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A number of books and articles, most recently Allen Thiher's Words in Reflection: Modern Language Theory and Postmodern Fiction (U of Chicago P, 1984), have linked postmodern American fiction to poststructuralist language theory. The linkage is a fruitful one, because the two movements are part of the same general historical phenomenon—the rebellion against, or, perhaps, (partial, fragmentary) dissolution of phallogocentrism in Western culture. That historical perspective is not, however, what Harris and Caramello offer, though both of them make gestures toward it (their history is exclusively internal to literature and philosophy). They do offer complex, interesting, subtle analyses of American postmodern texts and their interrelations with those chunks of Continental thought most widely assimilated in the American academy. [End Page 766]
Charles B. Harris' Passionate Virtuosity: The Fiction of John Barth is at least as much about theory as it is about Barth. Sometimes—in the best chapters—Harris fuses Barth and theory in stunning moments of mutual illumination. Elsewhere theory weighs down Barth's comic lightness. As Harris warns in his Preface, his collection of theorists is eclectic: "Heidegger and Nietzsche, Joseph Campbell and Mircea Eliade, Jung and Lacan and R. D. Laing." He also uses the ever-popular Jakobson, Saussure, and Wittgenstein. Unlike, I would guess, readers fond of consistency and coherence, I am not at all bothered, in principle, by the melting pot approach to critical theory. Why not get illumination wherever it offers itself. However, when used by as responsible a critic as Harris, this approach necessitates a number of digressions to summarize (clearly, eminently helpfully) the theorists he is using. Those summaries, particularly in the middle chapters, distract us from Barth, and the book begins to sound like a text on what Harris calls "certain intellectual currents in the Zeitgeist."
Harris' least trendy (in this precise moment of critical fashion) linkage, of Barth's early novels The Floating Opera and The End of the Road to R. D. Laing's Sixtiesish theories of schizophrenia, is extremely interesting and convincing. Harris uses Laing's meditations on modern, culturally induced schizophrenia to illuminate Todd Andrews' and Jake Horner's primary defense, the use of "reason as a shield against emotional involvement" and their related dilemma, being "torn between the desire to feel and the fear of feeling." Not surprisingly, Barth as author exhibits the same characteristics in the construction of the two novels, which, as Harris demonstrates with a wealth of evidence, tell their stories by means of strategies of deflection and oblique revelation. Harris (perhaps understandably) leaves alone, however, the large question raised by the syllogism implicit in these chapters: Todd and Jake are, in Laingian terms, schizophrenic. Barth exhibits precisely the same characteristics of Laingian schizophrenia as author that Todd and Jake exhibit as characters; therefore . . .? Again, Harris' reticence on this point is understandable, but I think he could have found a way to say something direct and concrete about the question without raising Mr. Barth's hackles.
It is in the chapters on The Sot-Weed Factor and Giles Goat-Boy, when Harris takes on the Big Men (Jakobson, Saussure for Sot-Weed; Nietzsche and Hegel for Giles Goat-Boy) that Barth suddenly appears unable to bear the weight. Harris seems to forget that the main point about these novels is that they are funny. I find it particularly difficult to assimilate Giles Goat-Boy and its frequently (in my opinion) unsuccessful, always ludicrous allegory to the Great Tradition of Western Metaphysics. Barth takes on that Tradition himself, to be sure, but his tongue is always simultaneously in and out of his cheek. The allegory mocks everything in sight, including itself. Harris knows that, but he writes too much of the time as if he has forgotten it.
With Lost in the Funhouse, Chimera, and LETTERS, we move back into the realm, more fruitful for Harris, of psychoanalysis and...