- Techniques of Subversion in Modern Literature: Transgression, Abjection, and the Carnivalesque
M. Keith Booker's first book is an intelligent contribution to a burgeoning direction of inquiry in literary studies. Largely informed by Bakhtin's carnivalesque and Kristeva's abjection, Techniques of Subversion refines and extends notions of transgression, a concept which has been most thoroughly developed in Stallybrass and White's 1986 study. In addition to his insightful readings of a wide array of texts, Booker steers transgression toward the political and argues that its subversive capabilities are genuine only when carried out against a specific social target. Thus, he imposes a material measurement which helps to ground this often abstract and abstracted idea.
Techniques of Subversion does not begin with modern literature, but instead turns to Chaucer for an initial model. Booker sees both Derridean polysemy and Bakhtinian polyphony at work in The Canterbury Tales and further employs Lyotard's "incredulity toward metanarratives" to examine Chaucer's use of the pun. For Booker, the pun functions on a radioactive model, posturing unstable linguistic isotopes. Chaucer's medieval journey tales are quickly paralleled with a postmodern quest as Booker links the implicit dialogue between the Knight's and Miller's tales with the Pointsman and Mexico relationship in Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow.
After reading the paired characters and human/beast transformations in Rushdie's novels as assaults on totalitarianism, Techniques of Subversion makes its primary case in a chapter on Sorrentino's Mulligan Stew. Booker argues that the main issue of Mulligan Stew is language itself and, despite its bricolage technique, its subversive potential is never realized because it offers no social target. If the text lacks a communal element, its reader is not steered to reexamine social norms, and the intent of transgression falters. In his review of Mulligan Stew, Hugh Kenner notes, "When the band plays fortissimo for seventeen hours people do not notice haphazard key shiftings." Booker extends this observation, suggesting that Sorrentino's dazzle for the sake of dazzlement stimulates no quest for closure in its readers which it may then undermine.
In an excellent chapter on The French Lieutenant's Woman, Booker goes on to pose Sarah's mysteries in relation to the mysteries of narrative. The dialogic relationship between sexuality and textuality radiates into the interaction between [End Page 996] a text and its social surroundings, and it is in this interaction that transgression occurs.
The assault on gender boundaries is discussed in reference to Woolf's Orlando and Wittig's The Lesbian Body and Les Guerilleres. These texts extend the tradition of Menippean satire, particularly in their parodic inversion of genre and their manipulation of literary and social traditions. Techniques of Subversion concludes with a chapter on Djuana Barnes's Nightwood and Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus. By linking these two novels, one a dark and evasive narrative and the other a comically parodic allegory, Booker draws further parallels between abjection and the carnival as aspects of transgression.