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Reviewed by:
  • Framing Truths: Parodic Structures in Contemporary English-Canadian Historical Novels
  • Caren Irr
Martin Kuester. Framing Truths: Parodic Structures in Contemporary English-Canadian Historical Novels. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1992. 192 pp. $50.00 cloth, $18.95 paper.

Whether you consider this study a big or a little frog depends, of course, on the size of the pond in which you place it. In the smallish body of Canadian studies, it makes a sizable splash, since it places a popular and contested literary form, the historical novel, in an appropriate and clearly outlined theoretical context. To the considerably larger outpouring of work on postmodernism, however, Kuester makes a more modest contribution.

Framing Truths proposes that historical writing is a form of parody and that, in parody, a parent text "is in a way 'taken hostage' by the parodist." Further, Kuester asserts that writers in so-called marginal cultures such as Canada, Austria or Mexico adopt a parodic relation to the literature of "dominating countries"; that is, they adapt a mother culture to their local purposes. Contemporary English-Canadian writers of historical novels, then, are doubly inclined towards parodic rewritings of English and U.S. texts.

The parodic novels Kuester examines fall into five categories. Early works, such as John Richardson's seminal Wacousta, are "inadvertent" parodies of classic historical novels by Walter Scott and James Fenimore Cooper. Mid-twentieth-century works, such as Frederick Philip Grove's exploration narrative, Consider Her Ways, and Ernest Buckler's kunstlerroman, The Mountain and the Valley, are "crude" parodies of Gulliver's Travels and Remembrance of Things Past, respectively. The three contemporary parodies on which the study focuses are Timothy Findley's "modernist," ultimately humanist, rewritings of war novels, George Bowering's "postmodern" metafictions and Margaret Atwood's "feminist" revisions of the gothic romance and science fiction. For each writer, Kuester names parodic referents—Ezra Pound for Findley, Gertrude Stein for Bowering, and dystopic visionaries from Zamyatin to William Styron for Atwood; in these analyses, he is primarily interested in interpreting the structural relationship between the primary texts and the parodic frame. Throughout, Kuester seeks "progressive" forms of parody, forms that advance marginal literary and political projects beyond repetition of their Anglo-American predecessors.

In these readings, Kuester wisely ignores the pettier forms of nationalism that have long plagued Canadian (and U.S.) literary studies—preferring international frames of reference—and his cross-cultural pairings are both well-chosen and pedagogically promising. Like many students of postmodern culture, however, Kuester opposes his favorites to the fallacies of earlier literary projects—especially realist ones: "We should, in other words, not expect a novel to sound 'real' any longer," he writes, "and we cannot expect a historical novel to re-create the past as it was but should rather admit from the start that we can only create it as we imagine it." Here an unnecessarily teleological narrative of postmodernism's triumph over past [End Page 392] naiveté develops. The uneasy relationship between postmodernism and post-colonialism also needs clarification—as, indeed, does the question of whether Canada is postcolonial in the same sense that Argentina and Kenya are. These theoretical questions arise in what is, nonetheless, a succinct, lucid and imaginative reading of contemporary Canadian fiction.

Caren Irr
Duke University


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pp. 392-393
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