restricted access Reading Narrative Discourse: Studies in the Novel from Cervantes to Beckett (review)
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Reviewed by
Andrew Gibson. Reading Narrative Discourse: Studies in the Novel from Cervantes to Beckett. New York: St. Martin's, 1990. 177 pp. $39.95.

This narratological study examines the inconsistencies and disjunctions in several canonical or near-canonical novels. Sometimes lively, always lucid, Gibson's book offers occasional flashes of insight into Beckett's violation of narrative economies, the narrative ineptitude of Joyce's "Eumaeus," and the collision of social idioms in Henry Green's novels. The book is strongest when it connects narratological and social dimensions; unfortunately, this occurs too rarely. Instead, Gibson usually isolates his texts from history, thus narrowing his focus precisely where it should be widened.

Most of the criticism Gibson cites is dated: on Joyce, for example, he acknowledges nothing written after 1982. The introduction, although more up-to-date and theoretically sophisticated than the individual readings, promises a Bakhtinian analysis that never appears. That is unfortunate because some of Gibson's discussions could be enhanced considerably by invoking Bakhtin's definitions of genre and dialogism. For example, his treatment of Kafka's monopolized narrative perspective would benefit from a Bakhtinian discussion of monologic discourse and its resistance to novelization and heteroglossia. Even more damaging, because Gibson begins with Don Quixote, is his failure to recognize Walter Reed's important study of the quixotic. Reed's argument that the novel is inherently a hybrid and unconventional genre would have both broadened Gibson's analyses of narrative discontinuities and enabled him to mount more historically sophisticated discussions of the generic presuppositions of his chosen texts.

Gibson's tolerance of inconsistency and fragmentation is admirable. Sometimes, however, his own text succumbs to a less praiseworthy inconsistency. For example, at one point he asserts that the style of "Eumaeus" is "not simply fatigued" but by the end of that chapter insists that the episode does exemplify a collapse or exhaustion of technique. Generally, however, the book has the opposite weakness: it is too consistent, simply applying the template of "inconsistency" repetitively to diverse texts and thereby flattening their differences. Thus although Gibson criticizes David Lodge for retaining a "hunger for order," he inadvertently betrays the same bias: as the appendix reveals, he is really performing quasi-Empsonian analyses of ambiguity. Hence, despite his willingness to accept the disruption of conventional narrative technique, Gibson eventually recuperates those disruptions into a liberal humanist argument about the value of fiction to revise reader expectations and moral judgments. A more rigorously poststructuralist recognition of true indeterminacy is needed to approach the genuine enigmas of texts like The Unnamable. [End Page 351]

Had Gibson fulfilled the promises of his introduction, he would have written a better book, one that might have deployed narratology to explore relationships between canonical fiction and noncanonical texts to examine how novels reflect or challenge the conventions of discourse in particular periods. By removing his texts from their historical contexts, he reduces the usefulness of his claims for their subversiveness. Although one is grateful for Gibson's range of interest, for his recognition of the strangeness of Kafka, and especially for his perceptive treatment of Henry Green, this book lacks the theoretical sophistication and historical sensitivity to provide a truly challenging discussion of narrative disorder.

Mark Osteen
Loyola College in Maryland