- Structuring the Void: The Struggle for Subject in Contemporary American Fiction
The scope of this book is impressive. Klinkowitz offers a critical theory and analysis for selected examples from three decades of contemporary American fiction. While the critical theory is rather predictable, the choice of writers is often surprising, and the informed discussion of such authors as Stephen Dixon and Gerald Rosen makes Structuring the Void an important contribution to the study of recent American fiction.
Few critics have done more to define and promote the forms and trends of innovative fiction than Jerome Klinkowitz. In more than twenty books of fiction and criticism, he has explored the possibilities of contemporary American writing. His annual chapter for American Literary Scholarship is a respected survey of the latest critical opinion. This new book, however, gives Klinkowitz a better chance to select particular authors and to design the terms for their critical acceptance.
The authors given special attention range from Kurt Vonnegut to Grace Paley, but in Klinkowitz's view they all represent ways of writing fiction that deal with a void at the heart of postmodern life and theory. Vonnegut, for example, is praised for giving autobiographical form to early encounters with the chaos faced by postmodern writers. Max Apple is given credit for structuring the void with ritual designs from popular American culture and [End Page 160] history. Another chapter includes a defense of Gerald Rosen and Rob Swigart for their comic style designed for a postmodern audience. And further chapters on gender and Vietnam give Klinkowitz a chance to discuss other writers such as Susan Quist and Josiah Bunting who generate their own narrative possibilities despite the problematic absence of a stable or conventional subject.
The main problem with Structuring the Void is the rather limited and repetitive critical vocabulary applied to the various authors. Klinkowitz includes so many variations of "structuring the void" that it takes on a life of its own. The phrase begins to sound like a prayer or a mantra repeated to appease the gods of postmodernism.
Klinkowitz relies upon the paradox of "void" and "structure" throughout his critical study because he wants to compare the situation of postmodern writers to the predicament of abstract artists earlier in our century who realized that the content of their art could no longer be representational. A similar comparison is made with the continued work produced by theologians after the death of God. Despite the number of critical problems inherent in such implied similarities, Klinkowitz likes to repeat a limited version of deconstructive theory: "all that really existed was a system of differences employed in structuring the void." From this point of view "fiction is no longer seen best in terms of subject or even content, but rather as a structuring act that becomes its own reality." Thus writing becomes an act of primal creation—"In the beginning was the Word"—required for a postmodern audience. While this critical method lends some coherence to a discussion of many different writers, the most significant perceptions come when Klinkowitz moves beyond the terms of his theory to meet the individual authors on their own territory.