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Reviewed by:
  • Fiction of the Modern Grotesque
  • Marilyn Gaddis Rose
Bernard McElroy. Fiction of the Modern Grotesque. New York: St. Martin's, 1989. 207 pp. $29.95.

McElroy's thematic readings of Dostoevsky, Kafka, Joyce, Grass, Nabokov, Beckett, Nathanael West, Flannery O'Connor, Pynchon, and Garcia Marquez are adroitly argued and accessibly written. His exegetical technique, while cognizant of poststructuralism and deconstruction, resolutely forswears their rhetorics. McElroy does not write the grotesque; he translates it. Although he goes back to Ruskin's The Stones of Venice and consults Freud, Bakhtin, and Kayser, his definition—"continuum"—is his own: the grotesque synthesizes magic, animalism, and play in a representation of the world as monstrous. He has arranged his reading in the order given above, so there is a continuum also from oblique social relevance to nearly direct social history and satire. Of course, he integrates the expected references to art and architecture, history and morality into his readings of these authors, all canonical and hence already deemed worth reader time.

This may sound as if McElroy is being covertly criticized for writing a safe book. On the contrary, he has taken risks and deserves to be overtly commended.

His first risk is his choice of material: Kafka and Grass derive from the German-language Expressionist tradition; consensus cannot take exception to finding them in a book on the grotesque. None of the others would automatically be placed in this category. The burden of proof is on him, and he comes through. The grotesque for McElroy includes the uncanny, perverse glee (Schadenfreude), play, and finally the projection and substitution of an antilogical world. His second risk was his rejection of reigning critical modes: for example, he dismisses poststructuralism: "Given the tendency for all models of the grotesque to wind up as restatements of their own premises, post-structuralism seems to me particularly ill-suited to account for the vividness and impact with which we experience the grotesques of artists like Bosch or writers like Kafka and Grass."

Despite his courteous acknowledgement of other critics, he takes a rather global final risk in countering consensus with each reading. Further—and this directness in itself is almost counter-consensus—he presents his own interpretations without hedging and at some point in each interpretation summarizes his readings in a few well-chosen words. [End Page 687]

His longest and possibly most convincing essay is on Kafka "The Paranoid Vision." McElroy asserts that Kafka makes central a sense of experience "peripheral in the vision of most of us most of the time." He builds the case on Swanson, Bohnert, and Smith's delineation of the paranoid personality (projective thinking, hostility, suspiciousness, centrality, delusions, fear of loss of autonomy, and grandiosity) and shows how a clinical spectrum is found in Kafka's fiction. He points out the accusation/reproach mechanisms at play in Kafka. Of course, Kafka's world could be all this, but not be grotesque, but Kafka uses "humanized animals and animalized humans" and "dual time" to unmask the reality of the unreal ("The laws of possibility are suspended whenever the author pleases") and impose it as the truly real. The result is what we now label Kafkaesque, and by McElroy's demonstration quintessentially, almost classically grotesque.

The grotesque would almost seem to be culturally and individually self-generating. Why does the grotesque flourish? And why does it flourish when it does? Why do we find so much of it in so many of our major modern writers? McElroy hazards: "As for twentieth-century man, a sense of powerlessness in the world without, a fear of collapse of the psyche within, the premonition that the present culture, the only home afforded him, has already embarked irreversibly on the path to some hideous or merely ludicrous demise—these are the spawning grounds of his monsters." A final grotesque observation: even featuring Flannery O'Connor, McElroy fails to note that women are worried, too.

Marilyn Gaddis Rose
SUNY Binghamton


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