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Peter Messent. New Readings of the American Novel: Narrative Theory and its Application. New York: St. Martin's, 1990. 328 pp. $39.95.

This admirable study patiently explicates a veritable tour de force of the different complex strategies employed at present to dissect the "mechanics" of narrative. Peter Messent selects canonized American texts that he intends to liberate from previously fixed interpretations through his emphasis on narratology rather than textual meaning.

In Chapter One, Messent employs the technical vocabulary of Gérard Genette in Narrative Discourse (1972), Boris Uspensky in A Poetics of Composition (1970), and Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan in Narrative Fiction (1983) to demonstrate that Gatsby's story in The Great Gatsby is a creation of narrator Nick Carraway's subjective Keatsian and ahistorical value system. Messent suggests that Gatsby's story can be freed from Nick's falsifications. Knowledge of American life in the 1920s encourages reading Gatsby as an instance of self-commodification. Messent expands narratology beyond the text to include social history and the role of the reader.

Chapter Two uses Genette, Paul Ricoeur (Time and Narrative [1985]), and Rimmon-Kenan to explain time in William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. The Sound and the Fury does not proceed by "metonym"—linear time—but by "metaphor," a repetitiveness that disrupts linear logic. The Sound and the Fury expresses anxiety about time, a "futile re-enactment" in Freudian and Lacanian terms, of the psychology of loss: loss is merely repeated; it is not transcended by difference, by the public world of chronological time.

Messent focuses in Chapter Three on narratological disquisitions into character. He straddles the controversy implicit between Rimmon-Kenan's presentation of character as relatively stable and Joel Weinsheimer's view of character as unstable. Character instability wins out in Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises. Characters in The Sun Also Rises "blur together" in their similar self-division between a hard-boiled code of stoic behavior and their contrasting sentimentality and emotional weakness. This character incoherence signals "the impact of change, modernization, war."

Reader-response theory is picked up in Chapter Four's reading of Willa Cather's A Lost Lady. Messner straddles Wolfgang Iser's narratological position that the text is a stable entity to which the reader contributes her/his own dynamic process leading to a transcendent gestalt, and Stephen Mailloux's position (Interpretative Conventions, 1982) that interpretation is based on the communal framing of unstable texts by readers in a particular time period and subculture. A traditionalist patriarchal reading interprets A Lost Lady as a Western novel with Marian's husband Captain Forrester as the Old West hero of the novel. Messner's communal feminist stance (from the subculture of present-day academics) refocuses: Marian, by defining herself as patriarchally dependent, is fatally "lost."

Chapter Five offers a Barthesian reading (S/Z, 1974) of Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady and Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth. Messner does not evoke Barthes' disorienting play that deconstructs Balzac's readerly text; rather, he produces [End Page 761] a contextual reading faithful to the authorial intentions of both texts. Messner in the process illustrates that James's text is less socially realistic than Wharton's because Wharton divests her nineteenth-century heroine of financial independence. Ironically, Messner's aims are at cross purposes here: he praises the texts comparatively on the basis of their social realism although trying to use Barthes to imply that there is no such thing as a readerly (socially realistic) text.

Chapters Six and Seven focus on Messner's narratological hero, Mikhail Bakhtin. Bakhtin's theory of competing dialogical voices in the fictional text "ventriloquated" by the author demonstrates the clash between the white patriarchal culture in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and the "double-voiced" language of Jim and Huck, who contribute, through their resistance and subordination to authority, to the democratizing "heteroglossia" of the text. Messner finds Bakhtin's idyllic folk voice corrupted by authority in HF. HF is "polyphonic" rather than "heteroglossic": the novel embraces rather than resolves a plurality of voices. But this conclusion rests uncomfortably with Messner's condemnation of authority in...


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