Arthur Rimbaud's proclamation, "Je est un autre," readily applies to Patrick O'Donnell's excellent study of the reader's place in the interpretive process of contemporary American fiction. For O'Donnell the reader functions as a sorter of messages who, through the interpretive act, becomes part of the textual design. Readers discover another self—themselves reading, thereby becoming a signifying force in the semiosis of the text.
O'Donnell's introduction is a dialogue concerning the function of interpretation between "Hic" and "Nunc," which draws on and extends Henry James's metaphor of the house of fiction from the preface to Portrait of a Lady. O'Donnell develops the metaphor beyond the relation between author and field of vision to that of self and world. In doing so, he employs semiotic and poststructuralist theory to show that fissures in the text become the entry points for interpretation. Considering all language as metalinguistic, O'Donnell contends that the construction of the reader's textual self stems from the recognition and repetition of the limitations of critical language. Paradoxically, the attempt to eradicate the distance between ourselves and the text by projecting interpretive values actually secures that distance. The set of values projected is inherently opposed to what Roland Barthes has termed the "multivalent text." What must be accepted is that the gap between reader and text constitutes the space of interpretation, a place of Derridean play where critical reading functions as a perception of this lack of identity. As W. B. Yeats has the counterpart to his Hic, Ille, state in "Ego Dominus Tuus," "Those men that in their writings are most wise / Own nothing but their blind stupified hearts."
The subsequent chapters of Passionate Doubts demonstrate how several works of contemporary American fiction self-consciously or implicitly address the difficulties that accompany the reader's attempt to place him or herself within the narrative act. Included are discussions of Nabokov's Pale Fire, Hawkes's Travesty, Barth's Letters, Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, O'Connor's Wise Blood, and Elkin's The Franchiser. O'Donnell responds to the charges of nihilism that have been leveled at these and other poststructuralist works by placing them under the umbrella of Alan Wilde's term "mid-fiction"—works that "interrogate the world without foreclosing all knowledge of it and unsettle rather than topple our certainties and presuppositions" via parody of cultural and fictional situations.
Reflexivity is addressed in O'Donnell's discussion of Pale Fire, a work that is itself a parody of the critical act and a self-conscious example of intertextuality. The consideration of the defiance of interpretation in Travesty includes a thoughtful link between Papa's narrative impulse and René Girard's concept of triangular desire as the basis of narrative. O'Donnell calls Letters an anatomy, an "intertextual compendium of the history of the novel and the novel as history." Employing what Frederic Jameson terms "expressive causality," the quest for an "interpretive [End Page 696] allegory" in which events or texts are rewritten in terms of some "fundamental master narrative," he demonstrates how Letters functions both to galvanize and to baffle this quest. He labels Gravity's Rainbow a "linguistic wilderness" and uses the analogy of hieroglyphs to show how the operations of its narrative line parallel the operations of culture. The chapter on Wise Blood is Passionate Doubts's most successful. In it O'Donnell argues that O'Connor's novel represents a dialectic of authority in which authorial intention is opposed by the ironies spawned by the signs used in fulfilling that intention. The resultant "semiotic collapse," where the relation between sign and meaning is erased, reflects the results of Hazel Motes's literal search for truth...