In his preface to this wide-ranging, brilliant exploration of American fiction, Weinstein informs us that his central point is language as freedom. When we try to create a "self," we are, in effect, duplicating the efforts of Hawthorne, Melville, Fitzgerald, Hawkes and DeLillo—to mention only some of the authors Weinstein treats. We construct our selves in a never-ending process (often fighting those huge political forces which try to determine or limit our efforts) recognizing that we can never achieve totality, wholeness, presence. Weinstein writes: "American fiction is insistently drawn to the theme of Nobody, and the plight of Nobody—to become 'real' or 'recognized' or 'equal'—is passionate stuff, encompassing both existential and social crises of great moment." Weinstein deals with significant philosophical and linguistic questions; he is equally at home with Derrida or Jameson, and he writes of them in an accessible, lively manner.
Weinstein opens his study with a detailed analysis of an often slighted story by Hawthorne, "Wakefield." (He continually surprises us by his choice of texts; he is not afraid to read Uncle Tom's Cabin and The Garden of Eden and Beloved.) The analysis is representative. What are we to make of this outcast? Is his running away from his wife an act of denial of marriage? Or is it an act of love? Is Wakefield savoring absence or presence? Such questions—especially the last one—lie at the heart of the story and, in effect, at the heart of all the other works he studies.
Although we try to read Wakefield's identity—and his journey—we find that we encounter blankness. And it is that blankness—perhaps the blankness of a white page—which impels us to mark it. We are aware that no matter what words we use, we will not capture the Other. "Wakefield" thus becomes a kind of parable. It suggests that interpretation is always indeterminate, partial, open. By using "Wakefield" as his "original" text, Weinstein not only establishes his critical strategies but the design of his entire book. We begin to see such standard works as As I Lay Dying and The Great Gatsby —not to mention Second Skin, The Public Burning and White Noise —in a new way. [End Page 385]
Weinstein is shrewdly aware that "voice" becomes "voices" quickly enough, as the speaking elements shift and recompose a medley of sounds in As I Lay Dying. It is the (re)composition of words which help us to grasp, if only imperfectly, our origins and ends and novelistic origins and ends. Weinstein, in effect, likens the "self" to the "book"; he sees both as containers of signs and scenes. But he is not rigid. He recognizes that the process of life—of art—is full of hoaxes, gaps, impersonations.
Thus Weinstein is not as "hopeful" as he seems to be. He expects the unexpected, the shifting signifiers. But this very expectation is somehow a clue to our (self) creations: he writes in his conclusion that "Another thing we might learn from this parade of self-making figures is the sheer vitality and variety of these ventures, the manifold ways by which self is fashioned, the surprising role that language and its realm of virtuality may play in our drama of self-enactment." Weinstein is neither a nihilist nor an optimist. He recognizes that we live in a dangerous world of virtuality in which we must be alert to the dangers of linguistic and psychological closure.