restricted access Flights from Realism: Themes and Strategies in Postmodernist British and American Fiction, and: Contingent Meanings: Postmodern Fiction, Mimesis, and the Reader (review)
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Marguerite Alexander. Flights from Realism: Themes and Strategies in Postmodernist British and American Fiction. London and New York: Arnold, 1990. 216 pp. pb. $14.95.
Jerry A. Varsava. Contingent Meanings: Postmodern Fiction, Mimesis, and the Reader. Tallahassee: Florida State UP, 1990. 233 pp. $24.95.

Radically different in scope and method, both of these books attempt to rehabilitate nonrealist fiction. Whereas Alexander surveys a wide spectrum of texts, Varsava selects but a few; and if Alexander's book lacks a strong thesis, Varsava's is forcefully argued. Both, however, are limited by their centrist approaches.

Most surveys sacrifice depth to breadth, and so does Alexander's; but she succeeds in ranging widely, treating experimental and conventional texts with equal clarity. She is strongest on moderately innovative texts such as William Golding's Pincher Martin and Pavel Auster's New York Trilogy, where her common sense style best fits her subject. Other highlights include a persuasive defense of Samuel Beckett's Trilogy and an honest analysis of the flaws in The White Hotel. But despite her title she only sketchily defines the realism from which her texts supposedly fly, and even this definition would be more helpful had it been integrated into her individual readings.

Each chapter is loosely organized around a theme such as desire or history. But because Alexander seldom compares the texts within chapters, the organization often seems desultory. Her choice of texts is also occasionally mystifying: why, for example, is David Lodge's Small World placed in a chapter on society, when the world it portrays is by definition insular? Sometimes her quest for comprehensiveness further adulterates the already loose structure, as in her final chapter, which begins with a fine discussion of three postmodern revisions of The Tempest, but then detours to discuss other "game-playing" texts, dissipating the chapter's cohesiveness.

The organization reduces the book's usefulness in another way. Its broad range and straightforward style would seem to make it suitable for an undergraduate survey course. But although the opening chapter on modernism uses a chronological model to distinguish it from postmodernism, the rest of the book eschews chronology in favor of theme, thus diminishing its value for course adoption. Yet it offers little new to specialists in a single author or genre. One wonders, then, what audience it is intended to reach. If designed as a textbook, it should clarify chronology; otherwise it needs either to strengthen the thematic organization or arrange the chapters around technical innovations or resemblances. Just as each chapter needs a stronger focus, so the book as a whole would benefit from a synthesizing conclusion.

If Alexander's book suffers from the absence of a clear thesis, Varsava's is rhetorically strong; if anything it is too polemical. Aiming to recover the mimetic and social function of experimental postmodern fiction, Varsava, unlike Alexander, has a definite axe to grind.

Varsava's first three chapters stake out his ground, which is a centrist position somewhere between the anti-postmodernism of Gerald Graff and Charles Newman, and formalist apologists like William Gass and Jerome Klinkowitz. His argument that both extremes fail to engage the social and thematic significance of formal innovations is persuasive and illuminating. The second chapter strives [End Page 822] to map a reader-centered approach to mimesis by distinguishing between "private" and "significant" (shared) mimetic functions. But although his terms and arguments are cogent, his view of the reader falls victim to the same tendency he criticizes elsewhere: it is insufficiently social. In analyzing reader expectations, shouldn't one also consider the reading habits learned from journalism, film, and television, media that affect virtually all novel readers today? A discussion of how other social forces (gender, class, age) influence reader competence and expectation would also improve his analysis. In calling "incompetent" those texts that do not permit the reader to achieve significant mimesis, moreover, his approach is not reader-centered: in many such instances it is really the reader who is incompetent—the texts are, if anything, too competent. Despite such contradictions, he makes a strong case for the value of experimental texts to improve readers' flexibility. The weak third chapter, however, merely...