restricted access Models of Misrepresentation: On the Fiction of E. L. Doctorow (review)
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Reviewed by
Christopher D. Morris. Models of Misrepresentation: On the Fiction of E. L. Doctorow. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1991. 260 pp.

This study of Doctorow's novels is sensitive, intelligent, relentless, and, in fact, not short of brilliant as a sustained exercise in painstaking deconstruction. As Morris points out in his introduction, he has been especially concerned with investigating "the dilemma of representation"—particularly as his thinking on this subject has been stimulated by Nietzsche, Heidegger, de Man, Derrida, and J. Hillis Miller. It is beyond the scope of this review (as well as the competence of this reviewer) to elucidate in full what these intellectual models espouse save—to quote Morris—that in their various ways "they challenge the traditional Western philosophy . . . in which truth is defined in terms of representation." In his chapter-by-chapter analyses of each of Doctorow's novels and his assorted essays, Morris sets out to demonstrate that each novel is an unresolvable misrepresentation of what it seems to represent; and he implies strongly that Doctorow (or whatever passive or active agency to which the texts can be attributed) is complicit in the [End Page 476] (possibly intended) construction of verbal artifacts that resolutely resist meaning. Doubtless Morris could have executed the same kind of analysis on Barth, Pynchon, or Roth, but—at least, this, I think, is his implication—those others would be providing him with unwitting specimens of slipping, sliding, and slithering signifiers, whereas Doctorow, Morris believes, knows with some agony what he is and is not doing.

To this focused end Morris looks with steady tyrannous eye at the titles of Doctorow's books (which tend to be either other titles or cliches), at the endlessly vexing irritant of "intertextuality," at the frequent impossibility of ascribing a firm narrative authority to the focalization, at the failure of the individual texts to develop a succession of probable chronological events, at the teasing presentation of stories seemingly susceptible to hermeneutic appreciation in which each apparent revelation of meaning is swiftly negated by incomprehension, and by what he regards as the most stunning of the problems elicited by the texts—the fact that language on its deepest level is generated by precisely what it is denied the means to represent: Death.

I do not want to be guilty of misrepresenting Morris's work (although in terms of his criteria, there is literally no alternative). His prose style is admirably comfortable with the range and tone of the abstractions I have alluded to and, in his methodology, he uses terms like prolepsis and prosopopoeia with an air of pleasing familiarity. At the same time, his analyses are detailed, concretely illustrated, and thoroughly alert to the nuances, puns, allusions, hesitations, and gaps in the fictions. He is not only a careful reader but also is sensitively responsive to the rhythms of the novels, the doublings of the characters and events, and evidently aware of places in the texts where there is intended humor and deliberate ambiguity. I don't imagine that anyone can deal with Doctorow's work without gaining enormous insight from Morris's study—as well as perhaps an even more enormous challenge. Still I must confess to a sense of mild fatigue when I finished Morris's book. Voltaire, somewhere, is said to have written: "The secret of being a bore is to tell everything." Morris is not a boring critic, but the "everything" his Doctorow study propounds tends to become the same thing —a system of meanings that descends bottomlessly into vaster and vaster meaninglessness.

Earl Rovit
The City College of New York