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Reviewed by:
  • Circus of the Mind in Motion: Postmodernism and the Comic Vision
  • Robert D. Newman
Lance Olsen. Circus of the Mind in Motion: Postmodernism and the Comic Vision. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1990. 172 pp. $34.95.

Lance Olsen continues the investigation of postmodernism he began in Ellipse of Uncertainty: An Introduction to Postmodern Fantasy. This time his focus is postmodernism's comic vision, which he properly sets in the tradition of Menippean satire and the Bakhtinian carnivalesque, in polyphonic structures that Northrop Frye has labeled "encyclopaedic farragoes." Olsen articulates the interrelation of stylistic heteroglossia and parodic humor typically foregrounded in postmodern fiction as a means of undermining the authoritative structures a reader brings to a text. To do this, he traces degrees and variations of this occurrence in an interesting range of writers.

In Guy Davenport's collection of short stories, Da Vinci's Bicycle, Olsen finds a late modernist who possesses both modernism's attempt at "a renaissance of the archaic" and postmodernism's commentary on the failure of that attempt. The choice of the frequently neglected Davenport is an apt one for Olsen to draw his distinctions and mark the sites of transgression. However, his contention that modernism tends to marginalize the humorous itself marginalizes the foremost of modernists, Joyce.

Olsen continues to locate the transition from and attack on modernist assumptions in Nabokov's Lolita and Burgess's A Clockwork Orange. In his analysis of these two "Janus-texts," Olsen sometimes forgets the roots of postmodernism he had worked to establish in his initial chapter, particularly when he isolates the fantastic as a postmodern metagenre.

Beckett's How It Is and Donald Barthelme's work present Olsen opportunities to focus and elaborate on the postmodern comic vision he seeks to explain. Along with Thomas Pynchon, who lurks in the background of much of Olsen's discussion, these writers self-consciously twist their readers' linguistic sensibilities and parodically deconstruct culturally inscribed means of ordering and knowing. Unfortunately, much of what Olsen offers has been presented elsewhere, often with more depth.

In the 1980s, Olsen sees the turn to political neoconservatism marginalizing the postmodern comic vision. A deft analysis of Walter Abish's How German Is It presents an unconscious movement from what Olsen terms "postmodern orthodoxy," an oxymoronic choice of words given his earlier insistence on the protean heterodoxy of postmodernism. D. M. Thomas's The White Hotel provides his other test case for the contemporary shift from postmodernism to pragmatism. In aligning neoconservatism and pragmatism, Olsen forgets that pragmatism, in America at least, was a consistently liberal ideology. He also asserts that The While Hotel begins as a humorous text, a questionable assessment at best of this novel of horror and holocaust.

Despite the above mentioned flaws, Circus of the Mind in Motion is stylistically engaging and offers a good general introduction to many of the premises which critics have linked together to mean postmodernism. Olsen's investigations of Davenport and Abish are particularly useful. However, his reminder that postmodernism is an attitude rather than a historical period is one that he might have heeded more consistently. [End Page 359]

Robert D. Newman
Texas A&M University


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