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When the late William Stafford first asked me to review books for Modern Fiction Studies, he explained the policy at the time: that the reviews, always covering two or more books, were to be essays organized around a central theme. "If you can't find a rationale," he added, "make one up." This bit of meta-commentary about MFS reviews comes to mind because the four books at hand are most united by the question of what constitutes a rationale for commentary. To some degree, all four books question the role of writing, the status of books, the power of language. They do so in several ways: by trying to delimit, privilege, or thematize specific aspects of postmodernism; by trying to shape the canons of specific postmodern writers, or by trying to canonize the shaping of these writers; by trying to privilege the politics of the writers' canons or deprivilege the politics of canonicity. As a group, these books contain many interesting insights and telling details. What each lacks, however, is exactly what its tries to provide for the authors it discusses: a sustained, coherent approach. If a single-authored book should have a central argument, advanced by each chapter, an argument that aims to persuade the reader and that justifies its size and scope, then each of these books falls somewhat short, while displaying other notable merits.
Donald Barthleme: An Exhibition is perhaps the most comprehensive discussion of Barthleme to date, and its author, Jerome Klinkowitz, knows as much about Barthleme—and perhaps about contemporary fiction—as anyone in America. Despite (or perhaps because of) this knowledge, the book lacks a central thesis, it's only unifying idea being that The Dead Father ("an artistically complete yet radically postmodern novel") is Barthleme's [End Page 384] masterpiece, against which his other work can be gauged. So dominant is this idea that in the 124 pages of text not directly devoted to discussing The Dead Father, it is mentioned over 40 times—or an average of once every three pages—often to tell us that the story being discussed in one way or another is like or unlike it. The discussion of The Dead Father reverses the process. In Snow White, for example, what was fragmented in the The Dead Father is "focused on a clear simple action concerning a central character so dominant that his very presence is a signal of what needs to be done. As a tale, The Dead Father is virtually prototypical in form." Klinkowitz likes the fact that in The Dead Father Barthleme "uses commentary not as a reflection of the novel's action but as a device to make that action all the more integral. His central character only has to be in order for the narrative to get under way and take shape."
Thus Klinkowitz moves through the Barthelme canon, more or less chronologically, providing insights of a comparable order. A common feature of the stories in Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, he tells us, "is their performative exuberance"; they also have "a decided note of impending exhaustion." City Life, Sadness, and Guilty Pleasures are collections in which the "narratives are sustained, not by technique or theme alone . . . but with an integral combination of the two." The mannerist detail in the novel Paradise "remains postmodern thanks to Barthleme's ability to weave these elements as a texture of signs rather than just references." Nevertheless, that novel is "a narrative fated to deconstruct itself." Barthleme's short fiction in the fourteen years following The Dead Father "sounds a different note in [its] tonality . . . with the humor not at the expense of an older tradition but drawn from the properties...