- The Novel as Performance: The Fiction of Ronald Sukenick and Raymond Federman, and: The New American Novel of Manners: The Fiction of Richard Yates, Dan Wakefield, and Thomas McGuane
Cervantes was right: the novel will never get away from pretending. The difference between novelists—and critics—comes down to the differences between what they ask the reader to pretend.
Jerzy Kutnik's fine study of the fiction of Ronald Sukenick and Raymond Federman, The Novel as Performance, emphasizes the extent to which these writers oppose the pretenses of traditional fiction by aligning themselves with a contemporary artistic movement that Kutnik defines interchangeably as postmodernist or performatory. Like action painting, like Happenings, like much of contemporary theater, the fiction of Sukenick and Federman is calculatedly antimimetic, deliberately nonreferential; it answers to no preexisting models of how fiction should work but instead creates its own internal dynamics, moving not toward closure and resolution but toward open-endedness and indeterminacy; it is improvisatory and playful rather than premeditated; it encourages the audience's awareness of itself as medium, as text; it invites the reader to collaborate in the creation of its meaning rather than passively to consume a predetermined theme or idea. So persuasive is Kutnik's demonstration of the relevance of performance theory to Sukenick's and Federman's fiction, in fact, that to argue with his book is to argue primarily with the theory and with the novels that adherence to this theory culminates in. [End Page 337]
What one can admire most in both Sukenick and Federman is their refusal to write novels answerable to nineteenth-century—or earlier—epistemologies and aesthetics, and in surveying each of the writer's published works Kutnik painstakingly documents how each one violates or repudiates the canons of traditional mimetic fiction. In Sukenick's Out, Kutnik explains, "the expectations of the traditionally minded reader are frustrated one after the other"; "by subverting traditional views about fiction," he remarks about Federman's work in general, "[Federman] calls attention to the arbitrariness of all norms and conventions." Although Kutnik punctiliously adumbrates the theoretical and epistemological underpinnings of this aesthetic, the reader nonetheless begins wondering whether the traditional mimetic novel isn't of more concern to Sukenick and Federman than it is to traditional mimetic novelists, or at least whether the primarily adversarial stance of surfiction (Federman's term) isn't excessively delimiting and narrow. We know what surfiction repudiates, in other words; with what does it replace what it repudiates?
There are a number of things Kutnik credits surfiction with actively accomplishing, effecting. The nonreferentiality of the work allows readers to experience the text as text, to see it as something written, bound, technologically produced—as an end in itself and an addition to reality rather than a reproduction of it. (The work "tells its own story," as Kutnik explains, "that is, the story of its material.") Further, surfiction allows readers "the sense of active participation in actualizing, and finally generating, the meaning the novel gives access to." Additionally, surfiction "allows for a profound exploration of zones of consciousness inaccessible to the modern (realistic or modernist) writer," and thus it "becomes an occasion for self-reflexion," as Federman argues, "which is the most serious and the most profoundly human act."
In these assertions we find surfiction beginning to pretend. Novels are made of words; words refer. Try as we might to turn them into objects, they continue to point to a world beyond them, and it is probably as wrongheaded to pretend that they can be stripped of their referential character as it is to pretend that they can express reality completely. Second, how can novels that have as many philosophical presuppositions embedded in them as Sukenick's and Federman's do pretend that they are nonetheless sufficiently "open-ended" to allow the reader to participate in the generation of...