Postmodern Characters: A Study of Characterization in British and American Postmodern Fiction, and: Narcissus from Rubble: Competing Models of Character in Contemporary British and American Fiction (review)
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Reviewed by
Aleide Fokkema. Postmodern Characters: A Study of Characterization in British and American Postmodern Fiction. Postmodern Studies 4. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1991. 205 pp. $32.50.
Julius Rowan Raper. Narcissus from Rubble: Competing Models of Character in Contemporary British and American Fiction. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1992. 165 pp. $27.50.

If there no longer is a stable, centered human subject, then any study of modern or postmodern character will be either nostalgic or confront difficulties that earlier scholars could not have imagined. Fokkema employs a semiotic method and Raper a phenomenological and psychoanalytic one to study these shifting identities called character. Whereas Fokkema writes only on work in the postmodern cannon, Raper moves from modernist works to the latter. Neither of these studies are particularly postmodern or post-structuralist in themselves. One, Fokkema's, tells us much more about character in fiction than the other.

A scientific approach to literature is distinctly not poststructuralist. Aleid Fokkema addresses this issue at the start by admitting that the notion of character seems "outdated" and "problematic." Yet, the author continues, "the aim of this study is to establish the conventions of characterization in a range of different postmodern novels." In this endeavour the author succeeds, although at times the book reads like an unrevised dissertation.

After needlessly long background chapters on previous notions of character, ranging from E. M. Forster's to Wellek and Warren's, and on structuralist theories, ranging from Greimas's to Philippe Hamon's, Fokkema outlines in two chapters the semiotic approach to be followed in the present study. Before beginning the application of the method to the specific texts, there is one more background chapter (which oddly comes between the two chapters that establish method), one in which Fokkema discusses "the critical reception of postmodernism." These introductory chapters could have been condensed, and perhaps discussion going back as far as Forster could have been omitted without harm to the insightful analyses of specific postmodern texts that come next.

Fokkema uses the same systematic method for each novel. First the author applies six codes "used for signifying character": a logical code, the biological code, the psychological code, a social code, a code of description, and the code of metaphor. Then signifiers, signifieds, and the sign and its interpretant are studied in works by Pynchon, Donald Barthelme, Adler, Sorrentino, Coover, Thomas, Gray, Ackroyd, Rushdie, and Carter in order to answer questions such as whether or not characters' "acts are psychologically motivated according to the law of cause and effect. Is the convention of coherence still maintained? Or are postmodern characters indeed incoherent and fractured? Do they arrive at self-knowledge, as in realism, or does the narrator probe the nature of identity. . . ." Fokkema [End Page 390] succeeds in answering these difficult and important questions, and in doing so, in moving from Pynchon's V. (1963) to Rushdie's The Satanic Verses (1988), Fokkema also outlines an interesting, though debatable, chronology of postmodernism and establishes some interesting differences between American and British postmodern fiction.

Fokkema concludes without "a unified concept of 'the' postmodern character." There is a hint of celebration in the statement that "the variety in postmodern characterization is amazing."

Whereas Fokkema used "a semiotic analytical model of character . . . to avoid prescriptive and representational concepts of character in fiction" and did not arrive at an overarching, unified frame, Julius Rowan Raper begins with just such a unified monolithic interpretative frame and speaks of characters in fiction as if they are living beings in the physical world. Husserl and Freud are something more than an explanatory model for Raper; they are instead the direct causation for actions of characters in books. This seems to me to be just the sort of relationship that a postmodern novelist such as Gilbert Sorrentino would satirize in one of his fictions.

Raper argues that a central concern, if not the central concern, of modern and contemporary novelists has been the opposition between phenomenology and psychoanalysis. This is an unusual approach that requires more than the book's one-hundred and sixty-five pages to be convincingly argued. For example, Raper does not establish that the novelists he discusses—Bellow, Pynchon, Fowles...