The one virtue of Michael Boccia's Form as Content and Rhetoric in the Modern Novel is accessibility. It is so accessible that the clumsy title alone conveys everything the book has to offer. Never mind that Boccia devotes a chapter each to Kiss of the Spider Woman, Mumbo Jumbo, JR, V., Nightwood, The Magus, Pale Fire, and The Alexandria Quartet (without ever hinting at his principle of selection). Even if we happen not to understand already that a novel's form, content, and rhetoric are interrelated, we will become none the wiser for Boccia's simply urging the [End Page 690] proposition on our attention. Not merely thin, his discussions are shamelessly derivative, altogether lacking in originality of thought and freshness of articulation. He does not invite us to see the familiar in a new way but makes us experience both the already familiar and the well-forgotten as trite, insipid, tedious.
The book exhibits the writing, research, and critical skills of an earnest but mediocre undergraduate's term paper. In plundering secondary sources, Boccia has frequently confused book reviews with criticism, and most of the sources he cites are from the 1960s and 1970s. His twenty-one-page bibliography appears to contain nothing more recent than 1978. (This lack may be a mere oversight; after all, Boccia also forgot to include sections on Gaddis and Puig in his bibliography. His endnotes too are a disgrace in form, content, and rhetoric.) It is not as if Boccia were writing the history of his subjects' reception; he is just not part of the current discussion of the modern novel.
In spite of his title and ostensible thesis, Boccia seldom focuses clearly or precisely on novelistic form. His discussions dwell instead on the trials of a naïve reader's first reading. He repeatedly offers reassurance and encouragement to the "confused" reader, a tack which is anything but reassuring and encouraging. It is embarrassing. Of course, some things that go without saying eventually do need to be said. But we hardly need Boccia to remind us so urgently and often (and with such an innocent air of having discovered something) that novels have to be reread. We would welcome reader-centered, process-oriented explorations of admittedly demanding novels; we do not require text-centered demonstrations of achieved mastery. Yet Boccia offers neither kind of reading. His intellectual and pedagogical purposes are hard to fathom. One who sets himself up as a literary critic might be expected to treat considered judgment rather than hasty response as the norm. And one who sets himself up as an authority on rhetoric might be expected to understand the difference between arguing and cajoling. Bad criticism can be good at least for dipping into, because a weak argument or silly observation can crystalize a counter-argument. Boccia's bland, recycled chat, however, is provoking without being provocative.
Boccia gives special thanks in his Preface to Linda Pratt, "who inspired me beyond words by saying I was incapable of publishing anything." Boccia apparently thinks he has had the last laugh, but I for one have acquired great respect for Pratt's judgment.