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Peter Brooks has executed a sustained venture in narrative theory and Freudian psychoanalysis, a book of stunning intuitive conviction and meticulous textual engagement, a study detailed, incremental, and exhaustive. That book was Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative in 1986. With Freud again as explanatory touchstone, and with all of Brooks's supple analytic powers still on display, Body Work: Objects of Desire in Modern Narrative is another kind of book. Almost the whole difference between the two projects lies latent in their subtitles. Aspiring to a theory of narrative's overall shape, the scrupulousness of the earlier study turned on the theoretical force of a structured intentionality in rather than of narrative, not lying behind it but impelling it from within, a virtual libidinal drive synchronized with the reading energies of the audience. Such synchronization remains the hallmark of Brooks's superbly lucid and flexible deployment of Freud, but the field of interaction, the erotic mesh, is now more strictly localized—sometimes rather elusively. We find the object of certain desires in narrative, his new subtitle suggests, not just in storytelling at large but, more to the point here, in the erotic bodies it so frequently displays and, rendering them semiotic, makes "readable." Further, Brooks is concerned with writing on the body not only as writing about it but also writing upon its surface: the inscription of desire reported as well as constituted by story. So far so good, since a diverse and slippery issue is worth no less attention than the kind of post-Aristotelian conception of plot as a quasi-erotic machination of desire that was Brooks's monolithic—but no larger—topic last time out.
The body has, of course, been much in the theoretical news of late: the body disciplined into sexuality and penalized (Foucault), the body tremulous and privatized (Frances Barker), the body pained and world-constitutive (Elaine Scarry), the body feminized by subjection to the male gaze (Laura Mulvey), the body troubled in its gender because constructed in its very sex (Judith Butler), the body sensationalized by fictional manipulation (D. A. Miller). Brooks avoids both the melodrama and the preciosity that may invade some of these approaches—and especially the phraseological fallout that often clings to studies derivative from them. Brooks neither writes the body nor thinks the body: he studies its representations, often brilliantly. Stressing the parallel (rather than revisionist) development of his own "body work" over the last decade, he might also have claimed for his book a synoptic vantage—or at least retrospective advantage. Certainly, reading his chapters at this late stage of the Foucauldian critical epoch has a way of returning us to the original excitement—and difficulties, to which' I'll [End Page 423] come—of braving the Cartesian dualism in order genuinely to mind the body in all its representational roles.
"Getting the body into writing is a primary concern of literature throughout the ages" (1), Brooks begins by insisting, with the presumed double sense of getting the body down, transcribing it, while also giving body to literary abstraction: fleshing it out. Veering between common sense and paradox, between the mandates of representation and the inevitable limits of referential language, Brooks's formulations sometimes beg the questions they are meant to raise, as when a triad of apposite (but how completely appositional?) preoccupations is funnelled into one of the book's many attempts at structural encompassment through chiastic formulation: "My main concern throughout is with the creation of fictions that address the body, that imbed it in narrative, and that therefore embody meanings: stories on the body, and the body in story" (xi). Leaving aside another sense of literature "addressed" to bodies that is never taken up here—that is, literature as felt both subvocally and viscerally in the somatic registration of the reading act, with all its Barthesian erotic registers—the reader of Brooks's sentence may still balk at the implied structure of equivalence, first between addressing (if only in the sense of commenting...