Too diverse not only in style and theme but also in its basic conventions, including those that identify its ontological status as text, contemporary fiction is problematic for critics. The competition within academia, moreover, where candidates to teach literature grossly outnumber openings, exacerbates this problem even further, as it necessarily emphasizes publication, a process that can proliferate most easily in an atmosphere fecund with warring texts and methods. Not surprisingly, few critics can agree on the contemporary canon or even on the idea of a canon, for to do so requires making assumptions about critical vocabulary and criteria, assumptions that themselves are points of contention, as are ideas about the function of criticism. Perhaps the only goal of criticism, as Stanley Fish suggests, is indeed to write books that convince others to share its method and vocabulary. Whether those who succeeded in doing so perform a useful intellectual service, they at least play the game well, a game the rules of which are rarely more evident than in the work of those who play just well enough to be published and no better than that.
Such a player, unfortunately, is Carl Darryl Malmgren, whose Fictional Space in the Modernist and Postmodernist American Novel with some earnestness attempts to introduce the concept of "space" to clarify the roles of speaker, fictional world, and reader as they operate in modernist and then postmodernist fiction. His theory of fictional space posits an
imaginal expanse created by fictional discourse, a fictional field which, though ultimately self-referential and self-validating, necessarily exists in ascertainable relation with the "real world" outside the text. The dimensions of this space are not unlimited, but are predicated upon shared cultural assumptions as to what the author might do; in a sense authors share their space with their readers. This is to say that fiction and its space are inextricably bound up in the sociocultural and literary matrix.
How does Malmgren's idea of "fictional space" add anything to the commonplaces already available in current theories of narrative? For example, how would the last sentence of the above quote suffer from removing the phrase: "and its space?" The obligations of Malmgren's book, in other words, must be to show what his theory adds and how the additions are useful.
Malmgren certainly tries hard to meet these obligations. With great industry he develops a chart of fiction by "describing the signifying systems that constitute a fictional space." In the remaining chapters he describes the shift from modernism through paramodernism to postmodernism by employing the terminology on his chart. His terminology and chart, unfortunately, do not provide an "approach" so much as a large body of labels, taxing to memorize, and complicated unnecessarily by the word "space" (for example: "compositional space," instead of "composition"; "narrational space," instead of "narration"). Reading page upon page [End Page 759] of stipulative definitions is like reading a glossary of literary terms or preparing to order a novel from a parts catalogue.
If this makes the book annoying to read, does anything make it worth the annoyance? Malmgren does provide a number of sound, sometimes interesting readings of individual authors or works. His discussions of James, Faulkner, Stein, Gaddis, Nin, Dos Passos, and Hawkes all concentrate on the degree to which the authors require their readers to mediate without authorial interpretation. His discussions often seem best when they don't employ the tortuous terminology he has forced his readers through, although sometimes they belabor the obvious, and his discussion of Gaddis is particularly pedestrian. Malmgren wants to demonstrate the ways in which fictional space has been "evacuated" by modernist and paramodernist authors...