. But political questions such as who benefits from narrative, and what makes a narrative qualify as literary in a particular society, are secondary in this book to more analytical questions such as how narrative constructs meaning, and what the relation is between narrative and physical events. [End Page 667]
From among Coste's more interesting arguments I will mention two: that narrative is inherently didactic, and that the most useful axes along which to graph the varieties of fiction are those of similarity to "reality" and attention drawn by the text to the degree of similarity. The former claim is not original with Coste, but his discussion of it is provocative. The latter is one of the places where Coste's model seems to me both original and open to testing. The nine sub-genres mapped out by Coste's schema provide an interesting starting point for debate about such topics as fictionality, referentiality, realism, and the fantastic.
Although Coste's book...